UBC Reports | Vol.
50 | No. 1 | Jan.
The Topic of Talk
UBC researcher takes note of how Western culture manages
By Erica Smishek
Couldn't get a word in edge-wise during some of those
Christmas cocktail parties?
Before you chalk it up to rudeness on the part of your conversational
partners, you might want to consider what topics were talked
about, how much you knew about them and how much your own
conversational style and language preferences influenced the
Caroline Rieger, an assistant professor in UBC's department
of Central, Eastern and Northern European Studies who teaches
German language and applied linguistics, is studying factors
that have a significant effect on "topic talk."
Who determines or selects the topic of a conversation? When
and how is a topic changed or shifted? What influences how
long or if a person talks about a particular topic?
Rieger's research examines topic talk in bilinguals,
specifically English and German speakers, and is motivated
by a Japanese research study of American and Japanese business
discourse. That study concluded that Westerners take a greater
proportion of turns in the topics they initiate while Japanese
always take shorter turns and distribute their turns evenly
regardless of who initiates a topic. Moreover, Americans optimize
the strength of the individual while Japanese emphasize the
strength of the group.
"It might appear to be rudeness, of a person not taking
care of their conversational partner," she says. "But
for a Westerner, it is quite natural behaviour. In Western
cultures, other interactional and social rules seem to guide
topic management more than in Asian cultures.
"However, I found that Westerners who initiate a topic
do not necessarily speak more about it," Rieger explains.
"Sometimes topic initiation can be a request for more
information, an invitation to tell a story or a question to
get the conversation started or moving in a different direction.
"For example, if you ask someone about their weekend
or vacation, they will have more to contribute than the person
who asked the question. They have the expertise on the topic,
so they will have more to offer."
Rieger concludes that people in Western cultures do not assume
that they have a right to talk more because they initiated
a topic. At least they don't make regular use of that
"You must look at the different factors that guide
conversation," she says. "Topic expertise plays
a major role. There are also individual variations and conversational
styles. Some people are wordier. Some are more comfortable
talking, some are more comfortable listening. Discourse type
and individual preferences in language also have a significant
effect on topic management, topic initiation and length of
contribution in conversations of bilingual speakers."
Rieger analyzed 16 conversations of female and male bilingual
speakers of German and English and focused on topic initiation
and length of contribution in topic talk. Each conversation
was videotaped, with the two participants seated during the
"In German, we have an expression called ‘showing
our chocolate side,'" Rieger explains. "It's
essentially putting your best face forward or being on your
best behavior. Like in a job interview -- you are conscious
of your goals at the beginning but eventually if the interview
is engaging you forget about the impression you're trying
"Participants were a bit unnatural at first but they
soon forgot about the camera. I could tell because many did
not present their chocolate side throughout the conversation.
Instead they engaged in the type of gossip you would not want
to see videotaped before they returned to explore more significant
topics. When a conversation is engaging, it's engaging."
Rieger, who speaks Lëtzebuergesch (spoken throughout
Luxembourg), Italian, French, German and English, worked in
public relations in Germany before obtaining a PhD at the
University of Alberta. She joined UBC in 2001.
She anticipates the results of her study will be ready for
publication this summer.