Thursday, December 17, 2009


The Collateral Damage Of Everyday Conversation

Within academia there is a punishment/reward structure that heavily favours a language register that can be generalised in two ways: firstly, emphasis on the precise use of specialised lexis and labels (often of Latin/Greek origin, an historical hangover from the relationship between learning and the clergy); in other words lots of long words, which in turn has triggered a certain inverted snobbery from non-academics. And secondly, the language of detail is preferred to that of feelings and emotions.

This goes some way to explaining why so many lecturers, teachers, and postgraduates evolve programmed into such crashing bores. That said, it's pretty obvious when we are bored with someone: perhaps you lean your head on your hands, perhaps an impatient check of the watch or mobile phone, or perhaps a tactfully stifled yawn. My god, is that the time?

However, what is loosely, but not inaccurately, termed as the 'chemistry' between people is mostly happening imperceptibly - both in terms of the responses, and the specific triggers for such responses. For example, the arbitrary angles we might approach a person we wish to communicate with is a factor that we rarely consider, and yet, critically, a frontal 45 degree approach angle is experienced by the other party as friendly, whereas one from directly in front as hostile; or worse still from the side or behind. What if you passed or failed that job interview based on that fact alone? And without being aware of such a factor, it's easy to see how superstitious explanations for the outcomes of personal interaction predominate.

Academic overemphasis on content language is as ironic as it's misguided: it's from having an acuter awareness of the tiny, oft-ignored words, and the simple patterns to which they belong, that offer far more rhetorical expressiveness and control of desired responses, and therefore chemistry. When we like or dislike somebody, we may have all sorts of superstitious 'I think...' beliefs about what we like or dislike, but they are far more likely to be rationalisations for unconscious biological and chemical responses.

Some of the effects of language usage have been touched on in previous postings (cf. SIGNFICANCES, METASIGNIFICANCES). One of whose number which seems to exist in most languages is the extraordinarily common 'yes, but...' conversational pattern (variants being 'I agree (with you), but....', 'that's true, but....', and so on). This, invisibly, causes enormous collateral damage to rapport owing to its deadly subtext of 'what I'm about to say is more important than what you've said' - in fact, amazingly, outright disagreement causes less collateral damage than this murky use of 'but'. The negative effect can easily be repaired by substituting the word 'but' with 'and', the subtext then being one of friendly corroboration - even when going on to disagree with the original statement in otherwise exactly the same way.

This is a simple example of how the use of two tiny words in a language pattern can have, psycholinguistically speaking, contrasting polar responses of critical importance. Simple, but not easy. Schools and universities might reward your deployment of all kinds of polysyllabic goodliness and convoluted subordinate clauses within the discussion of various hypotheses, but thanks to an historically ingrained institutional ignorance, you won't find out about the really good stuff like 'and'. There's so much more to learn.

DIETROLOGY : The Nature Of Facebook/Twitter Updates
(text coming soon)

DIETROLOGY : What Are Movie Credits For?
(text coming soon)



Thomas Bey William Bailey said...
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Alan.. said...

Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld recently did a very funny bit on the phrase "Having said that..." that you might find entertaining

Mark said...

Great post. If you use "but" after someone makes a statement, it's as though you are pointing out something which the other person was too stupid to understand in the first place.

Wendell said...

"However, what is loosely, but not inaccurately, termed as the 'chemistry' between people is mostly happening imperceptibly - both in terms of the responses, and the specific triggers for such responses."

Yes! There are those who are eager to chalk "chemistry" up to superstitious notions of "aura," "energy," and even the body and brains' electrical fields. In doing they so discount how incredibly social humans are, which includes just how much of our brains are devoted to "non-verbal"/body language and cues, as well as what you've been exploring with your meta-/significances posts.

Wenicke's and Broca's areas of the left hemisphere of the brain are for language comprehension and analysis, in collaboration with much of the temporal lobe's coordination of auditory information. These same areas on the right hemisphere of the brain deal with the affective aspects of language, both for expressing emotional content to others and receiving it. The lesson being that we have just as much brain real estate devoted to what academia has been focusing on as what they have been leaving out. Because we live to such a degree in our left brains, we don't consciously perceive much--if not most--of what our right brains' communication areas are up to.