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Conversational Style


In face-to-face verbal exchanges, the choice of orate features of speech can give the participants a feeling of joint interpersonal involvement rather than the sense of detachment or objectivity that comes with the mere transmission of factual information. Different contexts of situation and different contexts of culture call for different conversational styles.

Compare for example an interview, in which the purpose is to elicit information, and a conversation among friends, where the purpose is to share past experiences.

Interview between journalist and young apprentice in Germany:

A: and where do you work?

B: I work in the metal industry

A: uhuh... why did you choose that particular job? in the metal industry?

B: well ... it was ... so to speak ... the job of my dreams. I wanted to work, but not particularly an intellectual job, but a more physical one

A: so ... you can say that you chose that job yourself?

B: I chose that job myself

(Kramsch, Claire. Discourse Analysis and Second Language Teaching. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics 1981, page 62.)


From the controlled, non-overlapping sequence of turns, the interviewer's attempt at professional, detached, objectivity, the cautious responses of the young apprentice desirous to be forthcoming with the required information, we recognize the typical style of a speech event called 'interview'. This literate journalistic style is quite different from the orate style one may find in a conversation among friends:

Conversation between Peter and Deborah, both from a New York Jewish cultural background:

Peter: What I've been doing is cutting down on my sleep

Deborah: Oy! [sighs]

Peter: And I've been ... and I s

Deborah: I do that too but it's


Peter: Yeah. Five, six hours a night,


Deborah: oh God how can you do it. You survive?

(Tannen, Deborah. Conversational Style. Analyzing Talk Among Friends. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex 1984, page 82)


Here, Peter and Deborah's common cultural background is enacted through a distinctive orate conversational style, where paralinguistic signals like sighs and interjections ('oy!') signal empathy, the heavy use of personal pronouns ('I', 'you') indexes both ego involvement and involvement with the listener, and where frequent interruptions and overlaps index a high degree of conversational co-operation. Note, however, that this is how Deborah herself interprets these phenomena. Interlocutors from another culture with a more literate conversational style, marked by brevity, conciseness, and a concern for exactitude, might interpret the overlaps, the frequent backchannel signals and the interjections not as cooperation, but on the contrary as so many violations of their conversational space. They might perceive Deborah and Peter as being intolerable blabberers and might in turn be perceived by them as being standoffish and unsociable.

The orate-literate continuum gets realized differently in different cultural genres, like interviews and friendly conversations, but also in different cultural traditions within one genre, such as classroom talk. For example, Indian children from the Warm Springs reservation in Oregon, who are used to learning by silently listening to and watching adults in their family, and by participating in social events within the community as a whole, have a notably different interactional behavior in the classroom than their Anglo-American peers and the teacher, even though all speak English. They mostly remain silent, do not respond to direct solicitations to display their knowledge in public, do not vie for the attention of the teacher, and seem more interested in working together with their peers.

No doubt people are able to display a variety of conversational styles in various situations, and one should avoid equating one person or one culture with one discourse style. For example, Deborah and Peter are perfectly capable of adopting a literate discourse style in interview situations, and Warm Spring Indian children can be very lively conversationalists when among peers outside the classroom. However, by temperament and upbringing, people do tend to prefer one or the other style in a given situation. This style, in turn, forms part of their cultural identity and sense of self, as we shall see in Chapter 6.

If all conversational styles are equally valid, since they reflect the equally respectable values of the discourse communities they come from, not all styles have equal power, as women and ethnic minorities have long discovered. The problem in education, in particular, is how to combine different sets of values, different discourse and learning styles so as not to suppress anyone's sense of worth, yet give everyone access to a dominant conversational style imposed by forces outside the local communities' control.


Narrative Style


The influence of culture on discourse style also becomes apparent in the differential distribution of orate and literate features of speech in story telling. For example, using the short 'pear narrative' film by William Chafe, Tannen asked native speakers from Anglo-American and Greek background to retell the film in their own words. Here is how Tannen tells the film:

It showed a man picking pears from a tree, then descending and dumping them into one of three baskets on the ground. A boy comes by on a bicycle and steals a basket of pears. As he's riding away, he passes a girl on a bike, his hat flies off his head, and the bike overturns. Three boys appear and help him gather his pears. They find his hat and return it to him and he gives them pears. The boys then pass the farmer who has just come down from the tree and discovered that his basket of pears is missing. He watches them walk by eating pears.

(Tannen, Deborah. 'What's in a Frame?' in framing in Discourse. Oxford University Press 1993, page 21).

In comparing the narratives told by American women in English and Greek women in Greek, Tannen reports that each group had a distinctive narrative style. The Greeks told 'better stories', by often interweaving judgments about the character's behavior (for example, the boy should not have stolen the pears or should have thanked his helpers sooner), or about the film's message (for example, that it showed a slice of agricultural life, or that little children help each other). In contrast, the Americans reportedly gave a 'better recollection' of the original sequence of events, and gave all the details they could remember. They used their judgment to comment on the filmmaker's technique (for example, that the costumes were unconvincing or the soundtrack out of proportion). The Greeks seemed to draw upon an interactive experience which was focused more on interpersonal involvement: telling the story in ways that would interest the interviewer, interpreting the film's human message. The Americans seemed to draw on their willingness to approach a school task for its own demands. They were focusing on the content of the film, treating it as a cinematic object, with critical objectivity. Each group made differential use of orate and literate features according to the expectations their culture had prepared them to have of the task at hand.

It would be dangerous, of course, to generalize this example to all Greeks and all Americans, or to suggest that Greeks in general tell better stories than Americans. As we discussed in Chapter 1, every culture is heterogeneous, i.e. it is composed of a variety of subcultures, and every situation elicits a variety of responses, even within the same national culture. The only conclusion one can draw from examples such as this one is that, given the same situation and the same task, people from different cultures will interpret the situation and the demands of the task differently, and thus behave in different ways. Nevertheless, because the definition of what makes a 'good' story varies from culture to culture, we can expect storytellers to conform to those models of the genre that were available to them in the culture they grew up in.




The ways in which language means, both as sign and as action, differ according to the medium used. The spoken medium, in particular, bears the marks of more or less orality, more or less literacy, as measured against the characteristic features of conversational-spoken vs. essayist-written language. Cultures them-selves are more or less orate, more or less literate according to the uses their members make of the spoken and the written language in various contexts. Through the social organization of talk, culture is constructed across day-to-day dialogues, through the choice of frames and footings that speakers adopt vis-a-vis their own and others' discourse, and through the way they collaborate in the necessary facework within a variety of discourse types. Culture puts its imprint on the conversational and narrative styles of the members of a social group. These styles are generally considered to form part of people's cultural identities.



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