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What Are Adjacency Pairs?

Adjacency pairs are a fundamental concept in conversational analysis, representing a two-part communication exchange. They include greetings like "hello" and "hi," or questions and answers. This structure helps maintain the natural flow of dialogue. Understanding them can unlock the subtleties of human interaction. Curious about how they shape our daily conversations? Let's delve deeper into the world of linguistic patterns.
Vincent Summers
Vincent Summers

Linguistics, or the study of nature and structure of human speech, may be subdivided into topics. One such subdivision, pragmatics, describes the relationship of sentences to the environment in which they occur; one common type of relationship is known as "adjacency pairs." In this relationship, a proffered thought or question, known as the first turn, calls for a specific sort of response, chosen on the basis of logic and flow — this is the second turn. This response usually closely follows the first turn. In addition, the first turn limits the choice of sensible responses given in the second turn.

Adjacency pairs assume a variety of flavors. There is the greeting pair, in which Billy asks how Suzie is and to which she responds, "Fine." The question variety has Jackie asking what is for dinner and her mother responding, "Meatloaf." Theresa demands to know, using the complaint form of adjacency pair, why Geraldo ate her candy bar, with her brother responding that he did no such thing. Other types of adjacency pairs include the invitation, summons and assessment varieties.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

In the assessment variety of adjacency pair, Joe wants to know how his mother’s car runs since he put in a new alternator. Clearly what is called grounding must exist between initiator and respondent, in order to stimulate adjacency pairs. Strangers can share grounding or commonality, but only in a very limited way. A businessman may ask, "How can I help you?" At a barbershop in a strange town, the weather suddenly is of great importance, leading to a question adjacency pair.

Sometimes the first turn in an adjacency pair elicits an answer only after what is termed a "significant silence." The pregnant pause may suggest a reluctance on the part of the respondent to agree to the premise. To illustrate, a young man invites a young lady to see his coin collection at his bachelor apartment. She pauses for a second or so before giving a response with the statement that she cannot do so. An answer may be given that sounds plausible, but is not what the young man hoped for.

Such a pause suggests the response immediately following will be "dispreferred." The respondent needed time to think of a plausible excuse. This may stimulate the initiator to generate additional adjacency pairs to clarify the meaning behind his first effort. Besides merely obtaining insight into the thinking of the respondent, extensive and subtle use of adjacency pairs with a measure of emotional pressure is sometimes made to overcome dispreferred responses.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books