I live for well-written books that explain how the world works and/or give tips on how to build up or improve skills. My latest discovery in this genre is 2020’s Let’s Talk: How English Conversation Works by David Crystal. This slim, well-written volume breaks down the conventions and nuances of conversations in clear, simple language with lots of examples. Here’s how the publisher describes it:
Banter, chit-chat, gossip, natter, tete-a-tete: these are just a few of the terms for the varied ways in which we interact with one another through conversation. David Crystal explores the factors that motivate so many different kinds of talk and reveals the rules we use unconsciously, even in the most routine exchanges of everyday conversation. We tend to think of conversation as something spontaneous, instinctive, habitual. It has been described as an art, as a game, sometimes even as a battle. Whichever metaphor we use, most people are unaware of what the rules are, how they work, and how we can bend and break them when circumstances warrant it.
Crystal does very well at writing out and explaining the hidden, unwritten rules that underlie all our everyday interactions, leading to many ‘aha’ moments while reading that made me say “Wow, we really do do that!” His source materials and examples are particularly compelling, drawn from his 1970s recordings of authentic informal conversations as well as other modern examples. He also makes the text readable and interesting with relatively short chapters and engaging, well-written text. He tends to be academic, delving into the history of conversation in English and using some linguistics jargon (and he also writes his own take on a battle rap) but overall he shares relevant, useful, or interesting tidbits about how people talk to each other.
For me personally, as an English language and literature nerd, this book was fascinating and enlightening; I felt like an extraterrestrial anthropologist studying the communication habits of humanity (and the book’s British English was charming and familiar from my favorite UK shows)! This book would be good for other language or history nerds, social science enthusiasts, those for whom English isn’t their first language (though strong familiarity with the language is helpful), and anyone who enjoys talking to people and/or wants to have better conversations and relationships.