Taking Turns

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A while ago, I hosted a small party for faculty and students at my house. After people got their food, it quickly became two parties. In one room a group of mostly talkative people gathered. In another room a group of people gathered who were trying to listen.

As the host, I shuttled between the two groups. It seemed that the people in the talkative group were trying to top each other’s stories. A person would start speaking as soon as the other person was finished. And sometimes before. The next person’s story often seemed to have little to do with the previous person’s story. One woman talked more than anyone else. Those who did not speak were ignored.

The pattern in the listening group was very different. People took turns speaking. Each person seemed interested in the other people. When a person spoke, they connected it to what the previous speaker had said. If someone was not speaking, they were asked their thought. Everyone spoke.

You might expect that the talkative group was mostly men and the listening group was mostly women. But both groups of 8 had only 2 men. The most obvious difference was the talkative group was mostly White and the listening group was mostly Asian American.

These patterns are consistent with what anthropologist E. T. Hall called high context and low context cultures. In high context cultures, communication focuses on relationships. The goal is to learn about others to create relationships. And speakers take turns. Japan is a high context culture.

In low context cultures, communication focuses on information. The goal is to present information. Information makes up for what is missing in relationships. Speakers are sometimes interrupted by someone with more information. The United States is a low context culture.

So, is there an advantage of taking turns during a conversation? Psychological science indicates that turn-taking in conversations creates a sense of solidarity and “us”. This also applies to Whites. Taking turns has the potential to strengthen a sense of community.

Of course, there are some disadvantages to taking turns. If you are waiting for your turn and another person isn’t taking turns, your turn may never come. You also may not be interested in taking turns with someone who strongly disagrees with you.

In the days after the party, I saw some of the attendees. Nothing had changed with the people in the talkative group. We did not have a relationship. In contrast, the people in the listening group thanked me for hosting the party. They felt that they had gotten to know others better.

Taking turns was much more rewarding to me than being interrupted or interrupting. Listening to others can make us better communicators. Taking turns can help us strengthen our sense of community.

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