Er, pause for thought

December 8, 1995

In our occasional series on first publications, Martyn Kelly talks to Geoffrey Beattie.

When I was 11 my world fell apart," wrote psychologist and writer Geoffrey Beattie in his autobiographical work We Are The People. "I passed the 11 plus." That misfortune plucked the young Beattie from his working-class roots in North Belfast to the decidedly middle-class Belfast Royal Academy and thence to university on the mainland. It might have saved him from more besides. In his book he writes of school friends who drifted into the protestant paramilitaries and who are serving time in the Maze or who, in a few cases, were themselves victims of sectarian killings.

Instead Beattie, now professor of psychology at Manchester University, crossed the water to study at Birmingham where he got a first. "I kept thinking about doing clinical psychology and helping people, and then someone asked if I had thought about doing a PhD." He had not, but he did and arrived, in 1974, at Trinity College, Cambridge, to study the processes underpinning language production. More specifically: "Half of speech is actually silence, which is distributed in interesting ways from a psycholinguistic point of view. What I was interested in was how the temporal properties have to be adjusted by speakers in conversation in order to mesh with other speakers." In other words, why we say "um" and "er" in the middle of a phrase. "My radical step as a postgraduate was to try and learn something from how language was put together by studying actual conversation. That was considered to be a bit different at the time because most psychologists were trying to look at speech by putting people in soundproof rooms and giving them very restricted tasks."

His first paper was a short note in the British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (1977) which made the connection between "ums" and "ahs" and the delay before someone interrupts. Put very simply, a silence at the end of a phrase is an invitation for another speaker to take over. An "er", by contrast, lets the speaker form a new phrase without fear of interruption. "It was such a simple idea but it worked wonderfully."

This interest in natural conversation led on to some now-famous work published in the early 1980s when he had moved to lecture at Sheffield. One evening he watched an interview on the television with Margaret Thatcher. "People at the time were positing a role for conversation, which was that there should be only one speaker at a time. Her interviews were characterised by a huge amount of simultaneous talk. I was very interested in the signals which govern the regulation of conversation. What I suggested about Thatcher was that she was sending out 'turn-yielding' signals but at inappropriate times." His analysis showed not that she interrupted more than usual, but that her interviewers interrupted her and she did not give way. Hence his conclusion: that her interlocutors were sensing that she had finished a phrase and were starting to pose their next question. "I sent it to Nature because I thought that it was a nice little study. I couldn't believe the amount of publicity it got. It seemed to end up everywhere. For weeks and weeks after friends were sending myself and my co-authors pieces from all over the world."

The search for "natural" conversation took him further and further away from the laboratory. "It struck me that if you were interested in communication and management of conversation then there are people outside the laboratory whom it might be nice to get in touch with." Somewhere between the Irishman's love of the "crack" and the psychologist of conversation Beattie found an alter ego interviewing "ordinary" people and weaving their stories into social histories.

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