Cartoon conversations

Two recent cartoons having to do with conversation: a Dilbert and a Zits:



As background, two brief definitions that get at some of the crucial features of conversation (relevant to understanding #1 and #2), but by no means all:

[NOAD2] the informal exchange of ideas by spoken words; an instance of this

[AHD5] the exchange of thoughts and feelings by means of speech or sign language; an instance of this

(Wherever I can, I’ll simplify this to the paradigm case of conversation(s), involving just two people. And I’ll draw more examples from earlier postings on cartoons and comics.)

Things these definitions get right.

(1) Exchange. Both parties contribute to the experience. A monologue, or any other sort of performance for an audience, is not a conversation.

My 4/2/16 posting “Conversation” has a One Big Happy in which Ruthie gets this wrong, offering a monologue to her friends in the guise of conversation.

And Alice in #1 expects Dilbert to be entertaining her with his talk, rather than exchanging ideas with her. That’s not her only problem, but it’s part of it.

(2) Of mental contents, ideas (NOAD) or thoughts and feeling (AHD), not information. An interrogation (which is what Jeremy thinks is going on with his girlfriend’s questions in #2) or an informational interview (say, in an application for a loan at a bank) is not a conversation.

(3) Informal (NOAD). Conversation is wonderfully structured at the local level, with principles for taking turns, introducing, abandoning, and reintroducing topics, and much more — but there’s no big overall plan; conversation moves as it will, according to the interests of the participants.

The local management of conversation can be seen in #1 (another One Big Happy) in a 6/1/14 posting. And another sort of local regulation of conversation can been seen in the recommendations of the Gricean maxims, often ostentatiously flouted by Jeremy in Zits, for instance in this 6/26/14 posting “Rules of conversation”; and flagrantly flouted in “distruptive conversation”, designed to disrupt conversation, rather than advance it (see my 7/8/15 posting about a Wondermark cartoon on the topic).

Some things the definitions scarcely touch on. Well, definitions are short, and there’s a lot that they can’t get around to. Most have to do with the fact that conversations are social occasions, and so are subject to all sorts of (sub)cultural expectations about when they’re called for and what happens in them.

In the American middle-class world of most of the comics and cartoons I report on most often, conversation is expected in certain circumstances; opting out is socially aberrant. Consider a Zits I posted about on 7/14/12, “Dinner table conversation”, in which Jeremy simply opts out of (socially expected) conversation at meals. Or go back to #1, where the social expectation in certain contexts is that people will “make conversation” — “make small talk”, as we say, with no point beyond behaving affiliatively. All conversations are occasions for social affiliation, but some contexts require nothing more than that — a fact that Dilbert (despite his puzzlement) understands, but Alice does not; she seems to expect every conversation to have a point, of some value to her.

From the fact that conversation is informal, lacking large-scale organization, it follows that conversation is literally aimless, without a specific goal; this characteristic distinguishes conversation from some other kinds of talk, like negotiation or decision-making.

And it’s important that conversation is not only an exchange without a specific goal, but also (at least ideally) an even-handed exchange, a collaboration between equal participants. No one is running the show.

Media interviews often blur this line. In principle, the interviewer selects the questions and controls the flow of the interview (and then edits the text, tape, or film), but many skilled interviewers — Terry Gross of the American public radio program Fresh Air, for one — are adept at framing their interviews as like conversations and so eliciting revealing material (sometimes offering revealing material about themselves in return). Interrogations are not conversations, but interviews can be distinctly conversation-like.


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