Back-channeling, in discourse analysis, is the name given to a behavior in conversation where the listener gives vocal feedback to indicate that he or she is paying attention.

Back-channeling is a minimal response—almost always involving a short phrase or single word such as: "yeah," "sure," "uh huh," "right," etc. It often includes a gesture such as slight head-nodding or, when more emphatic, includes full body gestures, punctuated head movements, and exclamations ("Wow!", "You're kidding me!", etc.). Back-channeling behavior can change in different contexts; "Amen!" is not an unusual response from the audience during a sermon in some church services, for example. The phone conversation is another example where back-channeling behavior changes dramatically. If you want to conduct an awkward experiment, try to refrain from back-channeling the next time you make a phone call.

While these responses are not attempts to interrupt the speaker in order to take the conversational floor, they can be disruptive if too profuse. Also, these responses do not necessarily signify agreement, even when the listener head-nods and uses words such as "yeah" or "sure." However, they can easily be misinterpreted as agreement or approval of what is being said.

Gender and cultural variance in back-channeling behaviors

Sociolinguistics research indicates that women are more likely to back-channel than men. It should be noted, however, that the results are affected greatly by the conversational context and setting. It is difficult to design an experiment with control variables and elicit a natural response. While researchers try not to influence the back-channeling behavior of the test subjects, they are often forced to back-channel themselves when the listener pauses expecting feedback.

Different cultures also exhibit different back-channeling behaviors. In a study conducted with American and Japanese subjects, researchers found that in a casual conversation setting, Japanese subjects were much more likely to make brief comments and make head gestures than were American subjects.

Knowing when and how much to back-channel may help one to assimilate within a group or build rapport with a particular speaker.

Information about linguistics studies on gender and cultural back-channeling behavior from:
© 2003 Marilyn S. Feke. Selected Proceedings of the First Workshop on Spanish Sociolinguistics, ed. Lotfi
Sayahi, 96-106. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project., document #1012.

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