Talking the talk

Analysing the small details of day-to-day conversations helps to reveal the social nature of human thought and behaviour, says a Victoria University of Wellington researcher.

Two people having a conversation

Professor Ann Weatherall from Victoria’s School of Psychology studies discursive social psychology, and is New Zealand’s leading conversation analyst.

In her upcoming inaugural lecture, Professor Weatherall will discuss the art of conversation analysis—the examination of recordings and transcripts of people talking in everyday interactions.  

“Talking with others is basic to human life,” she says. “We talk with family, friends, colleagues and strangers in a large variety of settings. Conversations can range from mundane exchanges such as routine greetings to the dramatic—for example calling emergency services for help. No level of detail in talk is dismissed as irrelevant.”

Professor Weatherall says conversation is a powerful machinery that enables action, and is organised to support social cohesion.  

“There is a remarkable orderliness in social interaction and even the tiniest features, like silences and interruptions, are meaningful.

“The working of everyday conversation is a constant source of amazement for me. For example, how quickly a second person will begin laughing after a first person has started to laugh so they laugh together, and how handing over objects is coordinated so that the handover occurs exactly halfway between two people.

“I’ve analysed expressions like ‘I understand what you mean’, and found them to be very interesting. My findings suggest that claims to understanding another occur when the opposite seems to be the case. I’ve found a similar thing with ‘I don’t know’—people say it when they actually do.

“Conversation analysis also takes a distinctive approach to the study of gender that is refreshing. As a feminist researcher I have enjoyed the challenge of finding and analysing conversations where gender comes to the very surface of talk.”

In her lecture, Professor Weatherall will delve into some of her own conversation studies, and show how conversation builds joint understanding, maintains positive relationships and influences behaviour.