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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 1 | Jan. 8, 2004

The Topic of Talk

UBC researcher takes note of how Western culture manages conversations

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 interaction.

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 right.

"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 discussion.

"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 to make.

"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.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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