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Definition of Conversation

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Institutional v informal conversation

We generally think of conversations as taking place outside of specific institutional settings such as law courts, doctors’ surgeries, classrooms, religious services, and so on. This is because so-called institutional interactions are typified by at least one of the participants orienting themselves towards achieving some goal or task.

For example, in an interaction between a midwife and a pregnant woman, the midwife’s overarching purpose may be to encourage the woman to follow a healthy diet. The midwife may, therefore, use talk specifically aimed at teaching, persuading and encouraging the woman to adhere to healthy-eating guidelines. Institutional interactions are, therefore, typically goal-oriented. In addition, the institutional or professional identity of at least one of the participants is of relevance to the goal of the interaction. In our example, the midwife’s professional identity as a qualified health care worker with knowledge of health, disease and the benefits of proper nutrition is relevant to him/her promoting a healthy lifestyle and to the pregnant woman’s expectations that such topics of discussion are appropriate for the particular interaction.

Another point to note is that institutional interactions are characteristically asymmetrical in terms of the power relationships between the participants. In our example, the midwife is arguably more powerful than the pregnant woman in that the professional has greater opportunity to exert control over the discourse. The midwife can presumably claim rights to such things as:

  •  which topics are discussed

  • how long topics are discussed for

  • how much information to provide

  • when to terminate the interaction

  • …and so on.

Such displays of power constrain the other participant’s options to act, restricting what they may legitimately contribute to the interaction.

For our purposes, we will make a distinction between institutional interaction as described above and less formal conversation. We will define conversation as follows.


Conversation: interactional discourse in which:

  • participants assume equal rights to speak
  • no participant overtly controls the proceedings
  • participants have a range of opportunities to act and have options among alternative courses of action
  • participants’ institutional or professional identities are irrelevant to the proceedings
  • participants are not overtly oriented towards achieving specific goals.

Characteristics of conversation

Given the above definition of conversation, we can set out a number of its characteristics.

[NB: These have been set out elsewhere on this website in the article entitled ‘Conversation’. However, they are summarized below for ease of access.]

no predetermined cognitive map

Since language is stimulus free (i.e. there is no one-to-one, invariant relationship between a stimulus and a behavior resulting from exposure to that stimulus), there is no way to guarantee what will be said in a casual conversation. When two or more people engage in informal conversation, there is no infallible way of predicting what will be said. We are unable to predict the actual utterances. In addition, we cannot predict the size of any utterances, the sequence in which they might occur or their distribution amongst the participants. Each conversation is an inimitable, original creative happening that emerges in real time. We can say, therefore, that when we enter a conversation we have no predetermined cognitive map of exactly how the particular conversation will unfold. We may have ideas of what, ideally, we would like to talk about or what information we might wish to pass on and similar, but there is no guarantee that we will be able to satisfy such intentions.

Collaboratively achieved

Clearly, the number of participants in a conversation can vary. However, they require the active participation of at least two attentive people. On the assumption that no conversation participants are attempting to sabotage the conversation, it appears that the current speaker will try to ensure that he or she is being attended to, heard and understood, whilst the current listener (or listeners) attempts to indicate to the speaker if he or she has actually succeeded. Consequently, participants in conversation collaborate to construct a cohesive and coherent conversation.

managed on a turn-by-turn basis

Conversations usually continue on an ‘I say something – you say something’ arrangement. As one participant finishes a turn at talk (an utterance), another participant immediately takes a turn. Accordingly, the roles of listener and speaker continually interchange. At one particular moment I may be the speaker, with any other participants acting as listeners. But when I have finished my turn at talking, I then become a current listener and another participant becomes the current speaker.

highly coordinated

When one participant in a conversation stops talking and another participant starts a turn at talk, they do so with little overlap and an extremely short pause between turns. This so-called interturn gap between one speaker finishing their turn at talking and another participant beginning their turn at talking is almost imperceptible. The gap it is so short that it has to be measured in microseconds.

one-at-a-time talk

A general feature of conversation (at least with most peoples in Europe and North America) is that only one participant talks at any one time. Whilst one-at-a-time talk may not be universal, it appears that the general likelihood is that participants talk one-at-a-time.


Conversations are highly coordinated, collaborative events constructed on a turn-by-turn basis which proceed without a predetermined cognitive map and which generally have no more than one person speaking at a time.

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