Conversations with Enkerli

by CarlD

On this and Enkerli’s blog a conversation about conversation has been developing. Conversation (thanks, Enkerli, for that link) is one of the things Enkerli is expert at, along with coffee, beer, and moving. I realize for many people this sort of “meta” analysis is a dead snooze, but not me! I never met a nalysis I didn’t like.

Enkerli has this really profound and admirable way of appreciating and teasing all at once. I dig it. He appreciates and teases me for speaking directly. Egad! Enkerli himself never fails to say what he wants to say, but his style is more gentle and diplomatic. I just can’t recommend his blog enough, not just for what he says, but for how he says it.

OK, I’m hoping I’ve reeled my friend Enkerli in for a more direct conversation about conversation here. Hey, Enkerli, here’s a case study for you. I wonder if you’ll tell me what you make of it? (Others who may be lurking, please feel free to join our conversation.)

My wife Rachel and I are both, more or less directly, from the northeastern U.S. We now live in the southeastern U.S., in the vicinity of Raleigh NC, where we have discovered that we are conversational barbarians.

Neither of us care to talk when we have nothing in particular to say. When we do, we both think it’s important, polite even, to plainly and directly say what we think. We take this to be an ethic about the content of conversation, and also a compliment to the general functionality of our partners in conversation.

We are aware that tender feelings may be hurt by directness. We ourselves have tender feelings and they are frequently bruised by the utterances of others. Our view is that this is our problem, not theirs. We think it’s our job to manage our own feelings, it’s other people’s job to manage theirs, and in the meantime the contents of conversations should be plain, direct and substantive. We’d rather know if our butts look fat in these jeans, and we’re not going to ask if we can’t handle the real answer. We bond pleasantly with people who share this conversational style; for example, we are well matched with each other.

Here in the South there are just a whole raft of things wrong with what I just said. In this culture content is important, but conversation’s function as a ritual of sociability is much more highly developed. Lots of talk with no overt content whatsoever happens here — its entire purpose seems to be to convey, without ever saying this, the message “I see you, I know you” (I refer to these, insensitively, as ‘butt-sniffing’ conversations).

Endless circumlocutions are used (including a lot of passive voice) to avoid giving any sort of direct offense to tender feelings. This seems nice, and it often really is. Yet, a fascinating thing is that offenses are being delivered, but it’s all subtly targeted and done under the cover of splendid courtesy and solicitude. It seems to me that as a result, Southerners intend all of their insults (and feel them all the more keenly), whereas Rachel and I just blunder into them (and cut others a lot of slack). I mean, if I want to tell you something you said is dumb I tell you “That’s dumb.” I don’t mean anything personal there — that sentence would be “You’re dumb.” If a Southerner wants to deliver the same message, ambiguous in the noted variants, he may say something like “What a fascinating way to think! I’ve hardly seen anything like it. You remind me so much of my sweet cousin Cletus.”

I know much better than to think one or the other of these conversational styles is ‘better’; or rather, I think they’re each probably ‘better’ for different purposes. I actually know how to perform ‘Southern’, although I’m far from expert. But it’s exhausting for me, and therefore I’m honestly baffled about what’s supposed to happen when these or other styles come into contact with each other. Enkerli, any thoughts? Or is this/am I just dumb?

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8 Responses to “Conversations with Enkerli”

  1. Ok, I’ll bite. But you didn’t have to lay it so thick! 😉
    What you are describing does appear to relate to conversational styles. While a lot of conversation analysis has focused on turn-taking and such, people like Robin Lakoff, Deborah Tannen, or George Lakoff might be interested in discussing some of those issues, including in contexts of social politics. In the ethnography of communication (e.g. Dell Hymes), people do talk about these “styles” and what they achieve. But the analysis does tend to be more particularistic (how does diverse “conversational styles” work within the same group?).
    One connection I like is with people who follow Jakobson’s seminal work on the functions of verbal communication. What you describe (and what some people describe as “smalltalk”) emphasize the “phatic” function of communication (as described by Malinowski). Back-channel (“uh-uh, yeah, right”) does the same thing. So do a number of things we do verbally and paralinguistically. This function is often associated with politeness and Brown and Levinson would be a good source on this dimension.
    Personally, though, I prefer to talk about “language ideology.” Kathryn Woolard and Bambi Schieffelin have written a dense but useful review article on just this subject. My own definition, especially when I blog, is more evasive. I’m talking all at the same time about perspectives on the use of linguistic communication to achieve certain things as well as opinions about the relative values of diverse language varieties. Sometimes, I even make pretty direct connections with language identity.
    In your case, I would say that your attitude on verbal communication is typical of mainstream North American English-speaking language ideology. Especially from Northeastern academics. Following Grice’s maxims to a ‘t’. Perhaps even assuming that the role of language is to “transmit information” (which I call the “football theory” because information is like a football thrown from sender to receiver). People like Judith Irvine, who did work in Senegal, has a perspective on this which I find more compatible with mine. Not only is it about context-appropriate methods (obviously), but there’s an issue about the very way people conceive of language-based communication.
    I told you (and others) about this whole configuration I have in mind which clumsily brings together Industrial Revolution, post-Weberian Protestantism, and all sorts of topics for “Western Civ.” The notion of language as transmitting information as efficiently as possible is certainly involved in the same configuration. And it’s quite an Anglophone thing. Clearly not French. Or even Italian, AFAICT.
    So, going back to the U.S. Southeast. One issue is that the Northeastern academics hold something of an intellectual standard for the country as a whole, in these respects. Another is that historically rural areas tend to emphasize community bonds, which often implies this kind of “smalltalk” you seem to still be having something of a culture shock about.
    Anyhoo… Gotta go for now. Thanks for the bait. But don’t feel the need to do it again.

  2. I like the ‘football theory’.

    One time in class (about 25 students) I brought a big ball of twine. We sat in a circle as usual. I held a string end and asked a question, then threw the ball to a student to get an answer. I shut up until another student said something, then prompted for the ball to be thrown to them. Got the ball back for another question, and so on. After a bit, students began to encourage others who had never said anything to speak, ask or answer so that the string pattern could get balanced. It was fun and illuminating but a bitch to clean up. Seemed a little ‘gimmicky’ but it’s an image I keep in mind as I watch conversational dynamics.

    There’s an instance where the ‘content’ of the utterance was not the point, even though we were in a sense ‘playing football’ and there was formally a topic for the conversation. Is that any part of what you mean?

  3. @Carl I enjoy the fact that you seem as weary as I am of teaching gimmicks. But it’s also nice when they work.
    Reminds me of “Quick Hits.” A guide for tips and tricks prepared by IU’s FACET. What’s nice is that they don’t force you to adopt any of the gimmicks. They just inspire you.
    As far as what I meant… Different groups, different people react differently on different occasions as to the importace of “content” and “import.” The twine ball game was about conversational strategies and content wasn’t the only thing.
    I keep thinking about Jakobson’s point about the different features being non-exclusive and present in different ways all the time. Referential (content), metalinguistic (“what does it mean?”), phatic (channel/contact), poetic (form, repetition), emotive (expression), conative (influence)

  4. Your comments here got me thinking about something that happened at one point to me, returning as an adult to a town a Texas I had lived when I was very young. I was visiting a family with which I stayed for a time – a family that, as it turned out, had eventually adopted another young girl when I had gone on to live with someone else.

    At a dinner party that was organised for me to see some of the people who had known me as a child, this adopted daughter – who was around my age – started asking me a series of questions – quite straightforward, nothing I minded answering: what do you study? what’s that about?, etc. I had no trouble answering these questions, but the part of me that still vaguely remembered conversational dynamics in this community knew that something was amiss: that the “proper”, respectful way to get this information between two people on equal standing, wasn’t to ask so directly, but rather to volunteer a similar sort of information about oneself, and wait to see whether the other person ratified that sort of exchange by reciprocating.

    So I’m answering – because of course I had no real problem answering – but I’m also aware that, in local terms, this isn’t very polite. And as the questions continued, the room was growing quieter around us – other conversations were dying out – our Q&A session was, in effect, becoming a “scene”. The girl’s poor mother finally couldn’t stand it any more, and burst out with, “Where are your manners!” 😉

    I’ve never been sure whether this conversational convention was normal even in a regional sense – whether this was a community (or even a particular family) issue. But I do remember that when I moved from the south to attend university in the midwest, I had to retain myself to be much more blunt and direct, and get over the sense that this was a rude thing to do. 🙂 Then, when I moved from the US to Melbourne, I had to retrain myself again – when I first got here, I could (from my point of view) fidget slightly, and whole rooms would fall silent… 😉 My whole body posture drew too much attention… 😉

  5. Hi, NP! It’s great to see you here.

    Thanks for these terrific stories to enrich this thread. The one about body posture reminds me of experiences I’ve had as an adult in Italy. I lived there as a kid and speak Italian near-natively when I’m in practice. Nevertheless, on several occasions I’ve opened a conversation in Italian with someone new only to have them answer me in that funny pidgin middle-school English most Italians have. Eventually I’ve had to point out to them that I’m speaking in Italian and happy to continue doing so!

    One possibility is that they’re politely giving me the gift of ‘my’ language. But these events have been in touristy contexts and I know from living there that tourism workers quickly lose the inclination to give anything ‘extra’. This also begs the bigger question of why they would answer in English specifically.

    Based on my strong impression of the person in each of these cases coming gradually out of a fog about what they’re actually dealing with in me, my hypothesis is that they did not hear me speak to them in Italian. My visual appearance, posture and mannerisms overrode the auditory evidence in a specifically U.S.A.merican way (genotypically I could just as easily be German, French, Danish, northern Italian) and they responded to that stimulus preconsciously. There’s a way we take up space, for one thing. It must have been a nice little moment of linguistic metacompetence while they were understanding this big dumb Yank’s babblings so easily….

    Picking up on the dinner party, I actually have an odd tic about personal questioning. I grew up among people, including some of the women in my family, who expressed their love in the form of games of 20 questions. The interrogations were always a little awkward for someone as up in his own head as I am, but they were clearly affectionate and well-meaning so I did my best. The tricky part came as it gradually dawned on me that the intelligence being gathered without agenda was later being deployed to create elaborate simulated Carls against whom I would be compared and found disappointingly dissonant — leading to another game of 20 questions. All very affectionately. We like to have things figured out in my family, including each other.

    Being questioned about myself still gives me the shivers as I wait for the judgment shoe to drop, and I can get pretty monosyllabic, but I do my best. I wonder how much of my declarative style and reluctance to adopt a more collegially question-oriented practice is rooted here, as preemption (and projection). Obviously that’s all gendered, but the power dynamics and emotional feedbacks are quite complex. More Chodorow/Foucault than MacKinnon/Lukacs.

  6. I note in the paper today that “Mind your body” is #11 on JHU professor Pier Massimo Forni’s list of 25 rules of civility. “Avoid personal questions” is #18.

  7. When I first saw the title to your other post popping up in my incoming links list, I thought the post was going to be about this discussion of body posture… 😉 I have to admit, I’ve still not managed to shake the sense that it’s rude of me to ask someone a direct question about a personal issue – that habit of “asking” by means of volunteering information, and leaving things to someone else to reciprocate, seems to have persisted. I’ve been curious, since I’ve now adjusted to a comportment that blends in better locally (without, to be honest, being fully aware of what this even means – I just know that I no longer tend to attract attention unless I am actually doing something to seek it), what would happen if I were to return to the US – what sorts of comportments I would need to “recapture” there…

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