How good are you at online turn taking?

So I have discovered Gretchen McCulloch, and I am sulking a bit because I think she has stolen my ideal career. In a parallel universe, sort of thing.

Her raison d’etre is to delight in Internet linguistics. She’s written a book, Because Internet (a title I am wildly jealous of, best title for a book EVAH), and she co-hosts a podcast called Lingthusiasm, which to be fair is not just about the Internet, but is about being enthusiastic about linguistics for a reasonably non-specialist audience.

Obviously, the book, Gretchen McCulloch and the podcast are likely to come up quite a bit on this blog from now on as I work may way though the back catalogue of things I wish I had written and things I wish I had said. Although I must say that the potential pain of this is much mitigated by the delight in finding someone (well, people, including Lingthusiasm’s co-host, Lauren Gawne, and guests and so on), who actively agree with me about things like why Twitter speak is not a debased from of making the words go.


I was listening to the episode on conversational analysis, which had a lot about turn taking in*.

Now speaking as a sometime teacher of exam preparation classes, turn taking can get reduced to a set of functional phrases we try to ding into student’s heads, mainly as a way of reminding them that there are bits of exams where they can in theory pick up marks by turning to their partner and saying ‘so what do you think?’ rather than trying to hog the limelight.

You can, if you are not careful, end up with students who have almost entirely content free conversations, consisting mainly of phrases for responding to each other.

But of course there’s a lot more to conversation than just the phrases, and a lot more to turn taking than explicit signals. Relinquishing a turn, holding the floor or diving into your part of the conversation are often managed by more paralinguistic means. For example (I learned from the podcast) we look away from our listener while taking our turn, and re-making eye contact is one way to show that you are about to pass the baton of speechifying over.

Which means I have been doing Zoom all wrong. Because I have been grimly staring at the camera for the entirety of my turn.

This may well be disconcerting for my listener, who is probably, if they are following face to face tendencies, looking at my face on screen and being freaked out by my unwavering gaze.

Of course, if they are staring at the window containing my face (likely), that means they are not actually looking at my eyes. Which is probably also sending the wrong signal.

Unless they’ve turned their camera off entirely, of course.

No wonder Zoom is tiring. All our usual cues are skewed.

I’ve heard it suggested that a good strategy for presenters is not to look at the camera except for key moments. You do it, the equivalent of catching an entire group of people’s eyes, to really make people pay attention. Which seems like good advice. Must try to follow it.

That said, turn taking is a horrible thing, I think, for non-native speakers to have to do at the best of times. Trying to get myself into a multi way chat in Russian along with trying to remember what declension of the verb, adjectival form and object case to use is extremely intimidating. It would be much easier if we did just manage every handover boundary with a nice fixed phrase. Because I am a teacher much more than a linguist, I consider this the real value of teaching set expressions, regardless of absolute authenticity. It builds people’s confidence to fling themselves into and out of the fast running waters of chat.

Image by 이룬 봉 from Pixabay

What makes it worse though (getting back to the topic of the podcast now) is that it’s not just about being a non-native speaker, but the norms of your local culture, or what personality type you are. And that can cause friction even between different flavours of native speaker, and not even ones from different countries.

Are you one of those people who dives in before an interlocutor has quite finished and finishes off their thought for them? (Yes). Or are you someone who needs a pause of some length before you recognise it’s your turn? (No). Will you top an anecdote with your own?(Yes). Or will you reserve your story until someone explicitly asks for it? (Hahaha. No).

These are all conflicting strategies used by different speakers, and you can irritate the crap out of other people if you are using strategy A with a strategy B type conversationalist.

Jump in whenever I even look as though I might be pausing for breath is my advice.

Except on Zoom or Skype, because the time lag means that instead of an elegant overlap of my final words, you’ll end up interrupting my next utterance. It’s type B people who rule that environment.

However, the bit of the podcast I found really interesting was when online written chat came up.

These days, whether you are talking about real time chat, or forums where more leisurely, asynchronous posting is the norm, you have to wait to see an utterance in full – you don’t have a chance to start thinking about your reply until after other person has posted their utterance in full.

This is different to face to face communication. You can see (hear) face to face where your interlocutor is going a fair few syllables or more away from them completing their thought. Hence overlaps. Or, if you are a type B person, very short pauses (they are never very long).

(The reasons for this are quite interesting, but probably a diversion too far at this point. Hold that thought).

This, I expect, is why many of these chat programmes let you see a little ‘Bronwyn is typing’ to encourage you not to wander off when you don’t get a near instantaneous response to something you just typed in. Like you would in speech. Even from a type B person. I bet they ran tests and everything to see whether it is necessary to keep people on their platform for longer to have that little message.

But what is the actual etiquette of turn taking online (I started thinking), and can you spot whether someone is type A or type B chatter from the way they post?

Take the issue of posting your whole thought, your whole turn, in one go vs turning it into a series of individual utterances or posts.

On the one hand, you have platforms which are not intended to be particularly live. Facebook, for example. It does rather invite longer, complete turn posts, not just for the original poster, but for every response thereafter. Multiple posts one after the other from the same person are a bit iffy. It’s the equivalent of hogging the floor, clogging up the thread like that. Or possibly coming across as overly scatterbrained.

On the other, you have Whatsapp and the like, which can be more spontaneous.

And then waiting for someone to finish a multiple utterance, full-thought post, complete with careful proof reading, could be intolerable. Even with ‘Bronwyn is typing…’

Plus, posting an initial short idea gives your chatees time to start thinking about the topic and their responses.

I mean, on Whatsapp, even if the next person’s turn then overlaps yours, because they have not just thought but also started typing, and even if there are a number of people participating who all press send at once resulting in, gasp, multiple overlaps, you can still dance though these multiple threads reasonably successfully. The quote function allows you to keep each strand reasonably coherent.

But perhaps this marks me out as a type A person even online, and drives type B people nuts. They, perhaps, would MUCH rather I manage to hold off mashing the enter button until I actually finish my whole thought. And possibly until I have edited my typos out too. They may also be praying that just this once I would just let them reply before I suddenly ping off in a different direction.


I used to take part in real time written meetings (this was before programmes like Zoom had made face to face online meetings between groups of people in many different locations reasonably doable. Ah the olden days. What was it, all of five years ago?).

To deal with people like me and make sure that turn taking was fairly even we had a system.

Type in + to raise your hand and bid for the next turn. And to ensure you got to keep the floor when you were typing, no-one could take over until the speaker has written * to show they had finished.

Of course, this was a more formal context, and turn taking was therefore more formally managed in the same way formal face to face spoken word meetings have management.

Definitely thought up by a type B person though. She says, provocatively.

So, which type of conversationalist are you, and do you think you behave the same online as you off? And do you use the chatbox while someone is having a long turn in a Zoom meeting to add your own side commentary, and what does that say about you? Are there any other turn taking idiosyncrasies you have noticed? Answers below!

*Episode 39: How to rebalance a lopsided conversation.

What do you think?

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