huh? What do you mean? – NEMO Knowledge Link

Marlou Rasenberg conducts research into mutual understanding in conversations.”

Imagine that you are in the kitchen with your partner, where you have just put together a three-course dinner for friends over for dinner. The sink exploded. There are plates, bowls, pans, dishes and cutlery everywhere. “Give me that bowl,” your lover says. “Which bowl?” You see five. “The blue one”, you get as an answer. “There are two blue ones. The one with the gold rim or the other one?” you ask. “Yeah, the one with the gold trim.”

In everyday conversations it happens every now and then that we misunderstand or misunderstand each other. On average once every 1.4 minutes to be exact. We are not very aware of it, but when we talk to someone we are regularly busy restoring the conversation. ‘Hey? What do you mean exactly?’

PhD candidate Marlou Rasenberg researched how two people fix a ‘problem’ in a conversation. She recently presented the results at a major international conference. “People divide the work, whereby you try to take as much work off the hands of your conversation partner as possible,” she explains. “The more words and gestures one uses to clarify something, the less the other has to do.”

Copying each other’s words and gestures

In the lab of the Donders Institute in Nijmegen, Rasenberg researched how people come to mutual understanding in conversations. She had twenty duos do a task with so-called ‘fribbles’, crazy blue figures with projections in all kinds of shapes. One test subject has to describe the quibble on the computer screen, his partner has to find it on his own screen. Each duo was captured on camera while performing the task.

In Marlou Rasenberg’s research, test subjects describe these ‘fribbles’ to each other.

“The fribbles provide a communicative challenge,” says Rasenberg. “The figures are difficult to describe. You can easily misunderstand each other.” Her previous research results showed that people usually copy each other’s words and gestures to describe the figures.

Especially in a situation with new objects, such as the fribbles, people quickly start gesturing. You mainly see iconic gestures, where the shape of the gesture indicates what you are talking about. “Test subjects depict a square with their hands, for example, and also make clear its position. Then they hold that square in front of their stomach, for example, where their own body is the doll, to make it clear where on the fribble that square is. The partner then also later uses the word ‘square’ and the same gesture to describe the same quibble.”


What do we do if our conversation partner no longer follows the conversation? Rasenberg analyzed the video recordings of the experiment again, looking for communication problems in the subjects and how they solve them. The duos in the Nijmegen lab ran into a ‘problem’ once every one and a half minutes. For example, they did not understand which figure it was about, or did not understand each other well.

The problems manifest themselves in three ways. The first utterance consists of an open request to the person who describes the quibble. The listener says ‘huh?’, ‘what?’ or ‘Say it again?’ It is not clear exactly what the problem is, but the narrator solves the problem by repeating her sentence. In the second utterance, the request to the narrator is specific. “Which side was that stick on, did you say?” It is about questions with how, who, what where. In this case, it is clearer to the narrator where the problem lies, although it is still up to her to solve it. The third expression is not a request, but a specific proposal. To double check what the narrator just said. “Oh, you mean that stick on the left?” The narrator then only has to confirm.

In the dataset of twenty duos, Rasenberg found 378 problems in communication. The subjects always resolve the misunderstanding together, but the effort they put into it differs. The work is divided, but not always fiftyfity. You try to relieve your conversation partner as much as possible by asking specific questions. But if you really didn’t understand something, it’s just ‘huh?’ and your interlocutor has to clarify a lot (and therefore do a lot of work).

The role of gestures in miscommunication

The fact that people divide the work in terms of speech has often been seen in research. This is also the case in Rasenberg’s study. The more words one subject uses to set something straight, the less the other person will mess with it. Are gestures also shared between the duos?

The misunderstandings between the test subjects mainly concerned specific proposals, ie to double check whether that stick is indeed on the left side of the figure. Many of these expressions are accompanied by iconic gestures. People who ask the question depict that stick on the left side of the body. The narrator only has to confirm, gestures are a lot less common.

At ‘huh?’, ‘what?’ or “sorry, do you want to repeat that again?” the questioners rarely use gestures. While the narrator uses quite a few gestures to explain something. So yes, even when it comes to gestures, interlocutors divide the work.

“We naturally have social interaction, you don’t have to learn that,” concludes Rasenberg. “But how exactly do I respond to what my conversation partner says and how do I build on that? How do we manage the flow of the conversation together? There is still so much to learn about everyday conversations.”

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