Professional Reader

How We Talk book review @duffythewriter

An expert guide to how conversation works, from how we know when to speak to why huh is a universal word
We all had teachers who scolded us over the use of um, uh-huh, oh, like, and mm-hmm. But as linguist N. J. Enfield reveals in How We Talk, these “bad words” are fundamental to language.
Whether we are speaking with the clerk at the store, our boss, or our spouse, language is dependent on things as commonplace as a rising tone of voice, an apparently meaningless word, or a glance–signals so small that we hardly pay them any conscious attention. Nevertheless, they are the essence of how we speak. From the traffic signals of speech to the importance of um, How We Talkrevolutionizes our understanding of conversation. In the process, Enfield reveals what makes language universally–and uniquely–human.

I’m not sure I should have read How We Talk. It’s bad enough suffering from mild social anxiety in situations, and now I’ll be consciously registering an inflection, longer pause than usual or side glance from the person I’m speaking to! That small worry aside, this book is really fascinating. N.J. Enfield guides the reader through the minefield that is everything else outside of the spoken word. Pauses, inflection, tone of voice and body language make up so much of our communication it’s a wonder not more research has been done on the innocent ‘Ummm’ and ‘Uhhh’.

There are so many interesting nuggets of information to be picked up in this book. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but one anecdote I found interesting was that of Margaret Thatcher, and how journalists and interviewers found her to be incredibly hard to talk to. Research shows that her voice and tone didn’t rise and fall like most people, and she paused at odd times. Interviewers took her pauses as a signal of the end of her sentence and a chance to respond or to ask another question, when in fact, she was far from finished.

How We Talk – The Difference Between ‘Ummm’ and ‘Uhhh’

You will also find out in these pages the difference between ‘Ummm’ and ‘Uhhh’, along with the unwritten rules of conversation. For example; if you ask a question which isn’t answered within a second or two, it’s human nature to repeat the question, get annoyed, or assume the delay in response means a no. Either way, the person asking the question is more than likely to follow up if that second isn’t filled with a response.

We’ve all had many conversations that start off one way, happy and calm, when a brief look, or signal that communicates that one party isn’t listening derails the whole exchange which then explodes into a batsh*t crazy disagreement. We’ve all misread a text, or email because we don’t have the non-verbal signs, or the tone and inflections of voice to keep it in context, so our brains take what little there is and completely misread it. This is all done subconciously with our brains constantly reading, misreading, and processing many signals with every interaction. No wonder people on the autism spectrum find verbal communication so scary and confusing.

How We Talk does get a bit ‘sciencey’ at times, and numbers, letters and graphs danced around my eyes a bit. But, the information that you get in between the academic bits is worth the read. The research is across 10 or so languages and even covers animal behaviour too, so there’s plenty to be gained in giving this book a bit of your time.

A solid read and a great book gift for the the chatterbox, or linguistic fan in your life. Buy now at Booktopia.

3 out of 5 – A lot of knowledge stuffed into 207 pages.
Thanks to Hachette for the opportunity to read and review this book.