Book review: ‘Talk: the science of conversation’ by Elizabeth Stokoe

Review of ‘Talk: the science of conversation’ by Elizabeth Stokoe (2018; Robinson, London)

The author of this book is, like me, is a psychologist who has specialised in the study of spoken language. She and I also share the view that mainstream psychology has given surprisingly little attention to understanding talk behaviour (despite psychology commonly being described as the study of mind and behaviour). Her research has certainly helped to rectify this situation, by analysing conversations in many different settings to show how talk works as social interaction and what people can achieve through talking together. She is able to offer examples as diverse as phone calls about double glazing, friends sharing personal experiences and a crisis negotiator trying to persuade someone not to jump off a bridge.

One of her aims is to show that the ways people talk are susceptible to scientific analysis; and another is to demonstrate that spoken language is best understood as a tool people use, often very effectively, to get things done. Actions do not necessarily speak louder than words. Talk can change lives –  and save them. But she also shows, by analysing interactions turn by turn, how and why interpersonal communication sometimes fails. She also dispels some myths about conversational interaction, such as the spurious claim that 93% of communication is conveyed by body language.

The methods Liz Stokoe uses to analyse talk are not, as she explains, her own invention. They are the product of the work of many researchers in the fields of Conversation Analysis and Discursive Psychology. These methods involve the very careful, detailed transcription of recorded speech, including tonal shifts, pauses, interruptions and other subtle features.  The transcripts are the most technical aspect of this book, which otherwise is written in a very accessible and engaging manner. Chapter 1’s opening sentence is ‘This book will change the way you think about talk’ – a claim that I think most readers will find is completely justified.

Neil Mercer

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