August 15th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; pragmatics; functions of silence; part two...

Thank you for your comments, and for all the interesting accounts of differing "silence protocols" in languages other than English and English dialects other than Ozark English.

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... "

Fair enough. Let's take them up one at a time, starting with #1, providing a hypothetical context and dialogue and setting some limits to make the issue manageable. Let's suppose X and Y -- both of them native speakers of Mainstream American English, and of essentially equal rank -- have been having a conversation (a social one, not a professional one) and suddenly Y, without explanation, stops talking and offers only silence.

Suppose that this is not one of those situations in which the two people already have an established joint protocol that would explain the silence.[As in a prior agreement that "If we're talking and I suddenly refuse to answer you, it means that I'm so angry I don't trust myself to say anything, and it's better for me just to stop talking for a while and take the topic up again at a later time."]

It seems to me that there are then three questions to be answered:

1. Are there any ways that X can tell whether Y's silence is or is not intended to be punitive? What are they?

2. If not, is there any appropriate way for X to find out whether Y's silence is intended to be punitive?

3. How should X deal with Y's silence in each case?

Note that the original comment suggesting this discussion wanted to know how a silence of this kind could be stopped. That's compatible with the standard MAE attitude about an abrupt silence in mid-conversation, which is that it's always undesirable and is always a signal that something has gone wrong. Note also that our preliminary discussion has already established one basic principle:

Don't leap immediately to the conclusion that the abrupt silence is punitive.

Here's a hypothetical dialogue:

Pat: "I don't understand why anybody would pay extra money for 'organic' food. "
Lee: "Maybe because they don't like poisons in their food."
Pat: "What kind of poisons?"
Lee: "Well .... you know. Like pesticides. Pesticides are poisons."
Pat: [Silence -- more than 17 seconds of silence]

So. What should Lee do now? Are there ways Lee can tell -- or find out -- whether Pat's silence is intended to be punitive? If Lee's decision is that the silence is punitive, what is Lee's next move? If Lee's decision is that there's a nonpunitive reason for the silence, what's Lee's next move?

If you're not a native speaker of MAE, your comments are no less valuable; often the reason for a Eureka moment is that someone from outside the boundaries of the problem has provided information that makes it easier for those inside its boundaries to see clearly what's going on.
ozarque figure

Linguistics; pragmatics; functions of silence; part two; afternote...

In response to today's post, indefatigable42 says:
"I don't understand the point of all these head games, where people are supposed to guess what other people are thinking. The only way for Lee to find out for sure is to ask Pat: 'Did I say something that bothered you?' "

That's a strategy, called Leveling. If it works -- if Lee asks Pat that question and Pat answers it and the conversation continues, Pat's silence wasn't intended to be punitive.

If Pat and Lee had been my parents, it wouldn't have worked. My mother would have asked "Did I say something that bothered you?" and my father's response would have been yet another silence. More than 17 seconds of silence.