There's a branch of linguistics called conversation analysis (CA) which, as its name suggests, analyses the dynamics of conversation. Whereas many areas of language study (including discourse analysis, of which CA forms a part) focus on language structures within individual utterances or texts, CA is useful for giving us insights into how language use defines and reflects the relationships between speakers. So CA focuses on aspects of speech like turn-taking, interruption and repair (e.g. repeating or clarifying when something is unclear), and making sense of their use as interpersonal tactics. For example, if I'm constantly interrupting you and not letting you get a word in, that's a pretty aggressive strategy to assert my status. If I'm constantly deferring to you, I'm acknowledging your status. If you say something stupid and I just sit there and look at you, well, you know you've said something stupid. And so on.
So it's good to see there's now an iPhone app which can do some basic CA in real time. Talk-o-Meter can distinguish between voices in two-way conversations and can track who's hogging the chat.
Pretty fun, even if it's likely to make you so ridiculously paranoid about how much you're talking that you'll completely skew the results and both end up deferring to each other like the vultures in The Jungle Book.
On a side note, if 'markets are conversations' as the Cluetrain Manifesto and everyone who's ever read it insists on pointing out, then a surface knowledge of conversation analysis might be a useful thing for marketers to have, especially if they're helping brands use social media effectively. Take a look at the best brands on Twitter or Facebook and you can see some of the basics of polite conversation at work - turn-taking, face-saving, deferral, good humour. Take a look at the worst, and all you see is a one-way stream of self-promotion that, in any conversation between people, would lead to you spitting out bits of iPhone for the rest of the week.
# Alex Steer (19/03/2010)