I was trying to find a way of describing the conversational situation I was recording last summer in which people were leaning on the rail of the first floor balcony of the Tate Modern, talking to each other while watching people below as they mill about, with some of them occasionally behaving in ways that might be considered performance art .

Then I remembered my supervisor Pat Healey giving me a paper on video-mediated-communication that used the phrase ‘a state of incipient talk’ and went looking for it, then got sucked into a rabbit hole tracking this formulation down through various bibliographical dependencies: it’s interesting.

“In consequence, the relatively delicate ways in which individuals subtly move from disengagement to engagement in face to face environments, especially when they are in a ‘state of incipient talk’, appear to be rendered problematic in video mediated co-presence.”

Heath, C., Luff, P., & Sellen, A. (1997). Reconfiguring media space: Supporting collaborative work. Video-mediated communication, 323–347.

Heath, Luff and Sellen use it to contrast the experience of co-present and remote office workers using EuroPARC’s Media Space video conferencing system. Oddly, although they put it in quote marks, they don’t attribute the phrase in their paper, and they don’t cite Schegloff and Sacks’ Opening Up Closings, in which, as far as I can tell, it first appears:

“What we are really dealing with is the problem of closing a conversation that ends a state of talk. It does not hold for members of a household in their living room, employees who share an office, passengers together in an automobile, etc., that is, persons who could be said to be in a ‘continuing state of incipient talk’. In such circumstances, there can be lapses of the operation of what we earlier called the basic features; for example, there can be silence after a speaker’s utterance which is neither an attributable silence nor a termination, which is seen as neither the suspension nor the violation of the basic features. These are adjournments, and seem to be done in a manner different from closings. Persons in such a continuing state of incipient talk need not begin new segments of conversation with exchanges of greetings, and need not close segments with closing sections and terminal exchanges. Much else would appear to be different in their conversational circumstances as compared to those in which a conversation is specifically ‘started up’, which we cannot detail here.”

Schegloff, E., & Sacks, H. (1973). Opening up closings. Semiotica, 8(4). pp. 289-327.

However, even in this paper, it appears in single quotes which makes me wonder if that’s just an artefact of the turn of phrase “could be said to be” used to introduce it, or whether it’s an unattributed quote from somewhere else.

Chuck Goodwin quotes a section of the above, and adds:

“Such talk differs from a single conversation in that it does not require exchanges of greetings or closings and permits extended lapses between talk.”

Goodwin, C. (1981). Conversational Organization: interaction between speakers and hearers. New York, London: Academic Press. pp. 23.

He devotes parts of chapter 3 of Conversational OrganisationNotes on the Organisation of Engagement” to “Talk within Disengagement” and “Accounting for Withdrawal” that I have to re-read with this question in mind.

Lorenza Mondada uses it to describe co-workers in adjoining desks in an open-plan workspace engaged in different foci, but occasionally formulating announcements and responses for each other prompted, as she has it, by silences following phone calls or other episodes of variously manifest solo engagement.

“This takes place in a situation of “continuing state of incipient talk” (GOFFMAN, 1963; SCHEGLOFF & SACKS, 1973), typical of open-plan workplaces, which favor various types of multi-activity (such as working while chatting with a colleague, helping somebody while continuing to work on the computer, etc.).”

Mondada, L. (2008). Using Video for a Sequential and Multimodal Analysis of Social Interaction, 9(3). pp. 27.

This is intriguing as she cites Ervin’s Goffman Behaviour in Public Spaces but gives no page reference and I can’t seem to find the phrase in there. However, Goffman is a compelling candidate for a source – as his chapter on unfocused interaction describes these kinds of situations, citing passengers on a  train and co-workers sharing an office:

“As might be expected, when the context firmly provides a dominant involvement that is outside the situation, as when riding in a train or airplane, then gazing out the window, or reverie, or sleeping may be quite permissible. In short, the more the setting guarantees that the participant has not withdrawn from what he ought to be involved in, the more liberty it seems he will have to manifest what would otherwise be considered withdrawal in the situation.”

Goffman, E. (1963). Behavior in public places. New York: The Free Press. pp. 58-9

However, this description frames the situation in terms of reverie or withdrawal, rather than the maintenance of a continuing state of incipient talk as such.

Goffman does talk about neighbouring office workers working to maintain “due disinvolvement” over long stretches of time with what he calls “subordinate involvements” with their work materials:

“This may even be carried to the point where one individual allows himself half-audible “progress grunts” such as, “What do you know!” “Hm hm,” “Let’s see,” without excusing himself to his co-worker.”

Goffman, ibid, pp.63.

But again, this seems to focus on the maintenance of accountable withdrawal rather than characterising the situation in more detail – although this is understandable given that Goffman’s analysis is framed by a situational and somewhat interpretative account of social propriety rather than Sacks and Schegloff’s empirical extrapolation into the detailed sequential orderliness of talk-in-interaction.

Finally Jeffrey D. Robinson quotes Schegloff quoting himself and Sacks in Opening up Closings in the relatively new Handbook of Conversation Aanalysis chapter on ‘Overall Structural Organisation’. I really like this quote because it suggests that these situations are particularly resistant to conversational unit segmentation by analysts, which seems to me (if conversationalists face the same challenges) to point to the importance of participants working to attribute and manage lapses in these situations. That’s definitely what I observe in the interactions I overhear at the Tate.

“Units or orders of organization of all sorts (or of only many sorts perhaps) can have — perhaps must have — both: a local organization, which operates via progressivity from one sub-unit to a next, at various levels of granularity; and an overall structural organization. The latter, of course, can only get its work done in the places provided by the former. The former — the local organization — can only get its emergent shaping by reference to the latter — or the several ‘latter’s which operate on it — for example, the overall structural organization of TCUs, of turns, of sequences, of courses of action or activities such as telling or answering, of the unit ‘a single conversation’, and of that sprawling marvel we call ‘a continuing state of incipient talk’ (Schegloff and Sacks, 1973 : 325 – 6), as though we understood it.”

Schegloff, E. A. (2011). Word repeats as unit ends. Discourse Studies, 13(3), 367–380., quoted in Robinson, J. (2012). Overall Structural Organization. The Handbook of Conversation Analysis, (i).

So – my search ended without a conclusion as to where that quote originally comes from, some clues point towards Goffman but I can’t find that phrasing or an unambiguously similar account of the situation. I think I’m going to email Schegloff and ask. In any case, if he thinks it’s a “sprawling marvel”, then I’m happy to use it to characterise the situation of standing in front of These Associations.

One Response to “A continuing state of incipient talk”

  1. Elliott

    let me know what manny says if you ever email him. im happy you made this mini bibliography, so thanks. im working obliquely to this area (on lapses), so states of incipient talk, if such a thing is at all well-defined, interests me as a related phenomenon.

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