Linguistics

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What aspects of speech do people pay the most attention to?

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Though not speech itself, people pay a great deal of attention to eye contact as a mode of communication. Good eye contact makes a speaker seem credible, approachable, and confident. People who avoid eye contact can be seen as avoiding the truth, being uncomfortable with the intended audience, or being uninterested.

The intonation of the words spoken is also important. This auditory clue provides great context about meaning. Consider this sentence:

I didn't say we should kill him!

Stressing the word I elicits one meaning for this sentence: "I didn't say it—someone else said it." Stressing didn't elicits another meaning: "someone said I said to kill him? I certainly didn't." Stressing the word say is yet another meaning: "I might have thought it, but I didn't say it." This can go on through each word in the sentence, and each stress results in a different meaning, demonstrating how important stress placed on certain words is to communication.

People also pay attention to the volume of a speaker. While being a little loud is typically okay, being extremely loud comes across as overbearing and rude. People who speak so softly that they cannot be heard are sometimes considered unsure of their topic or of themselves.

People also pay attention to dialects and colloquialisms in speech. Sometimes people carry biases in favor of or against those with certain regional patterns of speech. Sometimes it's nothing more than a fun conversational piece (e.g., do you order pop, soda, or Coke? Is a small flowing body of water a creek, stream, or crick?), but these types of differences certainly garner some attention in speech.

Listeners also pay attention to the rate at which the words are delivered. People who tend to speak too quickly can be misunderstood, while people who speak too slowly can cause people to tune them out. In today's society, people typically speak about 160–180 words per minute, which is actually a bit faster than a decade ago.

The actual words delivered are important in speech, but so many other factors are important to how those words are received by listeners, as well.

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There are many aspects of speech that listeners pay close attention to.

The actual content of speech is obviously crucial, but it is not the only thing that listeners use to determine meaning.

Tone of voice is vital in conveying emotion. The same words spoken in a different tone of voice can have a very different meaning.

Body language, including facial expressions and gestures, make a significant impact on our speech as well.

A common metric given is the 55/38/7 rule. This rule states that speech is 55% body language, 38% tone of voice, and 7% actual words spoken. Some may disagree on the exact numbers, but none deny that we pay a great deal of attention to body language and tone of voice, too—not just the actual words.

Psychology Today also gives the three C's to help with understanding speech: context (the environment, history between those conversing, etc.), clusters (the overall effects of gestures and body language), and congruence (the degree to which body language and tone line up with the words used).

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The aspects of speech to which people pay the most attention vary with the individual, culture, circumstances, and content of the speech. Comprehension of speech involves a combination of understanding the propositional account of utterances, knowing their context, and grasping emotional tone. When, for example, a customer requests from a barrista a vanilla latte, the most important aspect of the speech is the factual information, whereas when a couple is having a relationship discussion, emotional tone is most important. Context also counts. When an actor on a stage says "Help me! I'm dying!" we know not to rush on stage to her aid, but the same phrase would elicit a different response in the emergency room of a hospital.

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