April 5th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; pragmatics; what a disagreement is about...

Michael Farris commented, quoting this section from my post about problems I've run into when I've tried to collect VAPs from languages other than English:

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Suppose you come home after a long hard day at work, and your wife is sitting in the living room watching television. You're hungry, but there's no sign that she has even thought about fixing dinner. You're hungry, and your kids are hungry, and her behavior makes you angry. In a situation like that, one thing an angry native speaker of English might say is "If you REALLY loved me, you'd have DINNER on the TABLE by now!" In that same situation, could you tell me what you would say to your own wife in your language?"

And the answers I've gotten have been like these: (list of irrelevant responses cut)
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And then he continues with this comment:

"Okay, now I'm confused. The sample you give here concentrates a (hungry) man's anger and frustration at dinner not being ready*. But, I thought that 'If you REALLY loved me, you'd have DINNER on the TABLE by now!' isn't about dinner at all." According to your books, in this sample the part about not having dinner ready is just bait by a verbal bully who wants to involve someone (in this case his wife) in an emotionally draining and humiliating confrontation."


Farris is remembering sections in my books where I've said that if you take the hostile language bait thrown at you and participate in a verbal altercation you may never find out what the hostility is really about. An example I use is the spouse who attacks with "If you REALLY loved me, YOU wouldn't waste MONEY the way you do!" If you take that bait, you're in for a fight about whether you waste money or not, with endless examples of your extravagance coming at you, and you wasting your time and energy defending and justifying those expenditures. That's our cultural script, and it's what that VAP usually leads to. I have suggested that if instead of taking the bait you say, "When did you start thinking I don't really love you?", the response may be something like "When you completely forgot my birthday yesterday, THAT's when!" -- which means that the argument isn't really about "the way you waste money," it's about your failing to remember your spouse's birthday.

In my attempts to establish the context for collecting non-English VAPs above, I have said specifically: "You're hungry, and your kids are hungry, and her behavior [no sign of any dinner preparations] makes you angry." I am doing my best to make clear with my words that the attack that follows in my hypothetical scenario is a direct response to that behavior. The fact that that's not clear to Michael Farris, who is a native speaker of English, demonstrates how inadequate my efforts to make that clear are. Very discouraging.

I could have said something like this in presenting the scenario: "You've had a long hard day at a job you hate, and you're angry. You're angry about having to do that job at all, and you're angry because you believe that if you hadn't married this woman you would have been free to look for work that you could enjoy doing, but now you're tied down to her and you feel that you no longer have any choice but to stay in the job you hate. When you come home and find that she hasn't so much as started dinner, that's the last straw. In a situation like that, an angry native speaker of English might say.... " And so on. In a case like that, the argument would really have been about the man's conviction that his marriage had trapped him in a job he hated, not about the fact that the wife hadn't started fixing dinner. The failure to start dinner would then have been the excuse he grabbed for picking a fight, but the fight would really have been about a different issue.

Often, disagreements aren't about what they appear to be about. Sometimes they're about another issue entirely. Sometimes the entire disagreement, no matter what the surface issue, is about power -- about who is going to be the boss. Sometimes the disagreement isn't about any issue, it's just the result of the attacker's desperate need for attention. It depends on the context, and on the situation.

Often the task of finding out what the argument really is about is the most important thing that people who are disagreeing could do -- but because they're following scripts, they never get around to it.
ozarque figure

Linguistics; pragmatics -- VAPs; brief reminder...

Just for clarity's sake, for those who are proposing examples of VAPs from languages other than English:

All examples of the English Verbal Attack Patterns are hostile utterances, but not all hostile utterances of English are examples of the Verbal Attack Patterns. There are an infinite number of examples of the VAPs, but the patterns themselves are a finite set. There are an infinite number of hostile utterances, but many of them are not examples of the VAPs.

That is: "You're a total CREEP!", with accompanying hostile body language, is certainly a hostile utterance and a verbal attack. However, it's not an example of any of the English Verbal Attack Patterns.

The English VAPs -- the patterns themselves -- are a small set with at least the following identifying characteristics:

1. They contain at least one open attack and at least one attack sheltered in a presupposition.
2. They contain emphatic acoustic stresses on words and parts of words -- stresses that are not required for any purpose except to express hostility.
3. They have a neutral counterpart utterance that's not an attack and does not contain the extra emphatic stresses described in #2.

VAPs in languages other than English may have radically different characteristics as part of their formal description; there's nothing "universal" about the English VAPs, so far as I know. For just one example, in a language that doesn't use acoustic stress to express emotional messages -- Navajo, for example -- the formal description of the VAPs would not include characteristic #2.