Books – “Analyzing Multimodal Interaction” by Sigrid Norris

I have believed ever since I first studied discourse analysis that there’s a lot more to interaction than just the language and the talk. When linguists who study conversation make their transcripts, the large bulk of it is a documentation of the words said, with pauses recorded in milliseconds and maybe an indication of laughter.

Norris’s book shows us that there are many more communicative modes than just the verbal — and that these modes greatly affect communication. She challenges discourse analysts to take down notes about posture, head angling, gaze direction, use of objects in the environment, and to take into account all of these other modes of communication which may impact the direction of conversation.

For instance, she has a long analysis of a woman who is talking on the phone with a client at the same time as she is playing with her baby daughter. While some may see the playing with the baby as a distraction that impacts the flow of the conversation, Norris points out that her subject is actually managing the two behaviors quite regularly. When she addresses the client on the phone, she directs her gaze away from the baby towards an imaginary interlocutor, mediated by the telephone. When the client is talking to her, she takes that time to direct her gaze at the baby. The subject can then smile and make faces at the baby because she isn’t currently needing her mouth/lips/cheeks to talk to her client. This effective managing of gaze and facial gesture helps this particular subject manage two interactions simultaneously. The way that we humans do this almost subconsciously is incredible. We are really inherently social beings, and we have so many skills available to us to facilitate social behavior.

One of the most interesting things that I found in the book is the idea of modal density, which is (basically) how much we focus on one particular communicative mode in an interaction. For instance, when you are talking on the phone, you focus heavily on ther verbal component of interaction, because with the phone that’s all you have available. However, say you are out to lunch with a friend — you use your body position (facing the other person or looking away), objects in the environment (you might look at something or point it out and use it as a conversation topic), gestures and facial expressions, AND verbal conversation all at the same time, and all of these things have a component in interaction. As another example, say you are watching a movie with your significant other. There is likely little verbal interaction, but instead you are using a media device (the film) as a component in the interaction as being a shared object to orient your interaction around; furthermore, you have gestures, body position (you may have your arm around that person indicating a physical intimacy, or you may be sitting up next to each other, indicating some distance), and non-linguistic verbal cues like laughter or winces that are related to the shared object of interaction (the movie).

In thinking about this kind of modal density, I have thought about some of my own interactions with people. I am notorious for disliking conversations on the phone. I think now, having this knowledge, that it’s because of the heavy use of only one mode in interaction, that being the verbal mode; I am a person who likes very much to share experience and comment on observations in the environment. That’s why I like to meet with people in real life, go to shopping malls to spend time together, watch a sporting event, or hang out at a coffeeshop. I think that this even extends to computer-mediated communication, because online you can link another person to a news article or website that you want to talk about, or watch a YouTube video together, or play an online game.

This is exactly the kind of viewpoint that I was seeking when I first encountered discourse analysis and realized that there was something missing. Documenting everything that goes on is, of course, a lot harder than just documenting speech; however, it is important that we do so, because there’s more to communication than just language, and more to linguistics than language as well.


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