Why is responding quickly important in conversation?


During the COVID-19 pandemic, we spent a lot of time video calling each other, using apps like Zoom, Skype, and Teams. If your experience was anything like mine, you probably also thought that these interactions felt less satisfying than the real life equivalent. Connection issues meant that people would often freeze or disappear, their speech would sound odd, and you often wouldn’t know when to take your turn to speak. In fact, these connection issues would mean that there were regularly long gaps between the end of one person’s sentence and the beginning of the next person’s. These gaps would leave you wondering if the other person had heard you, most likely prompting you to say something like “Hello? Are you there?”.

In real life, we manage to rapidly take turns during conversations, switching between speaking to our partner and listening to their response. In fact, the gaps between our turns are typically around just 200 ms, regardless of the language that we speak. As a result, we tend to find the long gaps in video calls particularly disruptive. But why are these long gaps so disruptive for conversation? The obvious answer is that long gaps disrupt the flow of conversation, making it feel disconnected and choppy. But research suggests that there are also more undesirable consequences of these long gaps.

Long gaps can signal negative responses
One reason why speakers may try to respond quickly to each other is because long gaps seem to carry meaning, especially when one speaker’s turn requires a response from the other speaker, such as when producing questions or requests. For example, if you invite someone for dinner, then you may interpret a delayed response as illustrating the other person’s reluctance and you may expect them to reject your invitation. This situation is illustrated in the example below, from a telephone conversation, where C interprets a pause of 1.86 seconds as a negative answer to his own question.

C: So um I was wondering if you would be in your office on Monday by any chance?

(1.86 seconds)

C: Probably not.

Consistent with this suggestion, research has shown that listeners tend to expect an immediate response to be a positive acceptance (e.g., they would like to come for dinner), but a delayed response to be a negative rejection (e.g., they would not like to come for dinner). Thus, speakers need to respond quickly to each other to avoid these negative interpretations. This association between long gaps and negative responses may explain why video conversations feel less enjoyable than those in real life. Connection issues disrupt turn-taking, leading to longer gaps between sentences, and so we tend to expect our requests to receive negative responses.

Short gaps enhance social connection
Research also suggests that the length of the gap between our turns affects how connected we feel to other people. In one study, participants had a ten-minute casual conversation with a stranger or a friend. Then, they rated their enjoyment of the conversation and watched a video of their conversation while rating how connected they felt to their partner at each moment. Participants enjoyed the conversation more and reported feeling more connected to their partner when their partner responded more quickly. In a third experiment, participants listened to audio clips of two speakers interacting. The gaps between the speakers’ turns were manipulated, so they were either short or long. Again, participants thought the speakers were more socially connected when the gaps between their turns were shorter. These findings suggest that even overhearers, who are not involved in the conversation but only observe it, perceive shorter gaps more positively. Thus, video calls may feel less satisfying than real life conversations because the disrupted gaps lead us to feel less connected to each other.

So why is responding quickly in conversation so important? Quick responses not only facilitate conversational flow, they also underlie our feelings of acceptance and connection. Although post-pandemic, some report finding real-life interactions more taxing than they used to be, perhaps we should still be grateful that most of our interactions are no longer online, where connection issues frequently make it harder for us to achieve the short gaps we desire.

Read further:

  • Bögels, S., Kendrick, K. H., & Levinson, S. C. (2020). Conversational expectations get revised as response latencies unfold. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 35, 766-779.
  • Boland, J. E., Fonseca, P., Mermelstein, I., & Williamson, M. (2021). Zoom disrupts the rhythm of conversation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 151, 1272-1282.
  • Templeton, E. M., Chang, L. J., Reynolds, E. A., Cone LeBeaumont, M. D., & Wheatley, T. (2022). Fast response times signal social connection in conversation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2116915119.

Editor: Melis Cetincelik
Final editing: Sophie Slaats
Dutch translation: Elly Koutamanis
German Translation: Ronny Bujok