Tuesday, March 10, 1998 at 02:44:17

If you would one day wish to meet the world champion of the "filled pause as conversation control" I would introduce you to my mother-in-law.  A nice lady, but her conversation technique is absolutely incredible - essentially a never-ending stream joined by various "well"s and "and uh"s in a manner which prohibits anyone else from taking up a place in the conversation.  I've never heard anyone quite like her and she can keep it up for literally hours.  Your only chance for a break will come when she finally asks you a question or when you decide to break into her chain which, of course, we have been taught is not a polite thing to do.

- BM

There are definitely some people who have the knack for keeping control of the conversational 'ball'.  I particularly remember the type of person who not only uses FPs to hold a turn, but also never takes a pause between thoughts--a natural place to interrupt.  Instead, as one idea is finished, the next idea will be immediately started and then followed by a pause.  Just by starting the following idea, they assert their dominance over the discourse.  Does this sound familiar?  I imagine one could make a good comic 'bit' along these lines (or perhaps someone already has?).

Yes, it's quite familiar - sometimes I don't know whether to laugh or scream at my mother-in-law's use of FPs as a conversational blunt instrument.  I always marvel at it however, and wonder how and why she developed it in the first place.

I'm not a psychoanalyst, but could her speech methods be due to sibling relationships in conjunction with a extroverted personality?  That is, if she naturally desires to speak and communicate with others, yet during her early formative years was often denied the chance to speak by dominant brothers or sisters, she might react by finding more and more ways to 'steal' the floor and develop techniques to hold it longer.  I think I could imagine several such scenarios which might shed light on individual cases. However, I think one of the strongest influences in the development of communication skills is parents.  Is the speech of either of her parents similar?

I never had the opportunity to know her parents or siblings, so I can't evaluate that - I'll have to investigate.  However, far from being an extrovert, she has been a near recluse most of her life, only in the past few years beginning to adjust to normal social situations.  I expect the answer may have more to do with internal processes - that is, she has lived most of her life in her own company, and her conversations still reflect a dynamic that she is in essence talking to herself.  I think it has more to do with monopolizing conversation because there is some sort of intrinsic fear that if she isn't talking nobody else will.

Hmm...  How about this:  One hypothesis I've been working with for some time is that that native English speakers tend to dislike silence in conversation.   That is, silence of unusual length, when it does occur, indicates some sort of problem.  Thus, there is a tendency by all participants to fill the silence (including one's own silence with FPs, etc.).  Perhaps your mother-in-law (for whatever background reasons) is especially troubled by silence during interaction and also feels responsible to make sure it does not occur.  Are we getting warmer?

I honestly don't know - I'll have to give it some further thought.  Your comments though remind me of a story I read many years ago now - probably in my very early teens, which would have been in the early 60s. Given my penchant at the time, I imagine it was a short story in Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine.  It was about a gentleman who had made a study of the pauses that occur during social gatherings - he had noticed (have you?) that no matter how large the party, there seems to come at least one moment when there is complete silence - all conversation stops simultaneously.  I believe the storyline went that he could predict the instant of these occurences and had discovered some dire cosmic significance to the phenomenon, but I don't remember how the story ended.   Have no idea who the author was, but for some reason the phenomenon has always stuck with me and I've found it to be generally true.  Weird but fascinating, n'est ce pas?

C'est vrai.  Now that you mention it it does seem there is always such a moment of silence.  Although, isn't that pause almost always filled by one person--not in cosmic harmony--who is suddenly caught with his metaphorical pants down, saying something utterly embarrassing?  Now that's a filled pause I think I ought to study.

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