6.3.1 Turn-taking


It has been emphasised that a great advantage of conversation analysis (CA) is that it looks at language in sequence, not as isolated units. The most fundamental organisational feature of an interactive sequence is turn-taking, where one speaker follows another. Sacks et al (1974) list fourteen ‘grossly apparent facts’ about turn-taking, the most relevant for our purposes being

2. overwhelmingly, one party speaks at a time
5. turn order varies
6. turn size varies
9. relative distribution of turns is not specified in advance
10. number of parties can vary
12. turn allocation techniques are used – a current speaker may select a next speaker or parties may self-select
13. various ‘turn-constructional units’ are used e.g. they can be merely one-word phrases or full sentences.
(pp.700-1)
They go on to elaborate two rules about turn allocation techniques.

(R1) For any turn, at the initial transition-relevance place of an initial turn constructional unit:
(a) If the turn-so-far is so constructed as to involve the use of a ‘current speaker selects next’ technique, then the party so selected has the right and is obliged to take next turn to speak; no others have such rights or obligations, and transfers occur at that place.
(b) If the turn-so-far is so constructed as to not involve the use of a ‘current speaker selects next’ technique, then the self-selection for next speakership may, but need not, be instituted; first starter acquires right to a turn, and transfer occurs at that place.
(c) If the turn-so-far is so constructed as not to involve the use of a ‘current speaker selects next’ technique, then the current speaker may, but need not, continue, unless another self-selects.

(R2) If, at the initial transitional-relevance place of an initial turn-constructional unit, neither 1(a) or 1(b) has operated and, following the provision of 1(c), current speaker has continued, then the rules set of (a)-(c) re-applies at the next transition relevance place and recursively at each next transition-relevance place, until transfer is effected.

(p.704)

These are here paraphrased as:
R1.
a. speaker chooses who speaks next
b. if speaker doesn’t so choose, next speaker can self select
c. if speaker doesn’t so choose, speaker can continue

R2. the above points are recursive

Once again it may be felt that such rules are grossly apparent but they are in fact open to a variety of criticisms and the rest of this section will deal with these. Edelsky (1981) distinguishes between the ‘single floor’ and the ‘collaborative floor’, where the former refers to dyadic conversations and the latter to multiparty informal speech where the floor is open to all simultaneously. This is a significant distinction and one which will receive more detailed treatment below and again in Section 8. The above rules can be said to apply to the single floor, and we firstly consider some criticism of them as such.

Tannen (1992) is wary about being too mechanical in defining turns and interruptions of turns. It is not always enough to have a set of objective rules to follow:

To determine whether a speaker is violating another speaker’s rights you have to know a lot about both speakers and the situation. For example, what are the speakers saying? How long has each one been talking? What has their past relationship been? How do they feel about being cut off? And, most important, what is the content of the second speaker’s comment relative to the first? Is it a reinforcement, a contradiction, or a change of topic? In other words, what is the second speaker trying to do?

(p.190, original emphasis)

Searle (1992) adopts a prescriptivist standpoint and simply dismisses Sacks et al’s rules as rules, saying, ‘A statement of observed regularity, even when predictive, is not a statement of a rule’ (p.19). Levinson, approaching from the opposite direction to Searle, casts a methodological eye over them saying that it needs to be demonstrated that such examples of conversational organisation are ‘actually adhered to (i.e. implicitly recognised) by participants rather than being an artefact of analysis’ (1983:319). Whether or not this latter point is the case is most clearly seen, says Levinson, when some problem occurs. Thus, in turn-taking, interruptions are subjected to standard resolution procedures or overt reprimands, both of which show participants’ orientation to the basic rules. In the following example from Levinson // indicates the point at which the current utterance is overlapped by that transcribed below it, and * indicates the alignment of the points at which the overlap ceases.

 

Collins:

Now // the be:lt is meh*

 

Fagan:

 

is the sa:me mater*ial as // thi:s

Smythe:

 

 

Wait a moment Miss Fagan

 

 

 

 

 

 

(1983:320)

Here we see Fagan’s interruption censured by Smythe at , that is, a participant is seen to orient to the turn-taking rule. Clearly in this interaction Smythe must have the power within this relationship to exert such authority, and this is a point worth dwelling on as it takes us beyond purely structural concerns. Power is not an absolute but is context-dependent, and reprimands for interruptions are not always as forthcoming as might be expected, as we shall now see. This next extract is an interview between Jeremy Paxman (P) and the Secretary of State for Transport, Stephen Byers (B). At this point they are talking about Byers’ decision to refuse Railtrack any more subsidies and to put it into administration. Note that vertical lines join overlapping segments of speech; = = joins utterances with no gap; >> joins continuous speech by Byers; ## joins continuous speech by Paxman.

 

1.

B: …I said no on October 5th and now we need to move forward with a new

 

2.

structure for railways=

 

3.

P: =Well we don’t know what precisely happened at that critical meeting in July

 

4.

because er crucially er oddly no minutes were taken. You say at the request of the

 

5.

Railtrack chairman who was er present (1.0) Do you let anyone walk into your

 

6.

office and say ‘I don’t want any minutes taken’?

 

7.

B: (0.5) Well we had (.) as you er well what I would say is very often where you

 

8.

have meetings people will say ‘This is commercially confidential, I’d rather you

 

9.

didn’t minute this part of the meeting’.

So that’s what happened

10.

P:

There have been dozens of secretaries of

 

11.

state in your position in the past and they’ve got around that by having agreed

 

12.

minutes which are produced at the end of the meeting. You chose not to do that.

 

13.

You let somebody come in and say ‘ I don’t want any minutes taken of this’ and

 

14.

you went along with that.

 

15.

B: I went along with the request that was made.

I make no apologies for that

16.

P:

 

You don’t think that reflects on

 

17.

your judgement?

 

18.

B: No I don’t because it was

a decision

19.

P: [Quickly]

Does it reflect on your judgement the way that the

 

20.

minutes came out?

 

21.

B: I don’t think it does. I think the

important thing

22.

P: [Quickly]

Five minutes into the Chancellor’s Autumn

 

 

 

 

 

 

23.

statement?

 

24.

B: It was done to meet a deadline set set by the Transport Select

Committee that

25.

P: [Insistently]

   

In that case why

 

26.

wasn’t it released to everybody?

 

27.

B: It was released in the way in which it was done

to the Select Committee.

28.

P: [Quickly]

It wasn’t it was faxed to four

 

29.

newspapers

 

30.

B: No it was put out wide(.) it was put out to the Select Committee

which is>

31.

P: [Rapidly]

 

 

     

Why(.) why#

 

32.

B: > the appropriate way of doing it

 

33.

P: #wasn’t it given to the Press Association National News Agency. Why wasn’t it

 

34.

given to the BBC or ITN?

 

35.

B: Well (.) the the situation is this Jeremy. That’s all been gone through, evidence

 

36.

has been given to the Select committee we’ve we’ve

done all we need to do.

37.

P:

         

I’m asking you about your

 

38.

judgement. That’s what’s at issue here.

 

39.

B: Well well the issue isn’t about how things are presented because that was done

 

40.

in a way which was agreed within the department. It was done in that way.

The>

41.

P:

Was#

 

42.

B: >important thing

 

 

 

 

43.

P: #Jo Moore party to the decision?

 

44.

B: No she wasn’t. The decision to

put it out that day was

to comply with the>

45.

P:

 

Was it your decision?

   
 

46.

B:

>needs

of the select Committee. It was as simple as that.

47.

P:

 

Was it your decision that it was put it out five minutes after Gordon

 

48.

Brown stood up=

             
 

49.

B:

=No it was my decision to put it out on the day requested by the Select

 

50.

Committee.

       

(Paxman 2001)

Bearing in mind Tannen’s stricture concerning mechanical definitions of turns and interruptions and the need to consider what a second speaker is trying to do, we can see here that there are good grounds for considering that many of Paxman’s utterances are interruptions. It must be high on his list of priorities as an interviewer to elicit information from his interviewee – this is, after all, ‘talk for an overhearing audience’ (Heritage, 1985) – and in order to do this it is necessary to give the speaker a chance to finish what he is saying. It is well-known that politicians are expert at avoiding the issue and some extra pressure is sometimes necessary to make them focus on the topic of questions. For example, Harris’ study of broadcast interviews with politicians leads her to conclude that politicians ‘demonstrate a disproportionately high degree of indirection and a disproportionately low percentage of Direct Answers’ (1991:93). But here Paxman allows Byers little or no time to give a complete answer and repeatedly interrupts with a new question or statement, his speech becoming both faster and more insistent. It is possible to count as many as eleven interruptions (at ) in this short extract from the interview. Labov and Fanshel have noted the cumulative nature of pragmatic force in that, for example, repeated requests can be seen as challenges (1977:95). Here it is Paxman’s repeated and insistent interruptions that can be seen as a challenge to the Secretary of State’s authority. However, Byers, whose office endows him with significant power in this culture, does not reprimand Paxman, and one of the reasons for this is, as stated, power is context-related. Here it is not the person with high government office who has the upper hand but the broadcast journalist in the television studio. Also, to repeat Tannen’s point, what the second speaker is trying to do is also crucial. Here it would seem that Paxman, who is known for his hard interviewing style (what might be called his ‘strategy of discombobulation’), wants to unsettle Byers and not allow him time and space to respond with prepared statements. This he does with the use of deliberate interruptions.

It should come as little surprise that such a basic feature as turn-taking should also be used as a resource by comedians. However, in order to provide amusement we would not expect the rules to be followed and in the following example we see that they are not. It comes from the film ‘The Life Of Brian’, which is set in Roman-occupied Judea. Here an anti-Roman resistance group is discussing strategy. They are Reg, the group leader (R), Judith, the only female member (J), Francis (F), and Stan (S). Note that = = connects speech by different speakers with no gap between. Underlined words are said with emphasis.

 

J: I do feel, Reg, that any anti-imperialist group like ours must reflect such a divergence of interests within our power base.

 

R:Agreed. Francis?

 

F: Yes, I think Judith’s point of view is very valid, Reg, provided the movement never forgets that it is the inalienable right of every man=

S: =Or woman

 

F: Or woman. To rid himself=

S: =Or herself

 

F: Or herself=

 

R: =Agreed.

 

F: Thank you, brother=

S: =Or sister

 


F: Or sister. (1.5) Where was I?

 

R: I think you’d finished.

 

F: Oh right

R: Furthermore, it is the birthright of every man=

 

S: =Or woman

 

R: Why don’t you shut up about women, Stan, you’re putting us off?

 

S: Women have a perfect right to play a part in our movement, Reg.

 

F: Why are you always on about women, Stan?

 

S: I want to be one.

 

R: What!?

 

S: I want to be a woman. From now on I want you all to call me Loretta.

 

 

(Chapman et al 1979)

Clearly the play here is with, among other things, gender identities, and a detailed treatment of this topic will come in 7.1. The immediate concern here is is turn-taking and it is with this we continue. We note that in this setting, which has elements both of egalitarianism and formality (they are freedom fighters who have an agenda to get through), Reg, the group leader, enacts Sacks et al’s Rule R1a, current speaker chooses next speaker, with his utterance ‘Francis?’ Francis attempts to speak and does not himself invoke any such rule, yet finds Stan constantly and inappropriately taking a turn, and it is the lack of any reprimand in this more egalitarian setting that allows the flow of interruptions from Stan (at ) and it is their disruption of the business at hand that builds the comic effect. (We shall shortly see that in certain situations such turns are not seen as ‘interruptions’ but as ‘collaborations’, something which challenges Sacks et al’s notion of turn-taking.) They come so thick and fast that the interrupted speaker, Francis, forgets his own topic (‘Where was I?’), as does at least one hearer, Reg (‘I think you’d finished’). Here it is Stan repeating his corrections that has the cumulative effect of being disruptive and when he persists with them after Reg begins to speak Reg eventually asserts his authority by telling Stan to shut up. Note that although according to Rule 1b of Sacks et al’s turn-taking rules a next speaker can self select, and thus this might seem to legitimate Stan’s interruptions as simply a next turn which he has self selected, his interruptions do not occur at the transition-relevance place (the minimum requirement for which would seem to be the completion of a turn-constructional unit, in this case at least a finished utterance by Francis or Reg), and thus are seen by the others as open to reprimand. So even though the flouting of these rules are here used for comic ends (again through a technique of exaggeration), the eventual response to such interruptions can be seen to lend some support to the force of this organisational feature of conversation (albeit in conjunction with the power relations present in the situation). The strength of this feature has led some analysts to put forward a strong version of CA rules that may overstate the case, something which we shall now examine.

Levinson is aware that in some non-Western cultures there are ways of speaking which challenge, for example, turn-taking rules as outlined above. In a study of talk in Burundi, to which Levinson refers, Albert (1972) reports that turn-taking is carried out according to a formal hierarchy based on age and social rank.

At the opening stage of talk strict order of seniority is observed. After the first or second round of remarks, the senior person will speak first, the next in order rank opens his speech with a statement to the effect, “Yes, I agree with the previous speaker, he is correct, he is older, and knows best etc.”
(p.81)

Levinson points out that this is not so unusual for in our own society also there are contexts such as in classrooms, courts, formal meetings etc. where turns are similarly pre-allocated (1983:301) (Albert’s report, it should be noted, does not contain any transcriptions of spoken utterances, concerns males only, and does not specify whether the discussion concerns everyday mundane talk or talk in formal settings. It would strongly seem to be the latter rather than the former and if this were the case it would add support to Levinson’s point here.) Levinson then goes on to reach a sweeping conclusion: these turn-taking rules, like many other aspects of conversational organisation, ‘are valid for the most informal, ordinary kinds of talk across all cultures of the world’ (p.301, emphasis added). Nor is he alone in such a view. Boden and Zimmerman also state, ‘This machinery [of conversational organisation] is assumed to underlie the construction of conversations of all sorts, and to be invariant to historical progression and cultural variation’ (1991:12, emphasis added). Such strong views can be traced back to Sacks et al when they say that their turn-taking model is a local management system dealing with transitions and ‘no other systems can organise transitions independent of the turn-taking system’ (1974:725). These are strong claims which do not hold up to detailed scrutiny as the following case demonstrates.

In a study in Antigua in the Caribbean, Reisman focused on the ‘contrapuntal’ nature of talk. He found that many of the accepted features of conversation – not just turn-taking, but also adjacency pairs, topic maintenance etc. – are not adhered to. Newcomers to a group discussion are not introduced to the topic; a newcomer will speak when he is ready regardless of whether it is his turn; he may or may not be listened to; if no one attends he will repeat himself till someone attends or he will give up; people already involved will press their point repeatedly. ‘Fundamentally there is no requirement for two or more voices not to be going at the same time’ (1974:113). This can be even more forceful in disputes, as Reisman further elaborates.

He distinguishes between ‘cursing’ and ‘arguing’, where in the former there is a complementary pattern of utterance and response, whereas the essential feature of argument is the ‘non-complementarity of repetition’.

Each person takes a point and repeats it endlessly, either one after the other or both at once or several at once depending on the number of people participating. Points of view are rarely developed, merely re-asserted.
(p.121)

He gives the example of a group of young men arguing thus for an hour or two after a game of cricket. It should not be thought, however, that in such interactions no-one is listening ‘There is a kind of scanning process at work which listens with multiple attention and which ultimately determines which voices will prevail’ (p.121 emphasis added). Thus, once again we have a situation where the hearer has a significant role in the assignment of meaning. But perhaps even this is not an accurate reflection of the interaction. In such a multi-party encounter, with many voices sounding at once and with hearers attending to more than one voice, the usual speaker-hearer distinction becomes blurred, so much so that Reisman comments that to enter into conversation (not just argument) in Antigua is more an assertion of one’s presence ‘rather than to participate in something formalised as an exchange’ (p.115). He is not clear (perhaps understandably) about whether it is repetition alone, volume, or some other factor which settles an argument, or whether, indeed, the argument remains unsettled. What is clear is that this challenges the claims about the universality of the turn-taking system claimed above and that such claimants once again need to remember the significance of local cultural factors.

Moerman, an anthropologist, is someone who demonstrates such an awareness and is cautious about sole reliance on what he calls the ‘sometimes arid and always exacting techniques’ of CA. His approach to studies of Thai conversation draws not just on CA but also ethnography ‘with its concern for context, meaning, history, and intention’ (1988:iii). Thus, he happily uses CA techniques to locate culture in situ, but

[to] show how those conversational events were meaningful parts of the worlds created and inhabited by their participants, I will have to point to such larger features of the social world as the obligation of friendship, or fealty, or fear, to the power of the Thai state and the practices of the police, to the programs and proclivities of its officials
(p.5)

(There is much in this approach which will be found in this study.)

Before moving on to discuss the ‘collaborative floor’, which is another feature which challenges the turn-taking rules of Sacks et al, let us take a look at how comedic performance can make use of multiparty simultaneous speech in a predominantly single floor setting, that of exchanges within the military hierarchy. This example comes from the film MASH, which is set in an American front-line military hospital in the Korean War. In this scene Captains Pierce (P) and Forrest (F) have just arrived at the front-line in a jeep stolen by Pierce. Instead of presenting their papers to Colonel Blake (B) they immediately started flirting with some female medical staff. Blake tamely reprimands them and proceeds to inform them of life at the front. M is Father Mulcahey.
Note:
> and >, and also # and # join a stretch of continuous speech by the same speaker which is simultaneous with that of another speaker and goes beyond one line of transcription
= = indicates no gap between turns
[unclear] is speech not clear to the analyst

1.B:

Now we have our slack periods here but when the action starts you’ll get more work

2.

in twelve hours than

most civilian surgeons

3. P:

 

How many nurses do we

have on the base, sir?

4. B:

Seventy=

5. P:

=How many nurses will there be in my=

6. B:

 

=Four. than

 

a civilian surgeon does in a month>

7. P:

 

 

Can I select this young girl here sir#

8. B:

>Yes I think that could be arranged yes

9. P:

#Can I[unclear]cos I can use her because[unclear]

and the young girl here the blonde

10.F:

 

 

What the hell you mean [unclear]

11.B:

[Looking off] Oh, Father Mulcahey! I’d like you to meet Captain Pierce our new

12.

surgeon. [To P] This is the Catholic Chaplain. [To M]

And here’s Captain Forrest

13.M:

[Telling P his nickname]

 

Dago Red

14.P:

Dago Red?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Lardner 1969)

Pierce and Forrest are introduced to four more characters, all of whom are introduced by their rank and surname by Blake and all of whom immediately tell Pierce and Forrest their nicknames before going on to exchange greetings and pleasantries with the new arrivals, so that at any one time up to eight people are speaking at once in a way impossible to transcribe. The camera’s point of view is that of Pierce and Forrest who are seated at a table, and the shot has all five of the people they have just been introduced to crammed into the frame, their glances and direction of speech rapidly shifting from left to right, their arms outstretched likewise, their words an incomprehensible cacophony for the most part. Colonel Blake then raises his head to look around for someone. (R is Radar a.k.a. Corporal O’Reilly.)

15.B:

[Commandingly] Radar! [He jumps, as Radar, who is shorter, is standing

16.

just before him] Oh! [He then starts to introduce Radar to the new arrivals]

17.

Corporal O’Reilly

this is Captain Pierce and Captain Forrest. Take them over>

18.R:

[Ignoring Blake]


Gentleman I’m Corporal O’Reilly, they call me Radar.#

19.B:

>to Major Burns’ tent. Get everything out of the jeep, all their duffel bags all>

20.R:

#You’ll be staying in Major Burns’ tent. I’ll take you over there. Don’t worry#

21.B:

>their gear

 

make sure [Calling after Radar]

22.R:

#about the jeep I’ll change the number plates

[Leaves]

23.B:

Oh, and change the number plates on that jeep!

 

 

It is not simply the simultaneous speech which is the source of the humour here but the use to which it is put; the play with form breaches the usual turn-taking rules, particularly in such a hierarchical setting as the military at war, but that in itself is not necessarily a source of amusement. However, the content adds comedic weight by mocking the normal power relations between differently ranked army personnel. It is Blake who militarily has the power and he uses it to reprimand Pierce and Forrest for their failure to report to him immediately upon arrival. He then starts to inform them that, rather than being a place to idly flirt, the front line is a place where hard work lies ahead of them (lines 1 and 2), but he is interrupted by Pierce, who, inappropriately, pursues his sexual interest in the female staff with a question (3). Rather than further reprimand Pierce not only for interrupting his commanding officer but also for maintaining the topic which Blake has just warned him off, Blake answers the question (4). This is immediately followed by another from Pierce (5), which, in order to quickly return to the topic started in (2), Blake interrupts with the answer (6), before, without pause, going on to actually finish the comment about civilian surgeons. But this continuation too is interrupted by Pierce asking another question about the female staff (7). Again Blake does not reprimand Pierce but instead, once more without pause, flawlessly switches topic from the civilian surgeons to answering this new question (8), demonstrating that as he uttered (6) he simultaneously listened to Pierce’s (7), reminding us of Reisman’s above comment on simultaneous speech: ‘There is a scanning process at work which listens with multiple attention…’ (1974:121). While Blake is giving his answer (8) as part of a continuous flow of speech, Pierce also continues talking (9) on the topic of the woman he talked about in (7). Precisely at the point where their simultaneous speech finally stops (8 and 9) Forrest enters the conversation (10), thus ensuring that there are always at least two people talking at the same time. At only one point in this burst of talk is there an uninterrupted turn-constructional unit with a clear transition-relevance place, and that is (4), but even this single word utterance is immediately latched by Pierce’s (5), thereby maintaining continuous talk. The net result of this is that we see that Blake’s power is easily challenged, that Pierce is no respecter of authority, and that the film satirises military life/war in a rather off-centre manner. (The film was made at the height of the Vietnam War.)

But the talk has not yet finished. Blake, his authority seeming to be undermined with every turn, breaks the cycle and shifts the focus out of the immediate conversation by introducing another participant to the talk. This new participant is not just anybody but the unit’s chaplain, a safe figure unlikely to speak insubordinately. This begins a rapid and simultaneous sequence of introductions and greetings involving up to eight interlocutors speaking at once. What is interesting here is that this period of intense simultaneous multiparty speech is, in fact, not unusual. It is to be expected that when up to eight people informally introduce themselves around a table there will be a significant amount of simultaneous speech. What is incongruous and a source of humour here is that such simultaneous speech occurs in scripted dialogue in such a way as to make the utterances impossible for the audience to follow. Recall that in 2.4 Elam commented in his discussion of the semiotics of performed speech: ‘In scripted discourse we find, unlike in real conversation, neat turn-taking, syntactically complete sentences…’ (1980:90). Thus here the script flouts performance conventions not real life conventions to create humour by further satirising military discipline and order. We can also note than in such an informal multi-centred exchange the direct one-to-one threat to Blake’s authority has faded, but only briefly.

Blake, his sense of self seemingly restored, calls out authoritatively for Radar, but Radar is already there preparing to introduce himself to the newcomers. Blake goes through the formality of introducing Radar to Pierce and Forrest (17) but Radar, who is standing immediately before his superior, ignores him, introducing himself and telling the new arrivals where they will be staying, that he will transport them there, and not to worry about the stolen jeep (18,20,22). We note that Blake’s simultaneous speech is delivered in the imperative, as would be expected of military orders, and it consists of the same information that Radar is independently conveying to Pierce and Forest (17,19,21). Indeed, Radar’s initiative is such that he is already leaving to carry out these tasks before Blake has finished issuing the orders. Thus, this exchange ends with the putative authority figure, Colonel Blake, tardily calling out (23) to the disappearing back of a man of inferior rank, Corporal O’Reilly, an order which is already redundant. All of which further serves to underline the film’s anti-authoritarian stand, a stand achieved in this scene chiefly through the exploitation of the turn-taking system.

However, as Edelsky (1981) has shown, it cannot be assumed that there is simply ‘the’ floor over which participants compete for possession. In a study in which she initially sets out to look at gender roles in mixed-sex, multiparty talk in five meetings involving seven women (of which she is one) and four men, she encounters such difficulty in establishing exactly who has the floor that she gives much of the focus over to the nature of the floor and the nature of the turn. In reviewing the literature she finds that much analysis of dyads is in service encounters, therapy sessions, and classrooms, and such studies have little difficulty in showing who has the floor and what constitutes a turn. Further, they usually express a general bias against more than one speaking at a time (p.396). But this does not help her analyse her own data, in which she found that ‘instances of more than one at a time are not always brief, repaired, or degenerate’ (p.397). In her view the literature too often sees turns as objective mechanical behaviours (see Sacks et al above) which overlook the participants’ sense of whether or not they are/are not having a turn. This can lead to, for example, analysts imposing their own view of what counts as an interruption (p.397). (It is acknowledged here that this is what I did with the Paxman/Byers interview. However, it was not done on mechanical grounds. It was seen, hopefully, that Paxman used interruptions as a deliberate strategy to achieve his discourse goals.) Moreover, some analysts see such things as questions of clarification, brief restatements, nods and mmhm’s as simple back-channelling while others treat them as turns. Much of the literature does not distinguish between ‘floor’ and ‘turn’. She concludes that such mechanical and technical views ‘presume the primary goal in conversation is to conduct the event rather than to make meanings’ (p.400).

For the purposes of her own study she defines ‘turn’ and ‘floor’ to include as much as possible speakers’ intentions. For her, the floor is

the acknowledged what’s-going-on within a psychological time/space. What’s-going-on can be the development of the topic or a function (teasing, soliciting a response, etc.) or an interaction of the two. It can be developed or controlled by one person at a time or by several simultaneously or in quick succession. It is official or acknowledged in that, if questioned, participants could describe what’s going on as ‘he’s talking about grades’ or ‘she’s making a suggestion’ or ‘we’re all answering her’.
(p.405)

Thus she distinguishes between what she calls the ‘single floor’ (F1) and the ‘collaborative floor’ (F2), where the former is the more familiar one-at-a-time type of floor and the latter either an apparent free-for-all or, more usually, a case of several people being ‘on the same wavelength’ (p.391). A strong example of interlocutors being ‘on the same wavelength’ is what Falk (1980) calls the ‘conversational duet’, which is when two speakers work together in starting and completing one utterance. This occurrence, with which we are all familiar, also challenges a too mechanical description of turn-taking. Says Falk: ‘Dueters are engaged in an essentially cooperative enterprise. This fact overrides many behaviors which outside of a duet would have considerably more impact, among which is being interrupted’ (p.510). This distinction between floors will be important for the analysis carried out below in Section 8 and more details of it will be provided then, but here we can briefly use these notions of F1 and F2 to re-view the above scenes from Monty Python and MASH to see what this different perspective yields.

In the analysis of the Python extract the ambivalent nature of the context was already noted (on the one hand they are revolutionaries, on the other they have an agenda to get through) and this led to Stan’s utterances being tolerated for a while before he was finally stopped by Reg, the group leader. That is, Stan’s initial comments would seem to be seen as contributions on a collaborative floor (as revolutionaries they have an egalitarian attitude) until their inappropriate repetition, which builds the comic effect, is seen as a pedantic obstruction to the progress of the meeting (people have actually forgotten the topic of Francis’s point), at which stage Reg imposes the formality of the single floor by telling Stan to shut up.

As for the MASH scene, the situation is rather extreme – a military hierarchy at the front of a war zone – and there is little space for the collaborative floor. Indeed, it is the strength of the constraints in operation, allied with the wholly inappropriate sexual content, which gives the insubordination such comedic force. There is, however, a collaborative floor when the newcomers are introduced to all those present, which gives rise to much simultaneous talk – this is what Edelsky might call a ‘free-for-all’ (p.391) – and this, as noted, gives the writer the opportunity to flout the performance conventions concerning scripted dialogue, which, coming in sequence after the preceding comic (mis)communications, is framed as part of this humorous episode..

Thus, when considering such a fundamental organisational feature as turn-taking, it is not sufficient to assume that the basic CA rules are ‘grossly apparent’ or that they are universally applicable. We need to be also aware of a number of other factors: the nature of the floor – is it a straightforward dyad between A and B or is it a multiparty encounter?; power relations between interlocutors – are they symmetrical?; local cultural factors – is there anything about them which challenges the usual interaction expectations? Such considerations should help us to a fuller understanding of talk in interaction.

A Pragmatic Approach to Humour> 6.1 Speech Acts

6.2 Talk In Interaction>

6.3 Some Features Of Talk>

6.3.1 Turn Taking

6.3.2 Adjacency Pairs>

6.3.3 Preference>

Contents>