• McKinley Valentine

“Backchannel”: A crucial element of how conversations flow and people bond

I’m going to tell you about an incredibly useful linguistic concept — one of those things where you’re like “oh there’s a word for that, that’s so useful! Now I have a way talk about it.”


You know how when you say something, sometimes you want the other person to literally hear the content of your message (“pass the salt”) and sometimes it’s a social action that happens to use words — but the words themselves don’t matter (“you’re welcome”). And a whole lot of awkwardness comes about when people can’t gauge whether they’re supposed to listen to the content of the words, or treat it as a social action (“How’s it going?”) And of course, most things you say operate on both levels. If you message your partner to tell them about a funny thing someone said at work, you’re saying both the funny thing, and “I think about you when you’re not around.” So backchannel is one of the kinds of speech that’s all action, no content. It’s the mm-hmms, yeahs, right of courses that you say when you’re listening, and it means “I’m still paying attention.” It’s super important! And different cultures have different ideas about the amount of backchannel that’s appropriate. East Asian people tend to do a lot more of it than Westerners, for example. Too much feels like the listener is bored and trying to hurry you along; too little feels like the listener has drifted off, so cultural mismatches cause problems. There’s also confusion around “Yes” (I heard you, I get what you’re saying) and “Yes” (I agree with you, I’m going to do that). I often use “that makes sense” as backchannel, and occasionally people respond with annoyance — “I know it makes sense!” like I’ve said “I’m judging you, and you’ve passed” (which is just as insulting as “I’m judging you, and you failed”). But now I can say “no it’s just backchannel!” and… well, then I have to explain what backchannel is and then I’ve totally derailed the conversation, which is even ruder. I should probably just try to wean myself off “that makes sense.” And sometimes I go blank because I can’t think of the right backchannel to give. A Facebook Like is kind of like backchannel, and you know, before reacts, when someone posted some bad news, you didn’t know whether you should Like it or not? Does it mean “I Like that” or “I read it and hear you”? But now that more people know the word, if I can’t think of the right backchannel, I can just say “backchannel” instead of “um, I’m listening, I just don’t really have anything to add.”

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