Thursday, 10 November 2011

'Language, language, please...!'

A colleague is covering the lectures of another colleague who is recovering from an operation. ‘They’re awful’ he moaned about the students. ‘So confrontational.’ Were they, I asked flippantly, lively young minds, countering the ideas he was presenting with ideas of their own? They were not. In fact they were remonstrating with him for asking too many questions.

‘What you askin us again for, man?’ a group representative asked. ‘We answered last time. Ask vem lot.’

This is not year ten. It’s part of a BA (Hons) Journalism course, an unpopular but compulsory module on discourse analysis. How utterly depressing; the problem should not, surely, be getting students to contribute in a seminar, but deciding when to bring students’ discussions to a close so as to cover all the areas you want to bring to their attention. I’m not sure what aspect of discourse it was hoped would be addressed, but on the train this morning I spun a little fantasy of the session as I might have conducted it myself, prior to getting the sack.

‘What you askin us again for, man? We answered last time. Ask vem lot.’

‘Listen, you little shits, I ask who I bloody well want to bloody ask and if you don’t want to stay, you needn’t. No fucking skin off my nose, piss off.’

At this juncture we might expect a brief silence full of wide eyes. Then:

‘You cart like talk to us like vat, man, yeah?’

‘Why the bleeding hell not, if you’re such frigging lazy cunts?’

‘I’m reportin vis to the…’

‘Bet you don’t know who to report me to, son, you’re that fucking thick…’

‘We do not expeck a lecturah, yeah, a lecturah, right, to fuckin’ address paying stew-durnts in vem terms, in vem fuckin terms, yeah? Vis is not ve proper relationshurp? Vis is not appropriurt?’

‘Appropriate my arse, and don’t you bloody swear at me, darling! Me lecturer, you student, have some respect and keep a fucking civil tongue in your otherwise empty head, or…’

By now the room has become a din of indignant threat and disbelieving laughter, over which I shout:

‘STOP! CUT! Appropriacy! Cultural norms! Content meaning! Relational meaning! Identity meaning! This, folks, is discourse analysis! This interactional sociolinguistics! Anyone want to stay?’

There is a sound like that of a million cockroaches fleeing before the beam of a torch - it is scales falling from eyes, as students return to their seats thinking: ‘like fuck me, man, yeah? Linguistics is like for real after all, innit?’

Yeah, well, as I said, it was only a fantasy, and saving the bad language, far too close to the twaddle that is ‘Dead Poets’ Society’, where the Robin Williams character wows students with his defiance of authority and convention by dint of standing on the desks. It isn’t going to happen. The regular lecturer is back next week, apparently resigned to the ghastly little shits snickering at the scar the operation has left on her face.


The module in intercultural communication that I’m currently teaching by the seat of my pants has equipped me with some new vocabulary and clarified a few concepts, enabling me to come up with an analysis of a trivial incident from about 1995 in which an Athenian neighbour and I parted forever on less than friendly terms. At the time, I thought he was just a miserable git and he probably thought I was a patronising arse, and that is how we left it.

I had moved from my first flat in Pangrati to a grotty basement in Kolonaki, and one day soon after went back to Pangrati to see if there were any letters for me there. The front door of the flats was locked, but across the road the neighbour in question, Evangelos, was just about to climb onto his scooter. I went to ask if he could open the door for me. This he did, without speaking and without turning from me a glare of purest contempt. The silence was ominous. If a Greek is shouting and screaming at you, he's still of the opinion that you are worth his attention, but silence is a sure sign that you have pissed him off. What with that and the psychic death-ray trained on me as we crossed the road, it was clear that I had pissed him off big time and I hadn’t a clue why. Now my Chinese students (whose sympathy lies entirely with him) and I have come up with the following analysis, which we diffidently advance for your consideration.

Steven is from a culture that typically goes for the business of an encounter before the personal relationship, and by and large communicates in a ‘mean what you say and say what you mean’ kind of way – a ‘low-context culture’ is what we have learned to call it in the last couple of weeks. Here is his script:

Content meaning – the facts of what I want to communicate:

I want to check if there are any letters for me. Please open the door.

Relational meaning – how I perceive the relationship between Evangelos and me:

I don’t know you well. You are older than me. I’m delaying you on your way to somewhere, so you will be doing me a favour if you do what I ask.

Identity meaning – how I perceive myself and wish to be perceived:

I’m a foreigner here. I need to be polite. I choose polite Greek to reflect this. Oh, what a good boy am I.

As do many other languages, Greek enshrines social closeness and distance in its pronouns and verb endings, and so you have no choice but to make your perception of the relationship explicit the minute you open your mouth.

Evangelos, meanwhile, is from a culture that favours a ‘high-context’ approach, where relationships are established before business is broached, and greater emphasis is placed on ritual exchanges before getting to the point. We reckoned his script went like this:

Content meaning:

He wants to check if there are any letters. He’s asking me to open the door. (So far, so good.)

Relational meaning:

He’s lived in the same block for five years. I once offered him a whisky when he came to pay the service charges and he played ‘pull the slipper’ with my dog. I helped him rescue his cat from a first floor veranda. He’s talking to me as if we have never met before. What a twat.

Identity meaning:

He’s a bloody foreigner. Figures: English, snobs to a man, think they own the place. He is treating me like a servant. Therefore I shall glare at him, and not speak.

It took a few goes before I got the hang of the 'high context' stuff, and it still does not come easily to me. On another occasion I was sitting in the office of a school I visited periodically, clattering away on the computer to get a seminar together. The school owner's brother-in-law came in and greeted me. Some six months earlier he, the owner and I had been out for dinner and drinks. He said 'hi, Steve!' and I said 'hi!' and went on typing. The brother-in-law, I later heard, had been deeply wounded at my coldness. I was impatient with this, thinking 'who the hell does he think he is, expecting me to be all over him just because we met once before?' But, that's the way they do it. I wanted to get my seminar together, had limited time to do so, and did not want distracting with a torrent of phatic gush. In Greek eyes, this made me a robot. When I returned to England, I arranged to meet a friend in Cambridge whom I had not seen for sixteen years. I entered his office and he said 'oh, hi', as if I had simply nipped out to the corner shop ten minutes earlier. 'Whoa, steady on, man, restrain yourself, why don't you!' I thought, and felt just a little of what Ilias must have felt that day in the school office.


shaz said...

Sometimes you just catch the moment soooo well, I'm left speechless (unusual for me)!
This is a good un!

Vilges Suola said...

Thanks! Indeed,'speechless' is not an adjective I'd readily apply in your case.

Anonymous said...

You probably by now have a good idea of how many times and for how long I have wanted to do exactly this in a class of hideous, vile and hateful teenagers/students/other people. I was did once do a sort of sanitised version and pre-empted the firing by walking out in high dudgeon. Ah remember remember - headmaster grovelling at my feet to make me stay and me sweeping out saying, "Not for all the money in the world - dahling!" Happy days!

Vilges Suola said...

I, on the other hand, have never dared. I did once walk out of a class of unruly adults, but nobody noticed I'd gone.

Anonymous said...

I was only able to do it - much to my later shame - because I had a husband who earned enough money for me to walk out of a job and not need to go back....what an awful thing to own up to. But it was one of the moment that made marriage worth it.

Vilges Suola said...

And nobody else need know!

Fionnchú said...

Another good 'un, VS. I note dutifully at my institution (an overseas subsidiary of UpYours) how we're summoned to engage in "customer service" and boy, do our "paying stew-durnts" take pains to remind us of this, on and prior to evaluations. "Vem" on us wage-slaves, yew unnerstan'?

Vilges Suola said...

I wonder if that could happen here? Overseas sts tend to be from much more power distant societies and have far less sense of entitlement than our home-grown ones, who fortunately I don't have to teach. But, anything could happen.


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