August 24th, 2006

ozarque figure

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

In the previous post on this topic I said:
"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." And several of you then asked me to explain what it means to say that punitive silences should never be allowed to work.

There's one exception to this statement; let's get it out of the way first. The exception is when the person who's trying to start the conversation is at fault and would agree that the punitive silence is fully justified. Suppose you and a friend have fought bitterly a half dozen times over some issue of religion or politics, to the point where the fights are becoming a threat to your friendship. Suppose you've therefore agreed to disagree, and have also agreed that neither one of you will bring up that issue again when you're together -- but you've forgotten that and have tried to start a conversation about it again. In a case like that, you'd both understand the significance of the punitive silence, and your appropriate utterance would be something like "I'm sorry; I completely forgot that we weren't going to talk about that any more," followed by an immediate change of subject.

Except in a situation like that, punitive silences -- like any other verbal attack -- should never be allowed to work. There are two basic strategies for achieving that goal.

1: Don't follow any of the scripts that the attacker is expecting you to follow. Those scripts would have you doing things like arguing about the silence, or pleading for an explanation of the silence. Here's a pleading example:

Pat: "Where do you want to go for dinner?"
Pat: "Oh, come on... DON'T be like that!"
Pat: "You're not going to talk to me."
Pat: "Lee ... what did I DO? What are you MAD about? Lee ... PLEASE talk to me!"
[And so on, and so on.]

Pat's behavior in the dialogue is standard Placating, and downhill is the only direction it can possibly lead.

2: Don't reward the attacker with any of the emotional goodies that he/she is lusting after. If it becomes obvious -- from either your words or your nonverbal communication -- that the silence is making you angry or disgusted or frustrated or frantic, or is causing you pain, that rewards the attacker and encourages him/her to use the silent treatment on you again. If it always works, it trains the attacker to make that language behavior chronic, because the emotional goodies obtained that way are so lucious and so reliably available.

My general impression -- backed by no formal evidence, just observation -- is that few verbal attackers who are native speakers of MAE are capable of using silence effectively as an attack. The tolerance for silence in most dialects of MAE is so limited, and the temptation to say hostile things instead of maintaining silence is so strong, that the choice of silence as a verbal weapon is rare. And that's a good thing. Because, in MAE, punitive silence used by someone who has sufficient self-discipline to do it expertly is one of the cruelest forms of hostile language.