“The Incredible Thing We Do During Conversations”

“The brevity of these silences is doubly astonishing when you consider that it takes at least 600 milliseconds for us to retrieve a single word from memory and get ready to actually say it. For a short clause, that processing time rises to 1500 milliseconds. This means that we have to start planning our responses in the middle of a partner’s turn, using everything from grammatical cues to changes in pitch. We continuously predict what the rest of a sentence will contain, while similarly building our hypothetical rejoinder, all using largely overlapping neural circuits.
“It’s amazing, like juggling with one hand,” says Levinson. “It’s been completely ignored by the cognitive sciences because traditionally, people who studied language comprehension were different to the ones who studied language production. They never stopped to think that, in conversations, these things are happening at the same time.”Pessimists among us might view this as the ultimate indictment of conversation, a sign that we’re spending most of our “listening” time actually prepping what we are going to say. (As Chuck Pahlaniuk once wrote, “The only reason why we ask other people how their weekend was is so we can tell them about our own weekend.”) But really, this work shows that even the most chronic interruptor is really listening. “Everything points to what astute observers we are of every word choice, every phonetic change,” says Stivers.”
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