WNW: Conversational Pause Lengths
One of the most interesting things I learned in my English 223 class (you know by now who taught it, right?) was about conversational rules and pause lengths in particular. It was also the first place I heard the name of Deborah Tannen (I've mentioned her before . . . read her! She literally changed how I view myself).
One thing Tannen mentions in her work is pause lengths in conversation, cues as to when it's someone else's turn to start talking. Most of the time, we aren't aware of these kinds of things as we talk, but all of us have our own internal "clock" that tells us when someone's done saying something and we're allowed to take the floor with our own thoughts.
The interesting thing is that everyone has their own pause lengths. Genders tend to have different pause lengths. So do different cultures. For some it's half a second, for some it's two seconds, for someone else it's a length in between.
And, as I've read some of Tannen's books, I've realized that even families have their own conversational styles and rules and pause lengths. The one I grew up in would be one of them.
In one of her books (I believe it's That's Not What I Meant!) she describes a male/female work team who often gave presentations together. The woman was deemed not "aggressive" enough in her approach, while she felt her partner just railroaded over her and never gave her a chance to get a word in edgewise.
Someone mentioned to her the idea of pause lengths and suggested the idea that maybe she was just waiting to long to jump in, that perhaps her partner was speaking up during what he perceived as a silence needing filling because he thought the silence had gone on a fraction of a second too long when it was her turn to speak, so he jumped back in and kept talking.
She took that advice. As uncomfortable as it was for her to jump in when he'd barely stopped talking (to her it felt like interrupting him), suddenly their presentations started going great. Instead of being offended at her "interrupting him," his respect level went up like nothing else, and she started getting rave reviews.
All because she'd previously been waiting possibly as much as half a second longer than she needed to before she spoke up.
In general, I think women have slightly longer pause lengths than men.
That's definitely not the case in my family (which consists of mostly women), nor in the family I married into (which consists mostly of men).
The first time my husband-to-be came to a dinner at my parents', I think he felt like a deer in the headlights at how fast and furious the female conversation flew around the table. Based on a lifetime of experience, it was no big deal to me; I could follow it and knew how the turn-taking worked. I don't think my poor (then) boyfriend got a word in edgewise, because there wasn't a pause length long enough for what he was used to.
(After fifteen years of marriage, he's learned how to get a word in, but most of the time, he, my brother, and the other brothers-in-law just watch us three sisters jabber. It's almost a sport, we're so good at it.)
To this day, I have to be aware of other people's pause lengths and try to reign myself in, because without even realizing I'm doing it, I can easily go on a chatty rant and roll right over someone trying to talk. To me, the pause length was short enough to indicate that it was my turn to talk. But it wasn't a long enough pause length for them.
It's a delicate balance, and I often wonder how many people I've offended based on growing up with short pause lengths.