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April 6, 2005 - Conversational Styles and Sports - 2005-04-05

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: the sport of conversation.

FIRST ANNOUNCER: "Not going to stop him!"

SECOND ANNOUNCER: "I tell you, you get him out on the run, Felton's quick, but he's not faster than Brown. Felton may be quicker with the ball, but Brown's faster with the feet ... [crowd cheering]"

RS: From C.B.S. television Monday night, coverage of the national championship game in college basketball. Final score: North Carolina 75, Illinois 70.

AA: What's this got to do with our topic? Well, our guest this week is an English teacher who sees basketball as a great analogy to describe the conversational style of Americans.

SUSAN STEINBACH: "If you're playing basketball, your goal is to get your hands on the ball, to steal it from another person, to dribble -- which would be the equivalent of hesitating, 'well, let me see now, the thing I really wanted to tell you was ... oh and by the way' -- and then once you steal the ball, make your point, and then other person is expected to steal it back."

AA: Susan Steinbach works in the Intensive English Program at the University of California, Davis Extension. It's not just Americans who play the game of conversation this way, she says, but also people in Canada, Britain and Australia.

RS: Susan Steinbach says a lot of her work is based on two concepts by the linguist Deborah Tannen, who uses the terms "high considerate" and "high involvement" to describe different conversational styles. Susan Steinbach takes these ideas further and applies some sports analogies to help people understand those differences.

AA: For example, she contrasts the "basketball style" with the "bowling style."

SUSAN STEINBACH: "Bowling is 'high considerate,' by Deborah Tannen's terms, which means that a speaker from a country using that style would perhaps take turns. And it would be based on a hierarchical system. The more seniority or the higher the age of the person, that person is likely to speak first, whereas a junior person would hold back."

AA: "And the bowling style tends to be used where?"

SUSAN STEINBACH: "Japan, particularly in the older generation or in the corporate world, where hierarchy is very important. Korea. Northern China. And Thailand, to some regards. Not so much Taiwan. Taiwan is a little different."

AA: "So now we've talked about the bowling style and we've talked about the basketball style. Are there other styles?"

SUSAN STEINBACH: "Yes, the third style is rugby. And this is basically based around Deborah Tannen's term 'high involvement.' And in this style you are expected to interrupt other people, and you expect to be interrupted. There's a rapid change of topic, a rapid change of speakers and a concept called overlapping, where one person starts speaking and another speaker speaks on top of that."

AA: "So where do you find the rugby style of conversation?"

SUSAN STEINBACH: "Rugby style is very much a Russian style, a Greek style. It tends to be associated with warmer climates, southern European, African cultures, Latino cultures, where many voices are going at once. It's like a cacophony of sound. It would be unusual for them to pause and listen to another speaker until they finished."

AA: "That must be interesting as a teacher yourself, to see that. I mean, does that tire you out trying to act as a referee when you've got two or three different 'games' going on in one classroom?"

SUSAN STEINBACH: "It's actually very helpful to talk about it, because the students will start to make judgments on personality based on someone's conversational style. So if we talk about it at the beginning of a semester and kind of explain the different backgrounds that the students are coming from, then they start to make jokes with each other and say 'oh, you're just playing rugby today.' And, you know, instead of 'oh, you're mean and you're rude and you're inconsiderate,' they can actually understand it's a style difference based on culture."

RS: Susan Steinbach directs the multimedia lab in the Intensive English Program at the University of California, Davis Extension. She also produces instructional videos for English learners through a company called the Seabright Group.

AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is And our segments are all online at

RS: With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.