And Now... A Brief Moment for Sociolinguistics

Jan 23, 2010

And Now... A Brief Moment for Sociolinguistics

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This metaphor struck me yesterday morning.

Ever since I left Montreal, I discovered that I freak people out a lot  (ok, really i mean people raised in Anglo-Canadian culture/s) because of the way i speak and my body language. People from cultures where you talk loudly, disagree easily, tell stories about yourselves to show empathy and similarity with your listener, laugh deeply at yourselves, and wave your hands around when you speak are the only people I can relax around.

Specifically, there is this rule in much of mainstream Anglo-Canadian culture that only one person speaks at a time, and there's a long pause left in between each person's speech. The family I grew up in and most of the people i knew growing up had another set of social codes for speech, in which you pick up the tail end of the other person's sentence -- importantly, before they've gotten to the end of it -- and add to it, to keep the ball rolling, in order to show that you are listening and thus encourage the other person to keep speaking (linguists call this a 'latch').

Both of these approaches are perfectly fine systems, but they come into conflict. I've been thinking of a metaphor and I think I found one:

Mainstream Anglo-Canadian culture's rules of speech are a bit like a tennis game.  "Thwock!" - one person speaks. long pause while the speech passes across to the other person. "Thwok!" - other person speaks. long pause while the speech passes back. repeat. You are suppposed to wait patiently while the ball comes your way, before you send your reply. That's how you show you're listening. In this context the generally held belief is that you can't speak and listen at the same time.

The linguistic practice I was raised with as a working class Ashkenazi Jew in Montreal (a speech practice that been shared, in some form, by people I've personally been close to who are, let's see, mother-tongue speakers of Arabic, Gujurati, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese... in other words, lots of people) is a bit like one team's experience in a Hockey game, and also a bit like Curling.

Curling: you're speaking, and I'm going nuts sweeping the ice in front of you to make space for you to speak. the 'sweeping' is my speech that happens at the same time as yours, to tell you that i'm listening and encourage your ideas to keep coming.

Hockey: the 'goal' is the conversation (or idea, or shared thought), and we're  working on it together: imagine a two-person hockey drill moving across the ice together towards the net.  Speech shifts fast as the idea builds. Each person moves continuously to show they are ready to pass, and each contributes small parts at a time as we move the puck between us: pass pass pass assist goal! we're both collaborating to build the speech.



Tennis, hockey, and curling are all perfectly enjoyable games. but you can't have one person trying to play tennis and the other trying to curl... except very, very carefully, with a lot of self-awareness about the fact that you're creating a hybrid game together. When I invite someone to play hockey with me -- on my team -- and they reply with a tennis game, it's difficult not to take offence or falter. here's why.

In the context I was raised in, sitting still and silently while someone is speaking to you is a sign of disinterest, boredom, lack of caring. When someone does this to me, even though I know by now that Anglo-Canadian culture has this rule that it is rude to speak simultaneously, I literally find it difficult to converse. On one hand, I believe I am being rude if I speak with someone who isn't speaking back with me. Talking to someone who sits silently and waits until I am finished -- or worse, who actually waits for a pause before they reply -- can feel a bit like talking to someone who isn't interested and doesn't want to be disturbed. It's rude to speak to someone who would prefer you don't.

On the other hand, if it is, by my code, the other person's turn to speak, and they aren't speaking, I believe that I haven't done a good enough job of 'inviting' them, by 'sweeping the ice' or moving about -- verbally -- to show I'm ready to pass and receive the puck. If the other person appears not to have found their words, I may continue speaking in order to 'invite' them to join in. The more the other person is reticent, the more I speak to encourage them to speak, too. The only exception is when someone seems to be really concentrating and trying to formulate a thought -- in which case they usually say, "give me a minute to think," or something of that nature. There is no inherent assumption that silences should occur between moments of speech.

There are a few different terms for what I'm calling a "hockey" or "curling" style of conversing. 'High-cooperative-involvement speech' or 'interleaving' speech are two useful ones. (My friend Shane, a Tennis-turn-taking speaker from the Canadian Prairies who married into a rapid-fire talk-together Montreal Parsi family, sent me this useful link he found that describes this style of speaking while listening as a highly developed skill: - thanks Shane!)

The interleaving style may sound confusing and chaotic to outsiders, but it's not actually a free-for-all where everybody just talks at once with no regard for rules. It's actually more like an intricate dance with elaborate rules for appropriate participation that participants usually understand implicitly.

In a really good interleaving conversation, a hierarchy sequence of topics is generated, in which speakers keep track together of the priority order, building down into subtopics together and then back up to the original topics, in an elaborate chain of thoughts like nested boxes. 

This style develops a rather elaborate set of skills at speaking and listening simultaneously, and remembering the order hierarchy of nested topics so as to return politely to higher-order topics after completing each digression, while adapting and nuancing each of the levels in a creative response to the nested layers' insights. 

An interruption occurs when a participant fails to respect the hierarchy in which ideas were introduced, fails to cede the floor to an interleaver when a latch is presented, or fails to respect dialogue coherence - for instance, by sticking to their singular subject in an act of solo speech-making, or simply returning to it after a digression, rather than interleaving and adapting their ideas with those of others presented in the chain. 

Have you seen Inception? It's as though a good interleaving conversation follows topics down a chain of thought, and then back up again, each participant contributing small pieces at a time that continually adapt as they respond to the subcontexts that speakes introduce. This requires shorter turns, because speakers are not offering singular speechmaking turns and then waiting impatiently to take the floor again and be heard, but are instead listening to one another continuously as they generate ideas that collaborate at the level of language itself.

All of these skills - remembering several layers of ideas to hold on to the order of digressions, speaking while listening - become better with practice and weaken with disuse. However, learning to recognize the 'latch,' learning how to participate in an interleaving conversation, learning what consitutes an interruption and what constitutes a shared contribution, may be culturally determined. Certainly, however, sitting quietly and waiting for someone to finish is not a sign of politeness, as it fails to respect any of the conversational practices interleaving speakers expect. Silence, as much as speaking over someone about an unrelated topic without listening or responding to their offer of collaboration, or refusing to respect the hierarchy of topics, shows disinterest, or even self-absorption. If I tell you a story about myself, and you don't return with 'I've had the same experience!' so that we can reflect together on what we've learned from our shared experiences, then you're showing that you don't understand or care. 

Of course, I've learned enough to know that this is just my *reading* of that silent, waiting behaviour, and not actually how people from Anglo-Canadian culture mean it. Nonetheless, every conversation with someone who is accustomed to the tennis-rules for speech feels painful and frightening to me, as though I am speaking to someone who doesn't want to speak with me, imposing on them, or as though I'm obliged to continue inviting them into a game that gets more and more uncomfortable for both of us as neither of our codes are respected. There's no really comfortable solution. 

When the hockey-game or curling-game that I was raised to play is misread as the tennis-game that is foreign to me, my natural speech patterns are misread as 'rude'. This reading is a genuine form of prejudice: an inability to recognize that we're just playing two different games with two different sets of rules.

In some cases people's reactions are intense and can be frightening. Due to this kind of unexamined prejudice, people's responses to my attempts at friendly politeness can include bizarre reactions such as: 'freeze up and glare,' 'scream insults,' or 'run away shaking.' Since these reactions are largely outside my control, I have learned to put them in the place they belong: not about me.  If I'm given a specific request to adapt my speech patterns to make a friend or co-worker more comfortable, I'm happy to do my best to meet that person's needs and make our relationship smoother, so long as there is recognition that I'm choosing to make an accomodation and that neither of our ways of being are the 'only right way'.  I can't pre-emptively change or compress my basic shape to avoid prejudice.

However, since I live in English Canada, and do want to be polite, I have learned to mask my natural speech patterns in certain settings so as not to make people raised in the 'tennis' style uncomfortable. This takes constant awareness when in conversations with people from Anglo-Canadian culture/s. It is an active process i have chosen to learn how to carry out, that is often invisible, managed silently and hidden to others. However, something as basic as the speech patterns you are raised with is difficult to change. I can't always do it, and even when I do, I don't always get it quite right, since it's adopting a speech pattern that is significantly different than the one that comes naturally to me. Regardless of my conscious effort to adapt to the dominant culture's rules of play, on a basic cognitive level, I rely on the quick changes, verbal agreement-and-disagreement with my speech, and half-finished shared bits of conversation, to carry the thought through to fruition and know that we're both interested, that we understand one another and care about each other.  I can fake it the way a British actor might learn to 'fake' an American accent, but I'm always managing actively when I choose to adapt in this way, and as soon as my guard is down or I relax, the effort can become next to impossible.

The thing is, while adapting to make others more comfortable is a valuable life skill, I also hope that friends and colleagues might be willing to adapt with me, to meet me --  and others who are Canadian, but were not raised in Anglo-Canadian culture -- halfway.

There's no straightforward 'reversal of roles' available; we're not speaking from equal social positions, so it doesn't become possible to impose the belief that someone from the mainstream culture is 'rude' when we use different codes. Coming from a large immigrant family that spoke five languages at home, and living as a bilingual Anglophone in Montreal, I had a fascination for linguistic diversity as early as i can remember. However, even if I didn't have this awareness of sociolinguistic difference from a young age, even if I didn't already value, recognize, and respect linguistic difference, I would not have the option to be ignorant of Anglo-Canadian culture's norms. Since I left Montreal,  I have lived in a dominant culture that is ubiquitous all day every day, and doesn't notice itself.

When we encounter one another, if you judge me by assuming that the Tennis game is the only available game, the result -- initially -- is that I internalize the sense of myself as innapropriate, too big, too loud. I take away a strange half-conscious self-hate that I could never impose on you, even if I wanted to (which, of course, I don't).

Even if you, as someone from Anglo-Canadian culture, were to immerse yourself in a small protected setting in which my habits are the norm, I wouldn't have the option to situate you as 'rude.' Quite the opposite, in fact: one person from the 'normative' culture can silence and shame an entire room full of people just by their presence and assumptions, coming as they do with the weight of normative culture behind them. Even if you came to stay with my family, and were immersed in this linguistic practice for a time, you would still view yourself as 'normal' and my family as 'different'.

There is no available imaginary 'reversal' of our roles in which you come to see my practices as 'normal' and yours as 'innapropriate' so long as your culture continues to be the 'white noise' of everyday life, a rushing river that unthinkingly smooths all of us into conformity. There is no space in Anglophone Canada in which I could ever safely be ignorant of my difference from the dominant culture's norms, in the way that the dominant culture can be ignorant of my norms. 

So that's one little piece. Articulating linguistic practices is my hobby this week.  If you've read this far, i'd be happy to hear what you think -- and I promise to sweep the ice ahead of you, out loud, while I listen.

 * * * * * * * * *


Quotes and further reading:

"You can try to change your conversational style, as some New Yorkers have tried to change their accents—and probably with a similarly patched-up effect. You can teach yourself to count to three after you think someone else has finished talking. This may work sometimes, although it may give you a belabored look when you’re counting. But can you change your sense of irony, of the way to tell a story—even if you sit on your hands?

I don’t know. But in any case, don’t feel guilty when you’re accused of interrupting. In fact, you can complain, “Don’t just sit there—interrupt me!” - from

New York Jewspeak!  interruption = interest, silence = lack of engagement:


excerpt from Training for Change:

Mainstream Coercion

So why don't I do ground rules in all my workshops? Because of the stipulation I mentioned before, "If ground rules are not coerced, then they are empowering." The reality: ground rules tend to be created by the mainstream of the group, who are clueless in their coerciveness.

Take, for example, "no interruptions" as a ground rule. It explicitly privileges one communication style over another. In this case the mainstream believes interruptions reduce effective communication because people cannot make their points when they are cut off – a belief more associated with white, middle-class, and professional cultures.

African-American cultures and other cultures that may be marginalized have different styles of communication and view interruptions differently -- they can be part of keeping the pace of conversation moving. It's still rude to cut off someone if they have not been able to make a single point, but even more rude to hog the floor making multiple and even unrelated points (as white people do all the time). But “interrupting” allows people to handle a conversation point-by- point, keeping a flow of a conversation.


And yes, these WASP norms -  with all their incumbent assumptions about the meaning of a speech act, can be situated as 'universal etiquette' - take for example this post about how to avoid conversational narcissism. - it automatically assumes that speaking about oneself could have only one meaning, and that people speak in order to 'take the floor' - an assumption that only makes sense in non-interleaving speech. If you are using the rules of interleaving speech, then people speak in order to encourage others to keep speaking, or to add a nuance to the nested boxes layering of conversation, or to show empathy and similarity to the other speaker in order to show they are listening, or for a number of other reasons. If you just wait until the other person is 'done their story,' in interleaving speech, you're *creating* an awkward focus on only one person, when that person may be attempting to return the subject to you by sharing their experience. I've had these conversations with people who just keep asking me questions instead of sharing their own story - they are exhausting and feel tense. If you want to show you care, don't keep attacking with questions! Instead, tell me how your life is similar to mine. 



A related idea:

ask vs guess culture