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A little more conversation

posted 25 Feb 2012, 13:01 by Sophie Scott   [ updated 27 Feb 2012, 11:30 ]

Prof. Susan Greenfield has been back in the news complaining that spending time on twitter means “it's five hours not giving someone a hug, not feeling the sun on your face, not feeling the wind in your hair, not having an ongoing relationship in three dimensions."

(the debate and the ensuing twitter rinsing is nicely summarised in @neurobonker’s blog http://neurobonkers.com/2012/02/25/twitter-vs-susan-greenfield/) . I know we all know that she’s promoting a book, that she’s not on twitter nor does she research it or publish in the area. It may therefore come as absolutely no surprise that there are some really essential points that she’s missing about human communication. I work in human communication, and I need to get this off my chest.


Humans use language overwhelmingly to have conversations. We learn to speak and to understand speech in conversation, and wherever people share a language; they use it to have conversations. It’s been suggested that humans use conversation to replace the social grooming seen in other primates (http://www.springerlink.com/content/m56626627867t471/), and conversation does fulfill many of the same roles of social grooming. We can maintain social links based on very few shared words. And it’s really important to us: there are examples from the deaf literature of people walking for a day to see someone who also signs their language, just so they can have a chat. In this light, much of what goes on, on Twitter, is people using a slightly different medium to do what they’ll do any way they can, which is to converse, to talk to others. For humans, conversation is an end it itself.


Clearly, then,  face-to-face conversation may be the default mode for conversations but it’s not the only way we have conversations. Phone calls, texts, emails, chat rooms, product reviews, blog comments, facebook status comments: these area all ways that we replicate conversations across a variety of modes and with different degrees of privacy. There are some amazing aspects of spoken conversation, which display our virtuoso spoken language and conversational skills. For example, the temporal aspects of conversation (spoken or signed) are incredibly well controlled: people rarely speak over one another and when one person stops speaking the next person takes their turn with extreme precision (even if you are talking on the phone with a total stranger) (see figure for some conversations, spoken and signed, as well as some principles of conversation).


Figure: Principles of conversation

Conversation is like a dance, only instead of dancing in synchrony, we take turns. This is possible partly because when we talk to other people we align a lot of our behavior with them: we align our breathing, we align our pronunciations and our speech rhythms. This alignment with the other people we are talking is probably why we are limited in the number of people we can talk to – it’s been estimated that the maximum number of people who can share a conversation is five. Above that, some people don’t get to talk at all, or sub-conversations start to break out. Irritate your friends by running them in different group size conditions to see this in action.


Interestingly, if you free people from the demands of having to organize all the stuff in a face-to-face conversations that is concerned with the turn-taking negotiations, then conversations can really flourish. People can leap from one conversation to the next, and back and forth, when the time line is fast and busy, as it is for many people on Twitter (or chat rooms etc.). In these forums, you are seeing the human ability to converse set free from those demands of the “three dimensional” reality. And people have even found a way to have hugs. There, there. *hugs*.


People use conversations and language for all sorts of reasons – from gossip to arguments. That’s normal for conversation and it’s normal for twitter (I entirely accept that some people are ruder in electronic formats than they might be in face-to-face conversation). But Greenfield’s monomania on the idea that Twitter exists solely for people to tell other people what they are doing is as silly as suggesting that we only talk to each other explain what we are currently doing. I use twitter to share things that I find interesting, to promote work from my lab, and to join conversations that I find interesting. And that’s before I’ve stalked impressionists whose brains I want to scan. Or used it as a teaching. Or asked people for help. Or……well, you get my drift.


I’m glad to note that the irony of Greenfield making this claim on *television*,  of all conversation-killing places, doesn’t seem to be lost anyone.