“How head and eyebrow movements help make conversation a success”

Samantha Danner – sfgordon@usc.edu
Dani Byrd – dbyrd@usc.edu
Department of Linguistics, University of Southern California
Grace Ford Salvatori Hall, Rm. 301
3601 Watt Way
Los Angeles, CA 90089-1693

Jelena Krivokapić– jelenak@umich.edu
Department of Linguistics, University of Michigan
440 Lorch Hall
611 Tappan Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1220

Popular version of poster 5aSC8
Presented Friday morning, December 6, 2019
178th ASA Meeting, San Diego, CA

It’s easy to take for granted our ability to have a conversation, even with someone we’ve never met before. In fact, the human capacity for choreographing conversation is quite incredible. The average time from when one speaker stops speaking to when the next speaker starts is only about 200 milliseconds. Yet somehow, speakers are able to let their conversation partner know when they are ready to turn over the conversational ‘floor.’ Likewise, people somehow sense when it is their turn to start speaking. How, without any conscious effort, is this dance of conversation between two people so relatively smooth?

One possible answer to this question is that we use non-verbal communication to help move conversations along. The study described in this presentation takes a look at how movements of the eyebrow and the head might be used by participants in conversation to help determine when to exchange the conversational floor with one another. For this research, speakers conversed in a pair, each taking turns to collaboratively recite a well-known nursery rhyme like ‘Humpty Dumpty’ or ‘Jack and Jill.’ Using nursery rhymes allowed us to study spontaneous speech (speech that is not rehearsed or read) that offered many opportunities for the members of the pair to take turns speaking. We used an instrument called an electromagnetic articulograph to precisely track the eyebrow and head movements of the two conversing people. Their speech was also recorded, so that it was clear exactly when in the conversation the movements of each person’s brow and head were happening.

We wondered whether we would see more frequent movements of the eyebrows and head when someone is acting as a speaker as opposed to a listener during the conversation, and whether we would see more or less frequent movement at particular moments in the conversation, such as when one person yields the conversational floor to the other, or interrupts the other, or finds that they need to start speaking again after an awkward pause.

We found that listeners move their heads and brows more frequently than speakers. This may mean that people in conversation use face movements to show their engagement with what their partner is saying. We also found that the moment in conversation when movements are most frequent is at interruptions, indicating that listeners may use co-speech movements to signal that they are about to interrupt a speaker.

This research on spoken language helps linguists understand how humans can converse so easily and effectively, highlighting some of the many behaviors we use in talking to each other. Actions of the face and body facilitate the uniquely human capacity for language communication—we use so much more than just our voices to make a conversation happen.

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