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.


Kimberly said…
Wow. Talk about eye opening. Can't wait to go have a conversation with someone so I can mull this over some more.

Alas, my five year old generally has NO pauses . . .
Jordan McCollum said…
Have you read her books on family conversation and mother/daughter conversation? I'm most interested in that these days—I worry about the messages my kids take away from what I say (and do). Like if I say, "I love you, but you can't hit your sister," are they hearing "I only love you when you don't hit your sister?" Or does "I'm sorry, but you shouldn't have done that." come across as "You shouldn't have done that. And I'm not sorry."?

I probably overthink this (they're three and one right now, after all!), but I do try to say "but" less after those statements.
Heatherlyn said…
My pause lengths are definitely much much shorter than my husband's. This is especially true in public when I feel compelled to fill gaps that I find awkward. But then, I'm also sure that something I need to work on is allowing for longer gaps in conversation so that other people can speak their share. :)
Annette Lyon said…
Jordan, The one about mother/daughter relationships was way cool--both as a daughter AS and a mother of daughters. It was really eye-opening. And it actually inspired a scene in my next book!
Lara said…
Very interesting, and true. I've never thought about it before, but my husband and I definitely have VERY different pause lengths. He's always accusing me of interrupting him, and I'm always kind of surprised that he thought I was. :)
Kristina P. said…
I am a talkative girl, with short pause lenghts!
JustRandi said…
Very interesting idea, and one I've never really thought about. I'm going to watch for this. Interesting.
Erin said…
This is so interesting. For the first couple of years of marriage, Christian accused me of ignoring him or not wanting to talk to him. After a couple of years, he figured out that my pause length was MUCH longer than his (at least when we are talking about in depth things - I would spend 5-6 seconds thinking before I would talk). Once we both realized this, he is much happier to wait until I am ready to talk, and then what I have to say is more coherent and understood.
Terresa said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Terresa said…
Pause lengths...mine are pretty short, whereas my husbands are l-o-n-g. My kids are somewhere in the middle. Curious, mmm?

I feel like I offend because my pauses are short, but my own reasoning is talk time is usually short to nonexistant for me with my 4 young kids, whether in person or on the phone. So I often try and squeeze in as much talking as possible.

I remember reading about this for the first time in college and being blown away. It's good to remember it again.
L.T. Elliot said…
My pause lengths are way to sho--

I once tried to "lengthen" my response time, in an effort to avoid interrupting people, and several of my family members thought I was angry with them or didn't want to talk to them anymore. Strange, huh? They also thought that I didn't enjoy talking to them as much. Guess that says a lot about where I come fro--
Shelley said…
I have often thought my best girl friend and I get along so well because we both think it is okay to talk over each other when we get excited. It's like we have no pause at all. I know this would be rude to do to just about anyone else, and I don't want others to do it to me, but isn't it interesting that it works with my bff?
Amber Lynae said…
I have two story tellers in my family. Hubby and little girl like to both have the flow and time to weave their tales. Dinner time is interesting, because they both want the floor. At every break, little girl jumps in trying to start her turn and hubby just tells her to wait.

I keep silent and save my stories for my computer. :)
Tristi Pinkston said…
Fabulous and interesting. I knew this and yet not consciously ... my dad has about a minute long pause length, and I've always learned to just wait for him to finish up. But I didn't realize how it played into other relationships as well.
amelia said…
Good post. I'm guilty of both...interrupting early and waiting to long to give my input. Who knew talking could be so hard?

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