It begins with Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, posting this sentence on his own blog A conversation, like dancing, has some rules, although I've never seen them stated anywhere. Any first year linguist, anthropologist, English major, linebacker, Starbucks barrista, etc would see this statement and say, "hmmm, that seems wrong. I can't believe no one has ever studied conversation from scientific standpoint. Let me Google around a bit and see what I can find..." Sullivan didn't do this, he just reposted a passage from another blogger, uncritically pasted it into his own rather large megaphone, then added his own, misguided, largely wrong comment.
What that little bit of Googling would have given you, dear Scott and Sully, was the fact that there is a rather long history of conversation analysis within linguistics, sociology, anthropology, and now even computational linguistics. There's a fucking Wiki page for fuck's sake!
And yes, people have been trying to write down the "rules" of conversation for a long time. They even have a name for them: turn taking. Though attempts at defining the "rules" of turn-taking have been fraught with problems, nonetheless scholars and scientists have been trying.
here's a brief and incomplete but representative list of some freely available papers and resource on the science of conversation analysis:
- A Computational Architecture for Conversation (Microsoft, pdf). We describe representation, inference strategies, and control procedures employed in an automated conversation system named the Bayesian Receptionist. The prototype is focused on the domain of dialog about goals typically handled by receptionists at the front desks of buildings on the Microsoft corporate campus.
- Turn taking in conversation is universal (Max Planck institute for Psycholinguistics): Do people take turns in natural conversation in the same basic way in all languages, or does the turn-taking system vary in each language? Many anthropologists have suggested the latter, but MPI-researchers have found empirical evidence for robust universals in human conversation. Their study appears in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
- Speaking while monitoring addressees for understanding (pdf, Stanford): Speakers monitor their own speech and, when they discover problems, make repairs. In the proposal examined here, speakers also monitor addressees for understanding and, when necessary, alter their utterances in progress. Addressees cooperate by displaying and signaling their understanding in progress.
- Sequencing in Conversational Openings (UCLA):An attempt is made to ascertain rules for the sequencing of a limited part of natural conversation and to determine some properties and empirical consequences of the operation of those rules.
As for Sullivan's contribution: "I think of it as a friendly tennis match. There is no attempt to score a point or win a match" this is more a function of his perception of a conversation than the reality. Conversations are always governed by goals and there is competition for the floor inherent in the interaction. It would be interesting if Sullivan would post a lengthy example of one of his friendly tennis match conversations and let a CA scholar have a go at analyzing the content. My guess is that we would find that Sully's friendly tennis match is more Serena v. Venus than he's willing to admit.