August 23rd, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; pragmatics; silence in Mainstream American English speech; part five (final)...

Summing up....

This list seems to me to reflect the consensus reached in our discussion; please let me know if I've left things off the list that ought to be here.

1. It's important to remember that native speakers of Mainstream American English (MAE) tend to perceive a silence of (roughly) 15-20 seconds in a conversation as punitive. This is true at any point in a conversation -- including the point when someone responds to the very first utterance of a conversation with silence.

2. It's important to remember that the silent individual's intention/attitude may not be punitive; until evidence emerges that it's not true, the other person's assumption should always be that a nonpunitive/nonhostile reason for the silence exists.

3. The most important information sources for determining whether or not a silence is punitive are (a) body language, (b) awareness of agreements about silences made in advance between/among the parties involved, and (c) special information from context. These sources may overlap and interact.

4. The rules about silence, as well as the definition of what constitutes a silence, vary widely from one dialect of MAE to another.

5. People whose level of skill in interpreting and/or producing MAE body language is inadequate are especially vulnerable to communication difficulties when silences occur in conversation.

6. Silences in conversation are not trivial; they transmit significant messages just as utterances do.

7. Nonpunitive silences include at least the following types:

** X doesn't answer you because X is thinking about what you've just said and needs a little more time for that.
** X doesn't answer you because X is thinking about what to say in response to what you've just said and needs a little more time for that.
** X doesn't answer you because X is so angry that X feels it would be better not to say anything until some cooling-off time has gone by.
** X doesn't answer you because you've brought up a subject that you had agreed you'd never bring up again.
** X doesn't answer you because X literally cannot think of anything appropriate to say; that is, what you said has shocked X, or deeply hurt X, or totally baffled X, or put X in a bind where all responses seem to be the wrong thing to say.
** X doesn't answer you because X really wants to go on reading a book or playing a videogame or working on a project, or something of that kind. [This may or may not be rude, but it's not intentionally punitive.]
** X doesn't answer you because X is sick, or injured, or in some other sort of serious distress.
** A group meets you with silence because when you arrived the group was in the middle of a conversation they believe you would not enjoy or would not be able to participate in.
** A group meets you with silence because the grammar of their MAE dialect doesn't obligate them to involve a newcomer in a conversation.

8. Punitive silences -- silences actually intended to punish you and/or exclude you -- are verbal attacks, just like an overt insult is a verbal attack.

Not part of the consensus, just a remark of my own:

Non-punitive silences should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, depending on the context and on the relationship between/among the parties. Patience is often needed, because it may take time and effort to straighten them out. Punitive silences, on the other hand, should be dealt with the way any other verbal attack is dealt with: They should never be allowed to work.