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Understanding Backchannels: What They Are and How They Work

In conversations, we often come across backchannels - the responses that occur when a listener interjects while a speaker is talking. These responses, also known as backchannel responses, can take the form of words or non-verbal cues, or a combination of both.

Backchannel responses serve to express interest, understanding, or agreement with the speaker's words. However, they do not convey any significant information.

The Evolution of the Term "Backchannels"

The term "backchannel" was coined in 1970 by American linguistics professor Victor H. Yngve.

The Purpose of Backchannels in Communication

The word "backchannel" suggests that during a conversation, there are two channels of communication at play - the primary channel and the secondary channel. The primary channel refers to the speech of the person currently talking, while the secondary channel involves the actions of the listener. The backchannel falls under the secondary channel of communication.

The backchannel serves as a way for the listener to provide responses, such as "mm hmm," "uh huh," and "yes," to show their interest and understanding of the speaker's words. Therefore, the primary and secondary channels define the distinct roles of the individuals involved in the conversation - the speaker uses the primary channel while the listener uses the backchannel.

The Three Types of Backchannels Explained

Backchannels can be divided into three types:

  • Non-lexical backchannels (uh huh, mm hmm)
  • Phrasal backchannels (yeah, yes)
  • Substantive backchannels (oh come on!)

The first type, non-lexical backchannels, includes short phrases like "uh huh" and "mm hmm" that can convey interest, agreement, surprise, or confusion. The second type, phrasal backchannels, comprises words like "yeah" and "yes," which can have different meanings depending on the context. The third type, substantive backchannels, consists of more specific responses like "oh come on!" that directly react to the speaker's words.

Differentiating Between Generic and Specific Backchannels

Some backchannel responses are generic and can be used in everyday conversations, while others are specific and require a particular context. Generic responses, like "mm hmm," are often used as continuers to show agreement or attention without interrupting the flow of conversation. Specific responses, such as "wow," emphasize the listener's reaction and may prompt a reply or add new information to the conversation.

Key Takeaways About Backchannels

To sum it up, backchannels refer to the listener's responses when a speaker is talking. They primarily indicate the listener's interest, understanding, or agreement with what the speaker is saying.

The backchannel serves as a secondary channel of communication, with the primary channel being the speaker's speech. We can categorize backchannels into three types - Non-lexical, Phrasal, and Substantive. They can also be generic or specific, with generic responses showing the listener's attention and specific responses actively participating in the conversation.

The Functions of Backchannels in Conversations

Backchannels serve mainly as "continuers" in conversations, with responses like "mm hmm," "uh huh," and "yes" indicating the listener's interest and understanding of the speaker's words. They also define the different roles of the individuals involved in the conversation, with the speaker using the primary channel and the listener using the backchannel.

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