Exercises for Changing the Topic
Do the participants in this conversation appear to agree about the topic, or do they actively negotiate it? What signs can you spot that someone would like a transition to a new topic? Are attempts to change the topic successful? Why or why not? (You may, of course, need to watch the video more than once to answer all these questions. The first time, you might simply focus on defining what the topic appears to be, the second time you might focus on signs that someone wants to change, etc.)
The conversation starts with the question “Did you hear that they’re planning to remake the Harry Potter movies?” It becomes pretty quickly apparent that three of the people are big HP fans, and they are happy to segue from the question of remakes to the HP marathon they watched, to which movies in the series are better than which other ones, to why Hollywood won’t make longer movies (keeping all of the detail from the books). This is a great example of a side-stepping conversation, moving quickly from one closely related topic to another, without anyone feeling that the topic has changed.The woman in blue, however, is obviously not a Harry Potter fan and is (fairly desperately) trying to change the topic entirely, without much success. She interrupts (with one false start) to ask how everyone’s classes are going, and the others all give listless one-word responses, showing that they are not interested in that topic. One of the others quickly turns the conversation back to HP, with a slightly awkward segue. (She says they have enough time to watch movies, then asks if the others had seen the HP marathon.) As the others are animatedly discussing the movies, the young woman in blue interrupts again to ask how everyone’s weekend was. This appears to annoy the others, since it was an obvious interruption and too abrupt of a change, when they clearly weren’t finished with their discussion. They reply almost unanimously that they spent the weekend watching the marathon, and immediately go back to discussing it. There is a lot of social (“fake”) laughing and smiling as they reply to her, probably because they are slightly embarrassed by the apparent conflict of interests, and don’t want a serious conflict to arise, even as they refuse to indulge her by changing the topic, as they surely realize she would like to do. The woman in blue continues to wear a social smile, continues to follow the conversation with her gaze. She finally gives up trying to change the subject and contributes to the ongoing topic, but shows her displeasure so by explicitly disagreeing with the others, even appearing to chastise them (“I wouldn’t (sit in the theater for 6 hours). I feel like that’s not a good use of your time.”).
Go to a coffee shop or a restaurant where you can sit close enough to hear other people interacting without interfering with others’ conversations or invading their privacy. In a coffee shop, you might sit with your back facing the people you are listening to. This is much less threatening than facing them and watching them converse. If you can’t sit with your back to them, at least make sure that you don’t make eye contact! People having a chat in a public setting like this know that people will overhear – there’s no expectation of privacy – but they will still be very uncomfortable if they notice you paying particular attention to their conversation.
Consider the following questions as you listen:
- Do you think that the conversation flowed in a relevant manner? Were the connections between related topics usually clear?
- Could you hear the trailing off and slightly extended pause that signalled potential transition points?
- Did any of the participants attempt to change to an unrelated topic within the conversation? Which transition phrases did they use? How did the other speaker(s) signal uptake of the new topic (or not)?
Repeat this exercise often!