Thursday, 9 June 2011

No, I didn't mean it like that, honestly!

So, you think that language and talking and understanding what people are saying is simple?


Every time you open your mouth (or put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard) you are constructing what you want to mean, and entering into negotiation with the person listening to you or reading what you write. 

Mel for some reason I am thinking of you as I write this... haha!

Take a conversation.  The meaning of what is said is not merely a neutral interpretation of the words and sentences, taking into account context etc.  Oh no, the meaning is all about what the speaker wants to achieve from the conversation. Their goals, purposes, underlying intentions and other underhand-sounding ulterior motives.  These will vary depending on the other party(s) in the conversation, what you know about them, what you know they know about you, the context, the expectations, and the history of your relationship.

Obviously, for those on the receiving end the same applies, which can and does end up with 'what was meant' being contested.  "Just because I said 'are you ready to go out?' doesn't mean that I don't like your dress." or "I don't like the tone of voice of this e-mail!" when you and the writer are interpreting the same words in completely different ways, depending on your individual goals.

It is argued that the whole point of language is achieve a goal.  For instance relaying information, receiving information, giving a good impression of yourself, finding out about other people to decide whether you want to be friends, or sounding people out for business. Or just making small talk, the aim of which is to pass the time as quickly as possible.

Garfinkel (great name) looked at groups of people (or whole cultures) and how they arranged things to make life run smoothly.  He found that groups created their own 'Code' which consists of unwritten but understood rules about roles and conduct within the group which define the boundaries of behaviour.  I have not managed to infiltrate a group of teenagers (I think they'd be suspicious!) but I have no doubt that such 'Codes' exist amongst them. "No way! I can't believe so-and-so did that!" - whoever it was went against the unspoken rules.

As far as we individuals are concerned, we use language for our own devices.  We portray things (and ourselves) as we wish to be portrayed, we tailor what we say and write to achieve the ends we want.  We give our own particular version of events which suits our own goals.  That's not to say we aren't telling the truth, but there are lots of ways to say the same thing.

We also use language to create the identity which suits us best at the time, and which might serve a specific purpose. Each of us has many different identities or 'subject positions', which we create by comparing ourselves to popular descriptions. For instance we might think "I am a Caring Friend". But one person's idea what qualities a caring friend has will differ from another's, so we can pick out the one that fits us best, and pat ourselves on the back.  We keep all these available subject positions in a handy folder called our interpretative repertoire, from which we pick the most appropriate one for the situation.

If all this sounds very negative don't worry, we all do it, mostly without thinking, all the time.  The fact that we change the way we talk and vocabulary we use depending whether it is our mother or our best friend.  That we try and think of the best way to put something (even when writing a blog) so that we come across as the person we want to be today.

However, it's probably not particularly conducive to friendly relationships if every time you are talking to somebody, you look at them suspiciously wondering what their particular angle is....


  1. This intrigues me when I am trying to communicate in another language and often don't fully understand what 'they' are saying. I have all my 'I'm a nice person' signs out, I wonder if that's enough. Hope so.

  2. Rosie, it must even more treacherous in a different language!


  3. *laughing*

    THIS doesn't (and didn't) surprise me.

    What surprises me is just yesterday I managed a bit of a wander on the keyboards and came up with a similar conclusion. It was a bit more crude--but the bottom line, in all or our humanness, it all comes back to 'what's in it for me'.

    Well--that was my tangent anyway....LOL I did not hit publish....yet... I was searching for the appropriate photo to accompany it.

    <-- knows it's all about MEMEME *laughing!!*

    Stop making me think, dangit.


    (actually, I'm quite enjoying the series--carry on!!)

    <-- really laughing now!!

  4. Mel, what a coincidence! I confess I don't find time for blog-surfing at the moment, so drop me a tip when you publish and I'll take a look :-)

    Sorry about the thinking heheheh.



  5. I am loving the insight on this one too! You are one smart cookie! You're making me THINK!! :D


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