20 January, 2007

Careless Talk

Did you know that, when two people are in conversation with one another, they tend to align their vocabularies? Not just that but they also align their grammar. Well, they say you get to be like them you live with, but it turns out that you also get to talk like them you talk to. This is all according to some research I was reading in The Psychologist today.

It’s all very worrying, these unconscious processes that change the way we are. In fact, knowing who we are seems an almost impossible job with all this stuff going on (you know, confabulation, false memories, that kind of thing).

That’s why, having just read this research report, and being rather sensitive to what people were saying, when Wifie told me the book she was reading contained explicit, perverted sex, I paused to ask myself if ‘perverted’ was a word that I would ever use if it wasn’t for the fact that people around me use it. And whether they would ever use it if people around them weren’t using it, and so on.

I mean, just think about this word? The dictionary definitions include terms like ‘deviating from what is proper or good’, ‘bizarre’, ‘deviant’, ‘corrupted’ and ‘immoral’. Of course, a lot of people might think that ‘perverted’ sex is all those things but I don’t. What was considered perverted in my parents’ day is no longer so obviously ‘immoral’ and ‘corrupted’ – homosexuality, to take an extreme example, is now not only legal but widely accepted. Then there are things that were once unspeakable but are now quite common among ‘normal’ heterosexuals, such as mutual masturbation, role-playing, felatio, spanking, the use of sex toys, and on and on. Heavens above, it wasn’t all that long ago that the idea of a woman actually wanting lots of sex was considered morally insane. 'Perverts' like that were locked away in asylums!

The point is that we fall into the use of particular words and ideas as we attune to our social milieu, through conversation or watching the telly, yet the common, socially-constructed meanings of words, when we look closely at them, may be light-years away from what we actually believe, and from what we would feel comfortable espousing.

We need to guard against unconscious processes like vocabulary alignment in conversation not just because we might say things we don’t mean but also because me might end up believing what we say.

1 comment:

Cath Martin said...

Interesting point the article makes in regards to aligning vocabularies. Not that I read the article (your summary was sufficient) but I would even like to stretch this notion to include "sayings" and "buzz words" that people pick seem to pick up in everyday language, the media and of course work situations.

One such example is the term "at the end of the day." I could not count the numerous times that I have heard that saying used in the office, in the media and on broadcasted sporting events. In actual fact, sports people tend to use this phrase more than the average Government employee.

I myself have banned any use of this phrase (among others) and are boycotting this fad that is consuming our individuality. I instead tend to make up buzz words of my own (no matter how fanciful they are) and incorporate these into conversations and meetings just to see how long it takes for people to start using them. I know you have heard of "office bingo" and well this is just an adapted version whereby you make up a "buzz word" or "catch phrase" and count how many times a colleague will use that buzz word in the meeting or for the rest of the day.

Takes time but it is worth the chuckle when it happens.

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