Conversational Analysis of a Secretly Recorded Conversation


I secretly recorded a conversation between all of my flat(room)mates and myself. Why would she do that, you might wonder. On the one hand, I wanted to make explicit what is normally taken for granted: What are distinctive features of spoken language? On the other hand, I was very interested to identify who really dominates conversations and is the most active speaker in our house, i.e. the person who does most of the interruptions, introduces new topics, has the most number of turns, etc. I am, of course, aware that one small excerpt of a conversation does not automatically represent general structures of conversational behaviour. But I was slightly surprised by my analysis, to say the least…

Turn (hereafter ’t’) = time when a single participant speaks

Latching = no discernible pause between two participant turns

Overlapping = simultaneous talk by two or more conversational participants


The chosen excerpt is a segment of 2.24 min – the entire recorded conversation is approximately 20 min long. The recording is a mixed sex conversation between five flat(room)mates (four male, one female), which implies that there is an informal relationship between the participants. Three of the male speakers are of American origin (California, North Carolina and Pennsylvania), the other male and the female participant are of German origin. Ages range from 21 to 30 and all individuals appear to have an equal educational and social status. The conversation took place in a bar; my mobile phone was placed on the table where all of the participants sat.

Many linguists stress that it is very important to avoid the ‘observer’s paradox’. This means that ideally, one needs to observe how people behave when they are not being observed. Hence, my flat(room)mates were not informed that the conversation was recorded. However, before I published my analysis, I revealed my intentions and offered pseudonyms. Therefore, all of the participants now have ridiculous old school German names.

TRANSCRIPTION of conversation (click on picture to enlarge)

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 12.31.14   Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 12.31.34

And so I learned a thing or two from this conversation: René was correct by saying that a Long Island Iced Tea does not contain any actual iced tea. The participants were right by assuming that some of the ingredients are tequila and rum, not so much whiskey (a LIIT also includes gin, vodka, triple sec, coca cola and lemon juice). We now know that Bernd was wrong by assuming an Arnold Palmer is a mix between iced tea, alcohol and sometimes lemonade; as a matter of fact, an Arnold Palmer is a non-alcoholic beverage, a combination of lemonade and iced tea.

But now it gets interesting: what kind of features make conversation? Well, the informal relationship of the participants is reflected in the lexical choices of the interaction, e.g. ‘you know’ (t1), ‘yeah’ (t2) and ‘shit faced’ (t7). Notable is also the extensive use of ‘like’, especially by René (various times in t3). Contractions are used by all speakers, including ‘don’t’ (t1), ‘i’ve’ (t2), ‘they’d’ (t3), ‘you’re’ (3) and ‘it’s’ (t5).

Another characteristic of verbal language is performance features, which include incomplete utterances (‘tequi-’, t9), false starts (‘so they (..) this drink the Long Island Iced Tea came …’, t3) and repetitions (‘it’s four four sort of liquor right?’, t8). Other features are filled pauses (t 3,14,21,23) and adverbials, which most likely would not be found in written speech (‘basically’ (t5,17) and ‘really’ (t6,7)). This informality suggests that there is a friendly and personal relationship between the flat(room)mates. This is also reflected in the fast pace of the conversation which leads to frequent latching, interruptions and overlaps. No awkward pauses are apparent, the conversation flows nicely.

René clearly dominates the talk in terms of turns and words: He speaks in 9 turns altogether, the amount that Bernd (5) and Anke (4) have combined; Dieter and Jens only have 2 turns each. René speaks 191 words, in comparison to Bernd’s 53, Anke’s 20, Jens’ 12 and Dieter’s 11. Now, the interesting thing here is that I assumed that Dieter, who is usually a very talkative and interrupting speaker, would have a tight race with René. His silence can only be interpreted as disinterest under these circumstances. Surprisingly, Bernd turned out to be the second most active speaker, although he usually tends to be rather quiet.

Furthermore, it is noticeable that René does “all of the work”: At the beginning of the conversation, he introduces the topic ‘Long Island Iced Tea’. He holds a monologue about the history of LIIT (t1), receiving a reinforcement (‘yeah’, t2) from Bernd, then one from Anke (‘oh’, t4). Anke interrupts René in t6, but he directly interrupts her in t7. Dieter introduces a slightly different subtopic and simultaneously interrupts René in t8 (‘It’s four four sorts of liquor right?’). René and Anke answer Dieter’s question at once, therefore showing their knowledge and interest on the topic. Bernd tries to introduce a new subtopic in t12 (‘Isn’t it like an Arnold Palmer?’), but is completely ignored by everyone. Again, René is the dominant speaker, reverting the conversation back to LIIT.

Anke repeats her answer in t14, reassuring that the other participants heard her comment (‘I think tequila is in there (.) look it up’). She is somehow ignored and Jens introduces a new subtopic in t15, the price of a LIIT (‘They’re expensive, though’). René questions his comment in t16 (‘Are they?’) and Jens justifies his statement in t17 (‘Cos it’s basically half a bottle of liquor’). In t18, René then mentions his slight disbelief (‘But I mean it just looks like iced tea it’s like a light brown drink’). Bernd introduces the same subtopic then earlier again in t19, this time successful. He is heard by René, who asks the related question ‘What’s in an Arnold Palmer’ in t20. Bernd hesitates (‘It’s errr (.) like iced tea’, t21), to then reveal that he cannot remember what kind of alcohol is in an Arnold Palmer. Once more, and perhaps because of Bernd’s vague and unsatisfying answer, René changes the topic back to LIIT in t22 (‘I don’t even think that there’s any real iced tea in it though I think it just looks like it’). Bernd agrees to the topic change, not saying anything about an Arnold Palmer again, and suggesting what he thinks is the mixture of an LIIT.

In conclusion, the dominant and by far the most active speaker of the talk overall is René. He not only introduces topics and interrupts the most, he is also the one that gets interrupted the most due to the largest volume of words and turns. He appears to decide if an introduced subtopic is worth talking about; if not, he freely changes the content back to previous matters. Although Bernd is the speaker with the second most spoken words, he is “the loser” of the conversation. Not only does he get ignored when introducing a new subtopic, he also appears to be rather weak in holding his ground when he gets the chance of talking about a subtopic he introduces.


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