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Turn, No Turn

Or: “a conversation with only one end of it”

There are many metaphors to describe conversation structure. For some, conversation is like a dance, with the conversational partners coordinating movements smoothly. For others it’s like traffic crossing an intersection, involving lots of alternating movement without any crashes. However, the most widely used analytic approach is based, not on dancing (there’s no music) nor on traffic flow (there are no traffic signals), but on an analogy with the workings of a market economy. In this market, there is a scarce commodity called the floor which can be defined as the right to speak. Having control of this scarce commodity at any time is called a turn. In any situation where control is not fixed in advance, anyone can attempt to get control. This is called turn-taking. (Yule 71-72; emphasis in original)

Usually, conversation is a give-and-take. Not necessarily always a “smooth[…]” give-and-take, perhaps – if it were a “dance,” there would be a lot of stepping on people’s feet, I think –, but a highly complex process of speaking, listening (on all levels), processing, acting and reacting.

Simultaneously. Simultaneously!

Now, I want to think about the back and forth of conversation in literature today. My examples, however, are special in two ways: they are overheard by a third person (a bit like all literature is) and they are incomplete:

Then followed that queerest of all the queer things in this world – a conversation with only one end of it. You hear questions asked; you don’t hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise or sorrow or dismay. You can’t make head or tail of the talk, because you never hear anything that the person at the other end of the wire says. Well, I heard the following remarkable series of observations, all from the one tongue, and all shouted – for you can’t ever persuade the sex to speak gently into a telephone: Yes? Why, how did THAT happen? Pause. What did you say? Pause. Oh no, I don’t think it was. Pause. NO! Oh no, I didn’t mean THAT. I meant, put it in while it is still boiling – or just before it COMES to a boil. Pause. WHAT? (Twain)

In his short story “A Telephonic Conversation” (1876), Mark Twain points out the absurdity of listening to “a conversation with only one end of it.” The “pauses of dead silence” are what makes these conversations so strange, so “remarkable.” The (only slightly judgemental) overhearer cannot make sense of what is going on as he can only access half the information, utterances are “apparently irrelevant” and reactions “unjustifiable” from the point of view of the ‘half-hearer’:

Visitors? Pause. No, we never use butter on them. (Twain)

What's funny about this, of course, is that – as we are missing half of the words – the only referrent for "them" we have is "Visitors." The pauses play an essential role here. Every utterance spoken by the unseen ‘other’ is filled in, as it were, by the word “Pause” – which in itself may have an irritating effect when reading the entire story as it is so frequent. We (similar to the narrator) are left out, given non-information, silence, instead of sharing (if only as a bystander) in on the conversation. The fact that most of these pauses are given their own line emphasises this gap even more strongly as it sets up a dialogue form: I say, you say. Except that “you” doesn’t say. It is this gap that makes us realise how difficult it is to fill in the missing utterances and makes clear how complex conversation is as an activity that always involves at least two people. Even though we don’t hear the full conversation, we are engaged in overhearing/‘overreading’ it (what might the other person have said to trigger THAT response?) and simultaneously eternally dissatisfied by it (we’ll never know). What makes our confusion probably worse – and the sketch funnier – is that the person initiating changes of topic seems to be always the one we cannot hear. Why be a little lost, if you can go completely astray? It’s not only the ‘half-conversation’ that holds the potential for much humour, then, it is also the ‘half-listening.’ And Twain makes the best of both – in the narrator figure as well as the reader.

Here’s a second – less humorous and much more recent – example of the same kind of conversation featuring in a literary text:

So in August my parents got this call from Mr. Tushman, the middle school director. […] So my mom called him back, and I could hear her talking to Mr. Tushman on the phone. This is exactly what she said: “Oh, hi, Mr. Tushman. This is Amanda Will, returning your call? Pause. Oh, thank you! That’s so nice of you to say. He is looking forward to it. Pause. Yes. Pause. Yeah. Pause. Oh. Sure. Long pause. Ohhh. Uh-huh. Pause. Well, that’s so nice of you to say. Pause. Sure. Ohh. Wow. Ohhhh. Super long pause. I see, of course. I’m sure he will. Let me write it down … got it. I’ll call you after I’ve had a chance to talk to him, okay? Pause. No, thank you for thinking of him. Bye bye!” And when she hung up, I was like, “what’s up, what did he say?” (Palacio 134)

Palacio’s young adult novel Wonder (2012) takes the pauses seriously.* Telephones, of course, are a well-established part of everyday life by this point – and the phone line seems much better (no “WHAT?” necessary) –, not a new-fangled thing to easily make fun of. August, the protagonist and narrator of this part of the story, takes care to tell his readers “exactly what [his mother] said.” As with Twain, the basic setup is “I say, you don’t say.” And, again, the active part in the conversation, the part we don’t hear, seems to be very much on the unheard end of the call. Different from Twain, though, “this call” has a specific purpose (discussing August’s start at a new school) and an initiator (Mr. Tushman). The focus is less on the “queerest of all the queer things in this world” (Twain) itself, but the phone call is rather used as a tool to create tension: August (and the reader) wants to know what Mr. Tushman said. The reaction of August’s mother are always responsive rather than proactive – “oh, thank you!,” “Yes.” “Sure.” – and she uses many interjections, partly for backchanneling purposes (i.e. to indicate she’s still listening): “Ohhh. Uh-huh.” The power balance clearly favours the other side of the line. And at the only point in the conversation when things seem to become concrete, August’s mother doesn’t repeat Mr. Tushman’s words aloud, but “write[s] it down.” No wonder August immediately asks: “‘what’s up, what did he say?’”

Different from Twain, there is variation in the frequent pauses which are marked by italicisation (“Pause.” – “Long pause.” “Super long pause.”), giving the conversation a particular rhythm, it’s a two-person thing still. The pauses do not only emphasise the absent second speaker, but also said speaker’s dominating the conversation. A further irritation on top of the fact that their talk turns around the overhearer – i.e. August (“He,” “he,” “him,” “him”) – who doesn’t have a say in it. It’s a different kind of frustration. More painful than funny. Stressing the lack of power both August’s mother and he himself have over what is to come.

And my final very brief example for today (no telephones involved this time!):

It was worse than Harry could have ever imagined, sitting there and listening. The crowd screamed … yelled … gasped like a single many-headed entity, as Cedric did whatever he was doing to get passed the Swedish Short-Snout. Krum was still staring at the ground. Fleur had now taken to retracing Cedric’s steps, round and round the tent. And Bagman’s commentary made everything much, much worse … horrible pictures formed in Harry’s mind, as he heard: ‘Oooh, narrow miss there, very narrow’ … ‘He’s taking risks, this one!’ … ‘Clever move – pity it didn’t work.’ (Rowling 297)

In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000), Harry overhears Ludo Bagman’s commentary during the first task of the Triwizard Tournament. Strictly speaking, he’s not missing out on one half of a conversation, it is the events, the images, he misses out on here. The effect, though, is not that different from a missed turn. Harry (and the reader) has to fill in the ‘pauses’ that are marked by “…” and (probably) “–.“ It’s an emotional (“Oooh”) and dangerous situation that might be the more threatening precisely because it is not described in detail: “horrible pictures formed in Harry’s mind.” And as with August’s mother, Bagman is not the active part in the ‘conversation,’ he can only emphatically react (“narrow miss there, very narrow”) and respond (“He’s taking risks, this one!”) in his commentary. The power balance, then, plays a role here as well. Giving the dominant ‘speaker’s’ turns would not have the same effect at all. In HP 4, the gaps in the ‘conversation’ are mostly used to heighten the tension rather than to amuse, irritate or frustrate.

Literature, then, strategically uses the ‘half-conversations’ introduced or at least inspired by the telephone.** Twain’s text focusses on a casual conversation the overhearer/narrator has no part in – and no interest in as such – and highlights the absurdity of such a conversation without it being to the cost of the overhearer(s). It’s to his benefit, really, as it amuses him (filling the gaps) and motivates him, too: “I notice that one can always write best when somebody is talking through a telephone close by” (Twain). Palacio’s and Rowling’s texts take advantage of ‘overhearing’ situations of the less dominant conversational partner of a conversation (in the widest sense) that very much concerns the main character (August is the one who will have to go to Mr. Tushman’s school, Harry will be facing the same challenge as Cedric): Palacio is stressing power balances, Rowling is creating tension. In all three cases, the overhearing character or narrator mirrors the passive (or not so passive, especially in Twain's case) reading situation. Readers overhear all the time, they listen in – and they engage and invest conversations with meaning where they encounter gaps. Which ‘half’ of the literary conversation they get – or don’t get – to know about, though, is managed entirely by the author’s narrative technique.

Know or not know.

Turn or no turn.

*Both Twain’s short story (a couple of years ago) and Palacio’s novel (rather recently) were introduced to me by students which I’m very thankful for!

**I’d be interesting to do a survey to see whether such overheard half-conversations occurred in literary texts before the telephone was invented – and also to see whether they were used more in non-telephone contexts afterwards.

Works Cited

Palacio, R. J. Wonder. 2012. Cori Books, 2014.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. 2000. Bloomsbury, 2014.

Twain, Mark. “A Telephonic Conversation.” 1876. Wikisource, Accessed 29 May 2022.

Yule, George. Pragmatics. 1996. Oxford University Press, 2011.

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