Ed Yong reports for The Atlantic on an interesting finding of research on conversation:
When we talk we take turns, where the “right” to speak flips back and forth between partners. This conversational pitter-patter is so familiar and seemingly unremarkable that we rarely remark on it. But consider the timing: On average, each turn lasts for around 2 seconds, and the typical gap between them is just 200 milliseconds—barely enough time to utter a syllable. That figure is nigh-universal. It exists across cultures, with only slight variations. It’s even there in sign-language conversations.
“It’s the minimum human response time to anything,“ says Stephen Levinson from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. It’s the time that runners take to respond to a starting pistol—and that’s just a simple signal. If you gave them a two-way choice—say, run on green but stay on red—they’d take longer to pick the right response. Conversations have a far greater number of possible responses, which ought to saddle us with lengthy gaps between turns. Those don’t exist because we build our responses during our partner’s turn. We listen to their words while simultaneously crafting our own, so that when our opportunity comes, we seize it as quickly as it’s physically possible to.
“When you take into account the complexity of what’s going into these short turns, you start to realize that this is an elite behavior,” says Levinson. “Dolphins can swim amazingly fast, and eagles can fly as high as a jet, but this is our trick.” […]
The brevity of these silences is doubly astonishing when you consider that it takes at least 600 milliseconds for us to retrieve a single word from memory and get ready to actually say it. For a short clause, that processing time rises to 1500 milliseconds. This means that we have to start planning our responses in the middle of a partner’s turn, using everything from grammatical cues to changes in pitch. We continuously predict what the rest of a sentence will contain, while similarly building our hypothetical rejoinder, all using largely overlapping neural circuits.
“It’s amazing, like juggling with one hand,” says Levinson. “It’s been completely ignored by the cognitive sciences because traditionally, people who studied language comprehension were different to the ones who studied language production. They never stopped to think that, in conversations, these things are happening at the same time.”
Yong goes into the history of the discovery, how the turn-taking system may have evolved, and how it develops from infancy on. Visit the link and read the whole thing, after which you have 200 milliseconds to respond.