How to Win the Game of Tongues: Breaking the Unwritten Rules of Conversation

'And Ygritte Says' by Alexeil April. Used under Creative Commons license (http://alexielapril.deviantart.com/art/and-Ygritte-says-306166334)

‘And Ygritte Says’ by Alexeil April (http://alexielapril.deviantart.com/art/and-Ygritte-says-306166334). Used under Creative Commons license.

Every day, when I leave my office for lunch, I run a gauntlet of people collecting for charity.

‘Hi,’ one said to me just last week, trying to hold my gaze with a suspiciously large smile. ‘What’s your name?’

For a moment, I contemplated the strangeness of her approach (opening the conversation by asking my name), and then the hunger in my stomach. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I’m in a rush’.

As I got away, I wondered why I had said ‘sorry’? After all, what on earth did I have to be sorry about?

Maybe I apologised because I’m British and I have had this kind of defensive politeness drilled into me from an early age. After all, I hadn’t given the charity collector what she wanted – and these are just the sort of people to hand out left hooks when they don’t get their own way.

But, there’s a simpler, and more fundamental, explanation. In this view, I said ‘sorry’ because I had deliberately ignored my interlocutor’s question. In doing so, I had broken one of the fundamental rules of conversation – that, if someone asks you a question, you respond. And, as it turns out, I wasn’t the only guilty partner: the charity collector had also broken a fundamental rule of conversation by asking my name outright.

Let me explain.

In the 1970s, the American sociologist Harvey Sacks and two colleagues, Emanuel Schlegloff and Gail Jefferson, began to look at things that might seem taken for granted whenever a conversation happens. They began to delve into the common patterns and features of mundane, everyday conversations. To probe these patterns, Sacks and his co-workers developed a new research method called ‘conversation analysis’, which many linguists and sociologists still use today.

Through their work, Sacks and his colleagues were able to ascertain a number of fundamental ‘rules’ of verbal interaction that you won’t see written down anywhere (outside of conversation analysts’ books and journal papers, that is). Nonetheless, these are rules that we all know, and have known, from an early age – even if we don’t know we know them. They are the ‘ground rules’ of speaking, if you like, without which all verbal interaction would rapidly descend into chaos. And they are rules we use every day.

Firstly, it’s clear that any give conversation is made up of turns: I speak, then you speak, then I speak, and so on. One of the first rules of conversation is that, any given turn can be made up of a number of smaller components – the building blocks of conversation – which conversation analysts call ‘turn construction units’. These can be anything from a simple ‘eh?’, to words, phrases, and whole sentences – or even multiple sentences strung together. Valid turns include: ‘Hello’, ‘My cat has died’ and ‘Have you seen my book? I’ve been looking for it everywhere’. What don’t count as a turns, however, are incomplete sentences like ‘Have you seen my’ and ‘I’ve been looking for’.

The rule is important because, if we have an understanding of what counts as a valid turn, we can anticipate when someone else is going to finish speaking. As a result, to maximise conversational efficiency, we can time our turn to begin almost the instant our interlocutor finishes theirs.

Take this example from HBO’s Game of Thrones, where Brienne of Tarth is talking to the squire Podrick:. Notice how Podrick’s first two turns (2 & 4) come immediately after Brienne’s:

  1. Brienne: I think we can treat ourselves to a feather bed for the night [pause] and a hot meal not cooked by you.
  2. Podrick: Couldn’t agree more, my lady.
  3. Brienne: Don’t start expecting silk underclothes [pause]. You’re not working for your former lord any longer.
  4. Podrick: Yes, my lady.
  5. Brienne: Don’t get drunk!
  6. Podrick: [pause] No, my lady.

In particular, notice how Podrick delivers his ‘Yes, my lady’ just as soon as Brienne finishes her sentence. It’s a neat trick, and one that we all carry out, many times each day.

Another fundamental rule is that interlocutors’ turns – as in the conversation between Brienne and Podrick – can be arranged naturally into pairs, the third most basic unit of any conversation. Sacks and colleagues identify a variety of different types of such ‘turn pairs’ that occur frequently in conversation. They range from question-answer (‘How are you? Good, thanks!’) to goodbye-goodbye (‘S’ya later! Bye!’). This, for example, is what a greeting-greeting turn pair looks like Game of Thrones style.

The importance of this rule is that, whenever anyone gives the first part of an identifiable turn pair (such as a greeting or a question), society expects someone to respond accordingly – and to do so rapidly. For example, have you ever noticed on radio phone-ins how odd it is when the time-pressed host says ‘goodbye’ to an interviewee then cuts them off before they have had chance to respond? It feels unnatural, somehow. The silence of the missing turn is almost audible. As linguists Mark Dingemanse and Nick Enfield have written, ‘so deeply ingrained is our expectation of a rapid reply that any hitch in the flow of conversation is subject to interpretation’ (think of a politician stalling for time when a difficult question comes up).

Furthermore, researchers have found that many of these rules are universal to cultures and societies across the world. They are essentially the same whether you are speaking Dutch, English or Japanese – and probably even Dothraki.

But the rules of conversation, just like any rules, are made to be broken. Any fan of Game of Thrones will know that the competition for the Iron Throne is as much a battle of tongues as a clash of swords. It’s clear that whoever ends up ruling the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros will have earned their status through some hard fought conversations. And the best players know that, if you want to win the game of tongues, sometimes you’ve got to cheat.

At Oberyn’s first meeting of the Small Council, for example, Mace Tyrell shows he’s not afraid to break one of the basic rules of conversation (that the second speaker’s turn should come after the first speaker’s) by interrupting before Oberyn’s turn before it is finished:

  1. Oberyn: So, does this mean I am master of something now? Coins, ships…
  2. Mace: Lord Tywin and I have already determined that I should be the master of ships.

And, in the very first scene of the series, King Robert shows his royal credentials by violating another. When Ned greets him politely, in place of an expected greeting, Robert comes back with an insult:

  1. Ned: Your Grace.
  2. Robert: [pause] You’ve got fat.

Whenever a second turn in a pair is one which is not expected to follow the first (like when an insult follows a greeting) conversation analysts refer to this ‘dispreference’. Usually, when this happens, the response tends to be marked somehow, often by a pause but also sometimes – like when I refused to tell a complete stranger my name – by an apology: ‘sorry!’.

There are other rules too – and many more ways to break them. And conversation analysis is a powerful way to look at how individuals obey and exploit these rules, strategically, in conversation.

To finish, here’s a characteristically delicious bit of dialogue from Game of Thrones in which Daenerys is trying to secure financial support from the Spice King of Qarth. There’s plenty of rule breaking going on here, especially in the form of interruptions. What’s just as interesting is how the order of speakers within the turn pairs is reversed (from the Spice King interrogating Dany to Dany questioning the Spice King), as the power ebbs back and forth:

  1. Dany: I’m not asking you for the Kingdoms. I’m asking you for ships. I need to cross the Narrow Sea.
  2. Spice King: I need my ships as well. I use them, you see, to bring spices from one port to anoth…
  3. Dany: Whatever you grant me now will be repaid three times over when I retake the Iron Throne
  4. Spice King: Retake? [pause] Did you once sit on the Iron Throne?
  5. Dany: My father sat there, before he was murdered
  6. […]
  7. Spice King: Forgive me, little princess, but I cannot make an investment based on wishes and dreams. Now if you’ll pardon me…
  8. Dany: Do you know Illyrio Mopatis, Magister of Pentos?

Dany may not be successful in this fundraising attempt – but based on this performance, you can’t help but suspect she’ll be successful in the end.

So to summarise, if those are the rules, how can you win the Game of Tongues? The answer is simple: Get creative. Break them.

Advertisements

Fifty Shades of ’Fifty Shades of…’

Slide1The film adaptation of a certain best-selling erotic novel is shortly to hit the screens in the UK. Whatever you think of the subject matter, or the quality of the prose, it’s clear Fifty Shades of Grey has at least one thing going for it: a catchy and versatile title.

Much like the slogan ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, ‘Fifty Shades of…’ lends itself to an endless number of adaptations, variations and parodies (or ‘creative linguistic variation’ as Artificial Intelligence research Tony Veale calls it), from ‘Fifty Shades of Dre’ to ‘Fifty Shades of Grape’.

And that’s surely no bad thing.

To illustrate just how creative writers, advertisers and bloggers have been with ‘Fifty Shades of…’, I used an online corpus search engine to crawl the web looking for examples. Here are the results: in no particular order, fifty of the seventy-five or so examples that I found – if you will, fifty shades ofFifty Shades of…’.

The list includes the replacement of ‘Grey’ with other colours (‘Green’, ‘Pink’), with proper names (‘Miley’ as in Cyrus), with rhymes (‘Spay’, ‘They’), and even with food-stuffs (how about cookbook ‘Fifty Shades of Kale’?). Notable mentions go to ‘Fifty Shades of Bacon’ (apparently, and somewhat intriguingly, an ‘erotic cookbook’) and ‘Fifty Shades of Gravy’ (whatever that is). Of course, there will be many other examples out there, and plays on ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ aren’t restricted to replacing the final word (for instance, who can resist the garden-based parody ‘Fifty Sheds of Grey’?). If you know of any better ones, do stick them down below.

So, without further ado, here they are.

Enjoy!

  1. Fifty Shades of Green
  2. Fifty Shades of Buscemi
  3. Fifty Shades of Dre
  4. Fifty Shades of Kale (a recipe book)
  5. Fifty shades of Brown (on race and politics)    
  6. Fifty Shades of Green (a whole foods market)
  7. Fifty Shades of Beige (about set design)
  8. Fifty Shades of Graying Workers (on the elderly labour market)
  9. Fifty Shades of Men (an advert for ‘male revue catering’)     
  10. Fifty Shades of Grape (wine sellers)
  11. Fifty Shades of Dubstep (compilation CD)
  12. Fifty Shades of Chocolate (a book)
  13. Fifty Shades of Matt Gray (sunglasses)
  14. Fifty Shades of Van
  15. Fifty Shades of Rust (a book)
  16. Fifty Shades of Cacao (health tips)
  17. Fifty Shades of Grace (a guide to Christian living)
  18. Fifty Shades Of Chocolate
  19. Fifty Shades of Miley (Miley Cyrus, who else?)
  20. Fifty Shades Of Lego
  21. Fifty Shades of Spay (apparently, February is ‘spay and neuter month’)
  22. Fifty Shades Of White With A Touch Of Red
  23. Fifty Shades of Deadly
  24. Fifty Shades of Putin
  25. Fifty Shades of Ink
  26. Fifty Shades of Glow
  27. Fifty Shades of Pain
  28. Fifty Shades of Rust
  29. Fifty Shades of Johnjay!
  30. Fifty Shades of Ray
  31. Fifty Shades of Me
  32. Fifty Shades of Silver
  33. Fifty Shades of Grain
  34. Fifty Shades of Beer
  35. Fifty Shades of F*cked Up
  36. Fifty Shades of Saffron
  37. Fifty Shades of Racism
  38. Fifty shades of Pink
  39. Fifty Shades of Gravy
  40. Fifty Shades of They
  41. Fifty Shades of Bacon (an ‘erotic cookbook’)
  42. Fifty Shades of Geek
  43. Fifty Shades of Gay
  44. Fifty Shades of EWWWW!!!
  45. Fifty Shades of Funny
  46. Fifty Shades of Gary
  47. Fifty Shades of Black
  48. Fifty Shades of Jigglypuff
  49. Fifty Shades of Finance (‘financial erotica’)
  50. Fifty Shades of Milk Tray