After spending an August afternoon shopping with her granddaughter for back to school clothes, a friend sent me an email saying that all the child talked about was her determination not to be a chatterbox in the coming year. A month has passed since that conversation and I’m wondering how the girl’s resolve is holding up.
Keeping silent is a difficult undertaking for most of us. Language is natural to our species and kicks in before we have any concept of words or sentences or grammar. Watch a baby copy it’s mother’s cooing and you’ll see how strong this impulse for speech can be. (“Let’s Talk,” by Mark Dingemanse and N. J. Enfield, Scientific American Mind, Sept/Oct 2014 pgs. 64-68.) In fact, research shows that the basic structure of communication conforms to a universal convention, one that is instinctively understood by all humans, regardless of their language.
One of the first rules is to speak in turn, as if playing a game of tennis. There are times when we override this protocol, if we’re angry or excited, for example, but we seldom offend during ordinary conversation. Not only do we wait for our turn to speak, but we intuitively know when the other person’s sentence is going to end, and use that interval to formulate our response.
Lulls in a conversation have meaning, too. The playwright, Harold Pinter was a master at using the silence between sentences to increase tension. He understood, as we all do, that if a pause is too long, anxiety sets in. Authors Dingemanse and Enfield report that the average break in conversations is about 200 milliseconds or “less time than it takes to blink and eye.” (Ibid pg. 67) A gap of 500 milliseconds may be interpreted as rejection or an indication that something is wrong.
At other times, when conversation falls off the track, someone will interject with a, “Huh?” Huh is a universal term that crosses most cultures and languages, possibly because it is the simplest sound a human can make. (Ibid pg. 68.).
Because the need to communicate is basic to our nature, I pity my friend’s granddaughter as she sits is a classroom, struggling against basic instinct. One day, I’m guessing, she’ll run afoul of her teacher. When that happens, if she’s read this blog, the girl will know what to say: that conversation is the social glue without which societies might crumble. The teacher, if she plays by the communication rules, will stop in her tracks and allow 500 milliseconds to pass before replying, “Huh?”