Watching TV newscasts, I was struck by how often someone being interviewed begins speaking with “Well, . . .” This sometimes happens when the person being interviewed is in the studio with the anchor person, but virtually always happens when the interviewee is off-site. The interviewee may be just another reporter, but they always start the same. It goes something like this:
“So, Erin, how’s the weather out there in the suburbs?”
“Well, Bruce, here in Darby the snow has been building up since noon and most secondary roads are closed.”
Once the conversation gets going, the “Well,” is not repeated. It is just said at the start.
What is this compulsion to begin with “Well, . . .”? My theory is that the person off-site is out of sight from the anchor and must feel the need to give an audible signal that they are beginning to speak. When the person is sitting in the studio with the anchor, the discourse is more like a normal conversation where visual signals determine the order of speech. The need to give an audible signal is not as strong, but with all of the lighting and electronic distractions, it is still there. Beginning with “Well” seems to depend on the distance between the two within the studio. No one says “Well” in the intimacy of a late night talk show.
(The visual signals are these: During a normal conversation, the speaker repeatedly glances at the listener who gazes steadily back. When the listener wants to speak, he glances away, signalling the speaker to stop (picture a teenager being grilled by his irate mother). If the speaker wants a reply, he will stop glancing and look steadily at the listener (picture the irate mother). We all do this ballet subconsciously with every face-to-face conversation.)
I apologize for mentioning this. Now you, too, will notice it—over and over again—and it will make your teeth itch every time.