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Understanding Overlaps in Conversations

In conversations, it is common for two or more speakers to talk simultaneously, resulting in an overlap. This can happen for various reasons, such as a lack of interest in listening or during an argument between individuals.

What Are Overlaps?

An overlap occurs when a listener interrupts the speaker, but the speaker continues talking, resulting in both speakers talking at the same time. In some cases, an overlap may happen even when there is no listener present.

Competitive Overlap vs. Cooperative Overlap

Competitive Overlap

In competitive overlap, interruptions disrupt the flow of conversation and create a competition for dominance between speakers. In a conversation, it is expected for the listener to support the speaker and wait for their turn to speak. Overlapping in this manner disregards the speaker's desire to be heard and the established rules of turn-taking.

Cooperative Overlap

Conversely, cooperative overlap occurs when a listener takes on the role of a speaker to show interest or agreement with what the current speaker is saying. This type of overlap helps move the conversation forward and was first identified by sociolinguist Deborah Tannen.

The Four Types of Overlap

There are four types of cooperative overlap:

  • Terminal Overlaps
  • Continuers
  • Conditional Access to the Turn
  • Chordal

It is important to note that these types of overlap are cooperative in nature, not competitive.

Understanding the Types of Overlap Onsets

Overlaps can also be classified based on when they occur in the conversation, such as:

  • Transitional Overlap
  • Recognitional Overlap
  • Progressional Overlap

Transitional Overlap

Transitional overlap happens when a listener joins the conversation and takes their turn as a speaker at a relevant transition point, such as when the current speaker is about to finish talking. This often happens when participants in a conversation are excited and have a smooth exchange of speech.

Recognitional Overlap

In recognitional overlap, a listener anticipates the remaining part of an unfinished sentence and tries to complete it for the current speaker, taking over as the speaker.

Progressional Overlap

Progressional overlap occurs when the current speaker interrupts their own flow of speech by pausing, using filler words, repeating words, or correcting themselves. The listener then self-selects themselves as the next speaker to continue the turn.

Overlap vs. Interruption

While overlap and interruption both involve disruptions in turn-taking, there is a clear distinction between the two. Interruption happens when a listener forcefully takes over the speaker's role before they have finished speaking, causing them to become a listener. In contrast, overlap occurs when two speakers talk at the same time, sometimes without any listeners present.

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