Back channelling to the future

The staff at Link√∂ping University joke that the cognitive science students have kogvet-sjukan, Swedish for ‘cognitive science disorder’, because they have an incurable enthusiasm for anything related to understanding the mind. After two fantastic days at a conference there, I can see why.

I’ve been to a fair few conferences in my time, but few have been as friendly, interesting and well-organised as KVIT, and it is all the more impressive that it is entirely organised by students.

One of the most bits for me was linguist Jens Allwood’s talk on intercultural communication, where he described cultural differences in how people manage conversation flow.

I’ve always been fascinated by why people from some cultures make sounds during conversations that, to my English-attuned ears, sound unusual. For example, Japanese speakers often make expressions of surprise or interest that seem quite colourful.

These ‘yes, I’m listening’ or ‘yes, continue’ vocal prompts and noises that we make are known as ‘back channelling’, and can also include movements such as nods, or the use of eye-contact.

In some cultures, such as in Japan, eye contact is used far less during conversation, because it might be considered too intense, or it’s considered disrespectful, or even threatening.

So people from cultures that use less eye contact need to signal that they’re following the conversation in other ways, and hence they rely much more on vocal noises, which, to many English speakers, sounds a little odd.

In contrast, people from cultures where eye-contact is frequently used during conversations, like in Latino countries, speakers typically use much less vocal back channelling.

There’s a great review of some of this research in one of Allwood’s papers that’s available online as a pdf.

The others speakers at the conference included an art curator, a primate researcher, an AI consciousness engineer, a psychologist, an interaction designer and an emergency response co-ordinator, all of whom apply cognitive science to their work. Can you think of a more interesting line-up?

However, despite it being attended by people from Holland, Germany, and countries across Scandanavia, I was surprised to see few people from the rest of Europe.

As perhaps one of the best kept secrets in cognitive science, you should seriously consider going next year. The kogvet-sjukan affected Swedes will give you a warm welcome, stimulate your brain and put on impressive dinners with a tradition of raucous and risqué cognitive science sketches and songs.

Link to KVIT conference page.
pdf of Allwood’s chapter on intercultural communication.

One Comment

  1. Ben Camp
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    I’ve noticed that, in quite a few cases, the vocal interjections by the listener — “mmhmm” “uh huh, uh huh” “yeah” — accompany a second thought-train in the listener. The vocalizations serve double duty to the listener as an acknowledgement to the speaker, as well as a verbal self-reminder to pay attention to the speaker.
    Or, the way I tease other people about it in conversation is :
    ME: “So then we went to the 7-11, and the same guy was there with the same bright pink shirt.”
    LISTENER: “Mmmhmm.”
    ME: “You’re only nodding and agreeing because your attention lapsed for a second. What else is it you’re thinking about?”
    LISTENER: “Sorry, I was just remembering that I had to call my mom to make sure that she….”
    And so on…
    I’ve been doing this for almost 5 years, and I have never once had someone tell me that their vocalizations weren’t accompanying a sidetracked thought.


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