‘The One with the Conversation Analyst': What Friends and Phoebe Buffay teach us about the way we talk
Conversation analyst Professor Elizabeth Stokoe has studied social interaction in a variety of contexts including healthcare settings, police interviews, hostage negotiations, and even first dates.
On her long list of study subjects, you will find a group of people you wouldn’t have expected Liz to pay particular attention to – the cast of the popular 90s US sit-com, Friends.
The School of Social Sciences and Humanities Professor features clips from the show in her book Talk: The Science of Conversation, based on her earlier research, and has used Friends clips to introduce students to conversation analysis.
“Friends dialogue, like other sitcoms, is really great for showing the basic workings of interactions”, Liz explains.
“In the very first episode, two of the characters invite another to come over to help them put together some furniture, and the person being invited, Rachel, says, ‘Oh I’d really like to but I’m going to just stay here, I’m really tired’.
“What's interesting is there's no audience laughter at this point. But then they invite another character, Phoebe, she says, ‘Oh I wish I could, but I don't want to’ - and then the audience laughs.
“There are lots of things like this where the normative structure of interaction is breached by the scriptwriters.”
Liz continues: “I was also interested in how the laughter tracks were used as evidence of what the audience should be finding funny.
“Friends is full of these sorts of plays on the structure of interaction. It's not that it's full of set-piece jokes and one-liners - a lot of the humour is built off breaking what you might expect to happen at any given moment.
“Phoebe’s character is partly built on breaking the norms of interaction. There's another great scene where one of the characters says, ‘Hey Pheebs, you know what I’m thinking?’ and she says, ‘Oh! Okay!!’ and starts to guess what Monica is thinking, where what’s expected is just “what?”, giving the ‘go ahead’ to continue to Monica.
“Friends shows people that they really do understand that talk has a structure to it.”
Liz discussed what Friends can teach us about talk on the ‘Cuppa with a Scientist’ podcast - a brand new podcast launched by the Loughborough University PR team that aims to inspire the next generation of scientists and dispel the myth that all scientists wear white lab coats.
The episode, which is the second in the series, also sees Liz describe her academic journey, past and present research projects, and social science’s place in a tech and AI-dominated world.
You can watch the episode by clicking the below YouTube video:
Or if you prefer to listen to your podcasts, you can do so below:
For more information on the ‘Cuppa with a Scientist’ podcast series, click here.
Notes for editors
Press release reference number: 21/29
Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.
It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2020 QS World University Rankings and University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2019.
Loughborough is in the top 10 of every national league table, being ranked 7th in the Guardian University League Table 2021, 5th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2020 and 6th in The UK Complete University Guide 2021.
Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.
The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.