No generally accepted definition of conversation exists, beyond the fact that a conversation involves at least two people talking together. Consequently, the term is often defined by what it is not. A ritualized exchange such as a mutual greeting is not a conversation, and an interaction that includes a marked status differential (such as a boss giving orders) is also not a conversation. An interaction with a tightly focused topic or purpose is also generally not considered a conversation. Summarizing these properties, one authority writes that “Conversation is the kind of speech that happens informally, symmetrically, and for the purposes of establishing and maintaining social ties.”
From a less technical perspective, a writer on etiquette in the early 20th century defined conversation as the polite give and take of subjects thought of by people talking with each other for company.
Conversations follow rules of etiquette because conversations are social interactions, and therefore depend on social convention. Specific rules for conversation arise from the cooperative principle. Failure to adhere to these rules causes the conversation to deteriorate or eventually to end. Contributions to a conversation are responses to what has previously been said.
Conversations may be the optimal form of communication, depending on the participants’ intended ends. Conversations may be ideal when, for example, each party desires a relatively equal exchange of information, or when the parties desire to build social ties. On the other hand, if permanency or the ability to review such information is important, written communication may be ideal. Or if time-efficient communication is most important, a speech may be preferable.