After You

I occasionally talk to my students about turn-taking. I remind them, for example, that in Britain you have to let a body off the bus before you muscle on; that the same goes doubly for the Underground; and you should wait patiently at the bar, your limp tenner in your hand, and not holler at the barman (who would ignore you anyway). So, a valuable life lesson.

But they shouldn’t need to be told, not only because they are, in the main, a well-bred lot, but because turn-taking is a fundamental structure of social and linguistic interaction.


Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian – Luca Signorelli

Turn-taking in spoken language is, in neurological terms, high cost; reading what is passing in a social group, harvesting micro-signals as invitations to take a turn or wait a turn, and then signalling to the group that you are done, or not done, is a high-order skill, one which may even lie closer to the origins of language than most language itself. In other words, language might have risen on the back of social turn-taking, and one of its first functions would have been to mediate that turn-taking.

You would expect, then, that all languages would be characterised by similar turn-taking strategies, and that also seems to be true. There are minor differences (for example, in the length of pause between turns), but in general the universals are more striking. We do not talk over each other (unless we are angry and communication has broken down anyway), we respect different conventions depending on relative social rank, and so on.

Some people are better at it than others, however. I occasionally have to bark at my students to shut up and wait their turn while I finish yet another highly educative and illuminating and usually hilarious anecdote, or talk to them at length about cognitive science and other things they really should already know. But these little life skills, I like to think, are among the most valuable things I teach.