August 14th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; pragmatics; functions of silence; Ozark English; part one... afternote

I've created some confusion about our discussion of silence, and I need to try to set that straight...

redbird commented: "In my home culture, or cultures I deal with, some of what you describe as punitive silences might be defensive."

haikujaguar commented:
"I think when coming up with strategies to deal with these kinds of silence that it is necessary to decide whether they are meant as punitive... or if they are pathological defenses, particularly in the case of #1 and #2."

babalon_it commented:
"Okay - I'm confused. Are we only going to look at punitive silences? Cuz, there are the active listening silences that several folks here have mentioned that are different from punitive silence, but also aren't the 'comfortable together' silences. They're conversational silences."

Quite right, all three. I should have made it clear that in the case of my list of silence-types --

1. When someone who has been engaged in a dialogue suddenly stops talking and refuses to continue.

2. When someone refuses to begin a dialogue; for example, when someone refuses to answer a question or respond to another person's utterance and offers only silence.

3. When someone joins a group that is already engaged in conversation, and the conversation stops.

4. When a guest arrives somewhere and the people already there make no effort to start a conversation.

-- I was referring to the fact that the native speaker of Mainstream American English who encounters these four kinds of silence tends to perceive them as punitive. It may well be that the individual who is offering only silence has no punitive intent; it may be that the individual is unaware of the fact that his/her silence will probably be perceived as punitive -- that's possible, although if he/she is also an MAE native speaker I think it's unlikely. Unless the-individual-on-the-receiving-end-of-the-silence [lexical gap there, you perceive] has special information to that effect, however, there's no way for him/her to know that. And in human communication, the only useful meaning an utterance -- even an utterance of zero -- has is the meaning that the listener understands it to have, because that is the meaning the listener will respond to and act upon. Thus, the four types of silences I listed introduce a complication into the conversation.

About whether we're going to look only at punitive silences .... I'm more than willing to look at the other kind. But I don't think we can do both at once. Let's start with the perceived-as-punitive ones, and see how that goes, and then if there's enough interest we can move on to the others, particularly for the very difficult question of how they can be recognized as non-punitive.
ozarque figure

Linguistics; sexism in and out of the workplace; afternote...

Some of you may remember the post I did [at ] where it turned out that I had looked at a communication problem in medicine and had completely missed the point until, quite by accident, some doctors straightened it out for me during a seminar. I'd thought the fact that the male doctors refused to call their female colleagues "doctor" in front of patients was an example of blatant workplace sexism, and I was wrong -- it was an example of blatant workplace ignorance about sexism.

Well, in going through my file of unanswered comments, I've discovered that something similar has happened recently in this journal, and because I've been so horrendously busy I didn't properly notice it -- I saw it go by, but no processing took place. I don't want to create a distraction from our discussion of silence; still, I need to set the record straight on this misunderstanding, in the interest both of clarity and of fairness.

In a post on workplace sexism at, I said:

"I'm going to tie this off with a single typical example of the sort of thing I mentioned at the beginning of this post -- the sort of thing that still hurts. I did get a good tenure-track fulltime teaching job in a linguistics department, almost instantly. I loved my teaching, and my students, and my research opportunities; I hated the academic politicking that went with it, but the pleasure I got from the rest of it more than balanced that out. One of the things I did early on was to develop an Applied Linguistics Certificate Program for my department. I designed it; I did all the paperwork and attended all the committee meetings to get its curriculum approved; I wrote the syllabus for its core course, and shepherded that through the Curriculum Committee to approval, and taught the course; I did all the endless correspondence and to-ing and fro-ing and filling out of forms and so on. And in the publicity materials for the course, and on my c.v., I listed myself as the program's director; no one ever objected, it seemed logical, and that's what I did. Then the day came when I was up for a routine tenure and promotion review -- and my department chairman called me into his office and told me that I couldn't put that title in the documents I was submitting to the review committee. I was stunned, and I asked him the obvious question: 'If I'm not the director of that certificate program, why haven't you said something sooner? Why have you been letting me put that title on all the curriculum materials and publicity materials?' And he said, 'As long as it was all just internal to the department, the faculty was willing to humor you about that, Suzette -- but there's no question of making it official. It wouldn't be appropriate.' "

A number of you posted comments in response to that anecdote expressing sympathy because someone else had been given credit for my work, or my work had been stolen. For example, chipuni commented: "That is grossly unfair. For you to do that work, and for someone else to get credit for it, is unbelievable." I'm grateful for the sympathy; as I said, the chairman's words were sexist and they hurt. But not because someone else was going to get credit for my work.

There was no way anybody else could get credit for what I'd done, because there was a paper trail three feet high. I'd written the proposals and materials, I'd written the syllabus, I'd taught the core course ... all of that was public, and a matter of record. I wasn't worried about someone else getting the credit, and my department chairman wasn't trying to give it to somebody else. I didn't even care, frankly, about whether I had the title of director or not; I realized its importance in terms of getting tenure and/or promotion, but not being called "director" wouldn't have caused me any pain. What hurt me was all in this utterance:

"As long as it was all just internal to the department, the faculty was willing to humor you about that, Suzette -- but there's no question of making it official. It wouldn't be appropriate."

Those words couldn't have been more clear. In American English we "humor" little children, and our pets, and people we perceive as senile or otherwise utterly incompetent; we don't "humor" adults. I knew what the conversation about this over drinks was going to be like, because I'd heard vast amounts of it in other situations. It was going to be "We didn't see any harm in letting her play at being director of the program for a while if that kept her occupied" and "We put off telling her for as long as we possibly could, because she was having such a good time playing director." And a lot of chuckling and snickering and winking and marveling over the fact that I could have been so naive. It was also a way of telling me the following: "Suzette, the fact that you worked so hard and so well doesn't mean you get to be the director of the program; that's not the way the game is played." And of reinforcing for me a principle that I first heard from my dean: "When the big boys are playing, Suzette, you need to stay off the field." And knowing about all this, I still had to go on working with my male colleagues, and socializing with them.

I hope I've cleared up the misunderstanding now; if not, let me know and I'll try again.