Recent quotes:

Huh as the universal grammar

In a large-scale study of 200 conversations recorded in a dozen different countries, from Ghana and Laos to Italy, Iceland, Russia and Japan, we found that a word that sounds like “Huh?” occurs in every language we examined. And it always serves the same purpose: it temporarily halts the conversation and prompts the speaker to repeat or rephrase what was just said. “Huh?” may sound like a random grunt, but our study indicates that it qualifies as a word.

Hair trigger conversation transitions

In the 2006 study with de Ruiter, we made more than 1,500 measurements of the time it took for one person to begin speaking once the other had finished. We found that most of the transitions occur very close to the point at which there is no silence and no overlap: the average lull in the conversation was around 200 milliseconds—less time than it takes to blink an eye. This turnaround time is so rapid that it suggests people must gear up to speak—mentally planning what they will say next—while their partner is still talking. That way we can initiate our next contribution as soon as our partner yields the floor.

Want to ace an exam? Tell a friend what you learned (and memories are a LOT bigger than we think)

"With a cue, suddenly, a lot of those details will come back," Sekeres said. "We don't permanently forget them, which would indicate lack of storage -- we just can't immediately access them. And that's good. That means our memories aren't as bad as we think." Much research on memory examines how brain damage or aging affects recall, but "we wanted to look at the normal course of forgetting in healthy brains -- and if anyone should have a good memory, it's healthy young adults," Sekeres said. "While the strategy of re-telling information -- known as 'the testing effect' -- has been shown to be a really effective study technique time and again, this study is novel in looking at how our memories change over time for a specialized group."

What Great Listeners Actually Do

To the contrary, people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. These questions gently challenge old assumptions, but do so in a constructive way. Sitting there silently nodding does not provide sure evidence that a person is listening, but asking a good question tells the speaker the listener has not only heard what was said, but that they comprehended it well enough to  want additional information. Good listening was consistently seen as a two-way dialog, rather than a one-way “speaker versus hearer” interaction. The best conversations were active.

Turn taking and sensitivity key to good work groups

As the researchers studied the groups, however, they noticed two behaviors that all the good teams generally shared. First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’ Woolley said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’ Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of the easiest ways to gauge social sensitivity is to show someone photos of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe what the people are thinking or feeling — an exam known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. People on the more successful teams in Woolley’s experiment scored above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. They seemed to know when someone was feeling upset or left out. People on the ineffective teams, in contrast, scored below average. They seemed, as a group, to have less sensitivity toward their colleagues.

Takes a long time to form a sentence

The brevity of these silences is doubly astonishing when you consider that it takes at least 600 milliseconds for us to retrieve a single word from memory and get ready to actually say it. For a short clause, that processing time rises to 1500 milliseconds. This means that we have to start planning our responses in the middle of a partner’s turn, using everything from grammatical cues to changes in pitch. We continuously predict what the rest of a sentence will contain, while similarly building our hypothetical rejoinder, all using largely overlapping neural circuits.

How Turn-Taking and Short Gaps in Conversation Are Universal - The Atlantic

Instead, they uncovered what Levinson describes as a “basic metabolism of human social life”—a universal tendency to minimize the silence between turns, without overlaps. (Overlaps only happened in 17 percent of turns, typically lasted for just 100 milliseconds, and were mostly slight misfires where one speaker unexpectedly drew out their last syllable.)

How Turn-Taking and Short Gaps in Conversation Are Universal - The Atlantic

When we talk we take turns, where the “right” to speak flips back and forth between partners. This conversational pitter-patter is so familiar and seemingly unremarkable that we rarely remark on it. But consider the timing: On average, each turn lasts for around 2 seconds, and the typical gap between them is just 200 milliseconds—barely enough time to utter a syllable. That figure is nigh-universal. It exists across cultures, with only slight variations. It’s even there in sign-language conversations. “It’s the minimum human response time to anything,“ says Stephen Levinson from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. It’s the time that runners take to respond to a starting pistol—and that's just a simple signal. If you gave them a two-way choice—say, run on green but stay on red—they’d take longer to pick the right response. Conversations have a far greater number of possible responses, which ought to saddle us with lengthy gaps between turns. Those don't exist because we build our responses during our partner’s turn. We listen to their words while simultaneously crafting our own, so that when our opportunity comes, we seize it as quickly as it’s physically possible to.

Chitchat, small talk could serve an evolutionary need to bond with others -- ScienceDaily

They found that ringtailed lemurs (Lemur catta) living in groups primarily call and respond to the individuals with which they have close relationships. While grooming is a common social-bonding experience for lemurs and other primates, the researchers found that lemurs reserved vocal exchanges for the animals that they groomed most frequently. Lemurs vocalize to essentially "groom-at-a-distance" and keep in touch when the group members they're closest with get separated such as when foraging for food, said first author Ipek Kulahci, who received her Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Princeton.

Dolphin talk

When given the hand signal to “innovate,” Hector and Han know to dip below the surface and blow a bubble, or vault out of the water, or dive down to the ocean floor, or perform any of the dozen or so other maneuvers in their repertoire—but not to repeat anything they’ve already done during that session. Incredibly, they usually understand that they’re supposed to keep trying some new behavior each session. Bolton presses her palms together over her head, the signal to innovate, and then puts her fists together, the sign for “tandem.” With those two gestures, she has instructed the dolphins to show her a behavior she hasn’t seen during this session and to do it in unison. Hector and Han disappear beneath the surface. With them is a comparative psychologist named Stan Kuczaj, wearing a wet suit and snorkel gear and carrying a large underwater video camera with hydrophones. He records several seconds of audible chirping between Hector and Han, then his camera captures them both slowly rolling over in unison and flapping their tails three times simultaneously. Above the surface Bolton presses her thumbs and middle fingers together, telling the dolphins to keep up this cooperative innovation. And they do. The 400-pound animals sink down, exchange a few more high-pitched whistles, and then simultaneously blow bubbles together. Then they pirouette side by side. Then they tail walk. After eight nearly perfectly synchronized sequences, the session ends.

When You Shouldn’t Try to Dominate a Negotiation

there are instances when negotiators should act deferentially—they should maintain a constrictive body posture, adopt a softer tone of voice, and take other steps to ensure their negotiation partner feels respected, competent and unthreatened. It all comes down to the complexity of the deal and how the person across the table is behaving. In negotiations with many moving parts, negotiators need to find a conversational dynamic that allows them to exchange information effectively, to unravel the different areas of dispute, and to ensure that all the nuances of a potential deal are fully explored.  This is best achieved when two parties attain what we call “dominance complementarity,” wherein one person in an interaction behaves relatively deferentially and the other behaves relatively dominantly.

Structured conversation leading to intimacy

The 36 questions in the study are broken up into three sets, with each set intended to be more probing than the previous one.The idea is that mutual vulnerability fosters closeness. To quote the study’s authors, “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.” Allowing oneself to be vulnerable with another person can be exceedingly difficult, so this exercise forces the issue.

Seeing someone see you

’ve skied steep slopes and hung from a rock face by a short length of rope, but staring into someone’s eyes for four silent minutes was one of the more thrilling and terrifying experiences of my life. I spent the first couple of minutes just trying to breathe properly. There was a lot of nervous smiling until, eventually, we settled in.I know the eyes are the windows to the soul or whatever, but the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. Once I embraced the terror of this realization and gave it time to subside, I arrived somewhere unexpected.Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story I felt brave, and in a state of wonder. Part of that wonder was at my own vulnerability and part was the weird kind of wonder you get from saying a word over and over until it loses its meaning and becomes what it actually is: an assemblage of sounds.

Carr buries his interviewee with a teaspoon

In conversation, Mr. Johnson is prone to narcissism, not uncommon in media types, but he has his own special brand of it. He sees himself as a major character in a great unfolding epoch, dwelling on his school-age accomplishments and his journalism awards and vaguely suggesting that he has strong ties to many levels of law enforcement. Like what, I asked?“Have you ever read the book or heard of the book ‘Encyclopedia Brown’?” he asked, referring to a series about a boy detective. “That’s the capacity in which I help them. I don’t go out of my way to discuss the kind of, shall we say, clandestine work I do, because the nature of the work has to be clandestine in order for it be effective.”

J. G. Ballard ain't much fun at a cocktail party

I often listen to classical music on the radio, though never as background. I can’t stand people who switch on the record player as soon as you arrive for drinks. Either we listen to Mozart or Vivaldi, or we talk. It seems daft to try to do them together, any more than one would hold a conversation during a screening of Casablanca. In fact, without thinking I usually stop talking altogether, waiting for the music to finish, to the host’s puzzlement.

Twitter is polluted and getting worse

Even though I follow people I like and respect, there’s no way around seeing some of the crap that happens on Twitter. Even if you don’t use Twitter at all, you will have seen articles about people being harrassed and threatened. You will have noticed the pure toxic sludge that pours through the service. (A hypothetical “Dawn of the Idiocracy” prequel would feature Twitter prominently.) And it’s worse than any blog comments system, because if you use it, anybody can put something in front of your face whether you want it or not. Twitter is also wonderful, and I get so much value out of it. But it’s like 51% good and 49% bad. I don’t see it getting any better. Hopefully it can hold the line at just-barely-worth-it. (But the recent changes to the timeline make that a little less likely.)

Even smart people start shouting amid Twitter's noise.

My feed (full of people I admire) is mostly just a loud, stupid, sad place. Basically: a mirror to the world we made that I don’t want to look into. The common way to refute my complaint is to say that I’m following the wrong people. I think I’m following the right people, I’m just seeing the worst side of them while they’re stuck in an inhospitable environment. It’s exasperating to be stuck in a stream.

Twitter too noisy

But what I’ve come to call Big Twitter is simply not a place for conversation any more. I don’t like this change. I made friends — real friends — on Twitter when it was a place for conversation. I reconnected with people I had lost touch with. Whole new realms of knowledge were opened to me. I don’t want to foreclose on the possibility of further discovery, but the signal-to-noise ration is so bad now that I don’t think I could pick out the constructive and interesting voices from all the mean-spiritedness and incomprehension; and so few smart people now dare to use Twitter in the old open way. Big Twitter was great — for a while. But now it’s over, and it’s time to move on. I’m just hoping that some smart people out there are learning from what went wrong and developing social networks that can strengthen the signal and silence the noise.
We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?—we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends—old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties—and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.