Inferring social nature of conversations from words: Experiments on a corpus of everyday telephone conversations

Anthony Stark, Izhak Shafran, Jeffrey Kaye

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Language is being increasingly harnessed to not only create natural human-machine interfaces but also to infer social behaviors and interactions. In the same vein, we investigate a novel spoken language task, of inferring social relationships in two-party conversations: whether the two parties are related as family, strangers or are involved in business transactions. For our study, we created a corpus of all incoming and outgoing calls from a few homes over the span of a year. On this unique naturalistic corpus of everyday telephone conversations, which is unlike Switchboard or any other public domain corpora, we demonstrate that standard natural language processing techniques can achieve accuracies of about 88%, 82%, 74% and 80% in differentiating business from personal calls, family from non-family calls, familiar from unfamiliar calls and family from other personal calls respectively. Through a series of experiments with our classifiers, we characterize the properties of telephone conversations and find: (a) that 30 words of openings (beginnings) are sufficient to predict business from personal calls, which could potentially be exploited in designing context sensitive interfaces in smart phones; (b) our corpus-based analysis does not support Schegloff and Sack's manual analysis of exemplars in which they conclude that pre-closings differ significantly between business and personal calls - closing fared no better than a random segment; and (c) the distribution of different types of calls are stable over durations as short as 1-2 months. In summary, our results show that social relationships can be inferred automatically in two-party conversations with sufficient accuracy to support practical applications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)224-239
Number of pages16
JournalComputer Speech and Language
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2014


  • Conversation telephone speech
  • Social networks
  • Social relationships

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Software
  • Theoretical Computer Science
  • Human-Computer Interaction


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