Elizabeth Stokoe in Nature:
Conversation has been described1 as “the primordial site of human sociality”. We all have a lifetime’s experience to draw on if asked how it works, or when we reflect on the conversations we have participated in. But because conversation is something that we know tacitly how to do, scientific attempts to understand it are often relegated to the ‘soggy’ end of social psychology. Conversation certainly differs from other subjects of scientific scrutiny. For instance, black holes do not exist to be understood by people, whereas conversation exists only to be understood by people and to help us understand each other. Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mastroianni et al.2 report how they have taken up the challenge of researching conversation scientifically.
The authors focused on the question of whether conversations end when people want them to, and gathered data from two studies. In the first one, individuals (806 in total) taking part in an online survey were asked to recall the most recent conversation they had in person, report its duration and indicate whether it ended when they wanted it to. If they indicated that the conversation didn’t end when they wanted, they were asked to estimate how much longer or shorter they would have liked it to have been. Participants were also asked how they thought the person they were speaking to might have answered the same questions. These conversations were mostly between people who were familiar to each other; 88% were between those who had known each other for at least a year, and 84% of the participants spoke to the person in question at least a few times each week.