August 17th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; pragmatics; silence; part three...

Looking at my file of your comments in this discussion, I can see some patterns that appear to me to be emerging principles. It's very complicated, and I don't see any way to discuss it coherently other than in small pieces. I'm going to try, and you can set me straight when I get it wrong.

So far, we've been discussing only the first of the four silence scenarios: When someone who has been engaged in a dialogue suddenly stops talking and refuses to continue. [With the understanding that the two people in the interaction know one another and are of essentially equal rank, and the conversation is a social one.]

The tendency in native speakers of Mainstream American English is to assume that a silence of that kind is intended to be punitive. However, many of your comments quickly launched a principle that seems to me to be an extension or variation of Miller's Law. [Miller's Law: "In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of."] I don't know how to word that one yet; very roughly it might go something like this: "In order to understand what another person is saying when their entire utterance is a silence, you must assume that it's not punitive and try to figure out what's causing the silence." That is, instead of leaping to the conclusion that the silence is punitive and/or hostile, assume that there's a valid reason for it and use your native-speaker skills to find out whether your assumption is correct. Which leads to another emerging principle....

The way you go about this is by paying very close attention to the nonverbal communication -- the body language -- that goes with the silence. It's clear from your comments that you have in your internal grammars an inventory of bodyparl units that go with a punitive silence, and an inventory of bodyparl units that go with a silence that means "Hang on a minute while I think about that" and another inventory that goes with a silence that means "I'm so angry that I don't want to answer until I've had a chance to calm down" and so on through a variety of situations. I know you have these inventories in your heads because you've made lists of their contents in your comments.

I also know, from your comments, that there are native speakers of MAE who have a very hard time recognizing and understanding bodyparl units, and perhaps have a hard time producing them as well. Which means one of two things: (a) some or all of that information about body language is literally missing from their internal grammars; or (b) the information is in their internal grammars but for some reason they have no access to it. Either of those situations is going to cause problems for them in dealing with silences of this kind.

Another emerging principle is that people who are regularly engaged in social conversation with one another (spouses, partners, close friends, colleagues at work, and so on) need to establish what I've been calling "silence protocols" -- advance arrangements about what silences of this kind are likely to mean and how they should best be handled. You've described a number of those arrangements, and they seem to me to be very sensible.

There's one in effect in my marriage that will serve as an example. George knows that if we're talking and I suddenly refuse to answer something he's said, it almost always means he's made me so angry that I don't trust myself to go on with the conversation. He can verify that that's what's going on by my body language easily; when it happens, I look angry, and there's nothing subtle about it. He also knows that if he gives me a minute or two I'll get over being angry and be willing to talk again, and that my opening utterance in that new phase of the conversation will almost certainly start with "Now that I've counted to ten....." We've been married more than forty years; the protocol is well established. I regret the fact that I get so angry; I'm grateful for the fact that it doesn't last.

The next silence scenario in our set of four is this one: 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. [Again, we're assuming that the two people know each other and are of equal rank and that the situation is social.] This one strikes me as being quite different. It seems to me that unless there is a genuine crisis of some kind that makes it impossible for the person spoken to to respond, there's no valid reason not to say something like "I'm sorry; I can't talk right now" or "I'm sorry, I don't feel like talking right now" or "I can't think about that right now; I'm sorry" -- instead of maintaining a silence. [In some of your dialects there won't be any apology; I'm aware of that. In mine, there always would be. That's an unsurprising dialect difference in pragmatics.] If there really is a crisis interfering with speech, that's something else again; otherwise, I'm not able to devise a non-science-fiction scenario that would make such a silence anything other than punitive. If you are able to, please post it; I'll be interested.


Lee: "Do you want to eat at home tonight or would you rather eat out?"
Pat: [Silence]

Lee: "I don't think there's any chance that the Democrats will take back either the House or the Senate."
Pat: [Silence]

Now what?
ozarque figure

Linguistics; pragmatics; hedges; guest post...

I'm pleased that koimistress has agreed to let me use the excellent comment below as a guest post. I know that some of you (understandably) don't read all the comments; I wanted to be sure you saw this one.

From koimistress:

Off on a tangent here. I've personally found hedges annoying, but only when they're of the "I realize this may offend you" variety. Because, yes, the follow-up seems to be, but obviously I don't care, since I'm going to do it anyway.

The stupid question hedge, however, is actually a big part of my work environment, and no one finds it offensive. I work in a field where everyone's called on to be constantly creative, and that means there's a lot of brainstorming and people throwing in ideas out of left field. The trouble with out-of-the-box ideas is that some of them are brilliant and some are just really awful. And the person offering the idea is usually the last to know. I can't count the number of times I've heard, "Okay, this would never work, but what if..." and everyone cries, "That's amazing!" Or sometimes: "That would be amazing if we could only do X." and someone else says, "But wait, we can do X..." And we're all thrilled to pieces at the wonderful idea.

But in order for the person to have the courage to speak their idea, the atmosphere has to be welcoming. The group has to understand that a lot of inappropriate, even stupid ideas are going to be heard, and it has to be tolerant of that. I had a co-worker once who said that at the last place she worked they had a term: "The stupid stick." An invisible, ceremonial stick that got passed around the table; if you held it, you had the right to offer any idea you wanted, and nobody could make fun of it. She'd say, "Okay, I'm going to hold the stupid stick for a minute..."

At the same time, people are only human. Despite the tolerant atmosphere, sometimes there is good-natured mockery, and not everyone is okay with being laughed at. And sometimes, as you're feeling that idea grow inside you, you think, "Maybe I should say this out loud. It's kind of out there, though -- probably too crazy, and I don't see how we can implement it. I do see the problems with it, and I don't want my co-workers to think I'm an idiot who's presenting this with utter confidence as our big solution..." And you keep your mouth shut for another ten minutes of group debate, and finally, hesitantly, you say, "Okay, this is stupid, and I know there are reasons it won't work, but what if..."

It's like giving yourself permission to make a fool of yourself (which seems very different from giving yourself permission to offend somebody). There's no doubt it's a hedge, but it's a useful hedge, and I hear it many times a week.