Conversational style is a person’s way of talking in the management of conversations. In face-to-face verbal exchanges, the choice of orate features of speech can give the participants a feeling of joint interpersonal involvement rather than the sense of detachment or objectivity that comes with the mere transmission of factual information. Different contexts of situation and different contexts of culture call for different conversational styles.
Compare, for example an interview, in which the purpose is to elicit information, and a conversation among friends, where the purpose is to share past experiences.
Interview between a journalist and a young apprentice in Germany:
A: and where do you work?
B: I work in the metal industry
A: uhuh… why did you choose that particular job? In the metal industry?
B: well… it was… so to speak… the job of my dreams. I wanted to work, but not particularly an intellectual job, but a more physical one
A: so… you can say that you chose that job yourself?
B: I chose that job myself
From the controlled, non-overlapping sequence of turns, the interviewer’s attempt at professional, detached objectivity, the cautious responses of the young apprentice desirous to be forthcoming with the required information, we recognize the typical style of a speech event called “interview” This literate journalistic style is quite different from the orate style one may find in a conversation among friends:
A: What I’ve been doing is cutting on my sleep
A: And I’ve bee.. and I…
B: I do that too but it’s painful.
A: Yeah, 5-6 hours a night, and
B: Oh God how can you do it. You survive?
Here we can see personal involvement (paralinguistic signals like sighs and interjections, use of personal pronouns), empathy, frequent interruptions, overlaps – high degree of conversational cooperation.
The orate-literate continuum gets realized differently in different cultural genres, but also in different cultural traditions within one genre, such as classroom talk. For example, Indian children from the Warm Springs reservation in Oregon, who are used to learning by silently listening to and watching adults in their family, and by participating in social events within the community as a whole, have a notably different interactional behavior in the classroom than their Anglo-American peers and the teacher, even though all speak English. They mostly remain silent, do not respond to direct solicitations to display their knowledge in public, do not vie for the attention of the teacher, and seem more interested in working together with their peers.
People are able to display a variety of conversational styles in various situations, and one should avoid equating one person or one culture with one discourse style. However, by temperament and upbringing, people tend to prefer one or the other style in a given situation. This styl, in turn, forms part of their cultural identity and sense of self.
The problem in education, in particular, is how to combine different sets of values, different discourse and learning styles so as not to suppress anyone’s sense of worth, yet give everyone access to a dominant conversational style imposed by forces outside the local communities’ control.
The influence of culture on discourse style also becomes apparent in the different distribution of orate and literate feature of speech in story telling. For example, using the short “peer narrative” film by William Chafe, Tannen asked native speakers from Anglo-American and Greek background to retell the film in their own words. (It showed a man picking pears from a tree, then descending and dumping them into one of three baskets on the ground. A boy comes by on a bicycle and steals a basket of pears. As he’s riding away, he passes a girls on a bike, his hat flies off his head, and the bike overturns. Three boys appear and help him gather his pears. They find his hat and return it to him and he gives them pears. The boys then pass the farmer who has just come down from the three and discovered that his basket of pears is missing. He watches them walk by eating pears).
In comparing the narratives told by American women in English and Greek women in Greek. Each group had a distinctive narrative style. The Greeks told better stories, by often interweaving judgments about the character’s behavior, or about the film’s message. In contrast, the Americans reportedly gave a better recollection of the original sequence of events, and gave all the details they could remember. They used their judgment to comment on the filmmaker’s technique. The Greeks seemed to draw upon an interactive experience which was focused more on interpersonal involvement: telling the story in ways that would interest the interviewer, interpreting the film’s human message. The Americans seemed to draw on their wiliness to approach a school task for its own demands. They were focusing on the content of the film, treating it as a cinematic object, with critical objectivity. Each group made differential use of orate and literate features according to the expectations their culture had prepared them to have of the task at hand. So, given the same situation and the same task, people from different cultures will interpret the situation and the demands of the task differently, and thus behave in different ways.
The ways in which language means, both as sign and as action, differ according to the medium used. The spoken medium bears the marks of more or less orality, more or less literacy, as measured against the characteristic features of conversational-spoken vs. essayist-written language.
Through the social organization of talk, culture is constructed across day-to-day dialogues, through the choice of frames and footing that speakers adopt vis-à-vis their own and others’ discourse, and through the way they collaborate in the necessary facework within a variety of discourse types.
Culture puts its imprint on the conversational and narrative styles of the members of a social group.