Posted by: janecronin | May 29, 2016

Conversational norms

When we hold a conversation with someone there are all sorts of unwritten rules about the correct way to proceed.  It is not just a question of putting words together to get a basic message across; there is in fact a whole protocol of greetings, leading questions and signalling of important content as well as norms of turn-taking.

Let’s suppose for example that we wished to ask an acquaintance to give us a lift to Orihuela next Thursday at 7 o’clock.   As practical as it may seem, it would be considered extremely odd if we walked straight up to the person and said: “Can you give me a lift to Orihuela on Thursday at 7 o’clock?”  We may speak to close family members in this way, and we may have approached others with this kind of directness when we were small children, but our parents would have quickly put us right and made sure we acquired the correct conversational norms.

So, how do we approach this challenge?  Well, we start with a greeting, followed by a more or less sincere enquiry into the person’s health.  We also rack our brains for any information we should remember about them, and say things like: “Did you enjoy your holiday in France?”  or “Is your husband better now after his operation?”.  With those pleasantries out of the way, we would then sidle into the subject with a question such as: “Do you still go to Orihuela on a Thursday evening?”  If the answer is in the affirmative then we have our main goal in sight, but we still wouldn´t attack directly.  We would probably start with a phrase like: “I was wondering ….” or “If it wasn´t too much trouble …” or quite possible both, “I was wondering, if it wasn´t too much trouble, whether you might be able to give me a lift next week”.  This would almost certainly be followed by a long, and usually not very interesting, explanation as to why the lift is necessary, the purpose of which is to demonstrate that we don´t go round asking for favours just for the sake of it.

Once we have achieved our goal and secured our lift, we then round off the conversation with polite instructions, a suitable amount of thanks and friendly leave-taking phrases.  We have to avoid giving the impression that we are only talking to the person to get something from them, even though we both know this is true.  Of course all this seems perfectly natural to us and we might even say that this kind of interaction oils the social machine and stops us killing each other.  However, (and this is the point I’m leading to) we should not be upset if other cultures do not work in exactly the same way.

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