style, bartering, and Auction Hunters

One of the students from my Cross-Cultural communication class sent me this link. First: I’m always happy/impressed when a student sends me something related to a class she or he has taken… after the class has ended. It makes me happy that they’re still thinking about the class!

This link and the series that it’s part of would have been great to use in that class. Americans like to use a lot of words and silence in conversation indicates something bad — usually. The other articles in the series point to similar conclusions: Americans like to talk a lot, they like to use numbers, they hate silence, and they are generally well-prepared for negotiations but aren’t very good at being flexible.

This got me thinking about the reality television show Auction Hunters, which I watched recently late at night while visiting my family. If you’ve never watched Auction Hunters, it’s not all that exciting – it’s basically two guys who rummage through abandoned storage spaces looking for valuables. Typically, the show features both auction settings (where Americans tend to excel) and bartering settings (where Americans are stereotypically awful). The auctions feature an auctioneer talking quickly and bidders making small motions to place bids. The auction settings seemed very natural in the show, if hectic, and the two hosts seemed pretty comfortable with setting a maximum price they would pay for things and having a strategy for approaching the auction. Conversely, I thought all of the bartering sequences in the show seemed stilted, or scripted. It could be that they’re re-enacting something for the cameras, or that the presence of the camera makes people nervous, but perhaps the American business conversational style figures into it.

Auctions – lots of talking, lots of words, fast speech, strategy.
Bartering – negotiating, being flexible, considering offers.

With auctions, we anticipate a regular progression of events that follow a script in a particular style. We can research and develop strategies. However, with bartering, there are general expectations for how the interaction will go, but much is dependent on the people involved, their motives, and their conversational styles. Perhaps the stilted nature of the bartering sequences I saw on the show were a manifestation of conversational footing as the participants attempted to negotiate each other’s styles.


coffee mugs

It’s pledge drive season here, and every public radio station has its usual array of guilt-inducing rhetoric and thank-you-gifts that serve as status symbols. I know that pledge drives are necessary, and I do donate from my meager grad student budget when I can, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to analyze what they’re doing during these drives.

Both the local jazz station and the local classical station have interesting pseudo-commercials regarding their coffee mugs that are functioning as thank-you-gifts. The classical station has a bunch of people commenting on the quality of the mug: “oh it’s so sleek and shiny!”, “the sky blue color inside is just gorgeous!”, “it’s the perfect size for my hand!” All of these are reasonable things to say about the mug, I suppose, but the fact remains that these people aren’t actually selling the mug. They’re championing all of its amazing qualities in an attempt to get listeners to give $80 to the radio station — I don’t care how amazing it is, no mug is worth $80. Yet the pseudo-commercial, and the announcers on air themselves, are acting as though they are salespeople with the most amazing coffee mug ever.

The jazz station, in a similar but quite different vein, featured a bunch of normal-sounding people narrating the things that they could do with a coffee cup, as though they are selling a brand new invention.

“I might have a cup of coffee in the morning and then use it for good old H2O later!”
“Soup! I love eating soup out of a mug!”
“I would put oatmeal in it and make it in the microwave!”
“I could keep it at work for my coffee!”
“I could drink tea out of it!”

And, are you ready for this? Are you ready?

“You could drink just about anything out of this mug!”

This reminds me of the classic taxonomic relationship grading evident in the difference between cup, mug, and bowl. When is a cup a mug? When is a cup, in fact, a bowl? How do you define them? There’s this idea of “fuzzy set theory”, or that the boundaries between our definitions of objects are pretty fuzzy, and some things can fall into either category.

However, I don’t think there’s anything fuzzy about the idea that you could, in fact, drink things out of a mug. I wonder if anyone is shocked at the idea of drinking water from a mug.

The trouble with multimodal discourse

So the other night, my Warcraft guild was up very late trying the newest and most difficult raid in the game. We were all up quite a bit past our bedtimes and were, consequently, a little bit silly.

On Ventrilo (the voice chat program), one of our guildies, A, was having trouble with his microphone. He decided to tell us — with the broken microphone cracking and squawking in all of our ears — all of his woes in a minute-long diatribe, much to the protest of everyone listening.

This activity caused Z — one of the most innovative language users in the guild — to utter the now-infamous phrase “Thanks A, you made my laptop eat itself and upchuck a rabbit.”

To all of our latenight silliness addled-brains, this was the funniest thing we’d ever heard. And thus, it because the “Guild Message of the Day” in-game, just because we thought it was so hilarious. The creation of this message of the day prompted this sequence of chat discourse:

Of course, at the time that this happened, I had a browser window open and wasn’t looking at Warcraft, so I didn’t see this chat. S was in Ventrilo with us, and D responded to S’s in-game chat message (line 3) by saying over Ventrilo “Oh did you, S?”

So, I corrected D, saying “No, it was Z who said his laptop ate himself and upchucked a rabbit.”

D replied, “No, S is talking in guild chat! But it’s not clear if he ate the laptop or upchucked a rabbit.”

And then, S replied — again in guild chat — that he did both (see line 4).

All of this was so funny to Z that he laughed himself silly, over Ventrilo where we all could hear him laughing in gasps, and since he couldn’t stop laughing in order to talk, he typed in guild chat “BREATH” (line 5, intended to be “breathe”, a command to help himself stop laughing). Of course, he misspelled it, and D takes the opportunity in line 8 to correct his spelling using a *-repair. (With many *s, for emphasis perhaps!)

And then, in the final lines, Z reveals that D’s insistence on proper spelling (or proper English morphology, in this case), “killed it”, or made the whole thing not funny anymore.

This sequence of chat wouldn’t have made any sense to someone just looking at a chatlog. This is the reason that people should do deep ethnographies of these kinds of communities and really get involved, and pay attention to all of the modes of discourse and not just one. If I hadn’t been up raiding late at night, I would never have been privvy to this kind of exchange, and certainly not to understanding it.

Books – “Analyzing Multimodal Interaction” by Sigrid Norris

I have believed ever since I first studied discourse analysis that there’s a lot more to interaction than just the language and the talk. When linguists who study conversation make their transcripts, the large bulk of it is a documentation of the words said, with pauses recorded in milliseconds and maybe an indication of laughter.

Norris’s book shows us that there are many more communicative modes than just the verbal — and that these modes greatly affect communication. She challenges discourse analysts to take down notes about posture, head angling, gaze direction, use of objects in the environment, and to take into account all of these other modes of communication which may impact the direction of conversation.

For instance, she has a long analysis of a woman who is talking on the phone with a client at the same time as she is playing with her baby daughter. While some may see the playing with the baby as a distraction that impacts the flow of the conversation, Norris points out that her subject is actually managing the two behaviors quite regularly. When she addresses the client on the phone, she directs her gaze away from the baby towards an imaginary interlocutor, mediated by the telephone. When the client is talking to her, she takes that time to direct her gaze at the baby. The subject can then smile and make faces at the baby because she isn’t currently needing her mouth/lips/cheeks to talk to her client. This effective managing of gaze and facial gesture helps this particular subject manage two interactions simultaneously. The way that we humans do this almost subconsciously is incredible. We are really inherently social beings, and we have so many skills available to us to facilitate social behavior.

One of the most interesting things that I found in the book is the idea of modal density, which is (basically) how much we focus on one particular communicative mode in an interaction. For instance, when you are talking on the phone, you focus heavily on ther verbal component of interaction, because with the phone that’s all you have available. However, say you are out to lunch with a friend — you use your body position (facing the other person or looking away), objects in the environment (you might look at something or point it out and use it as a conversation topic), gestures and facial expressions, AND verbal conversation all at the same time, and all of these things have a component in interaction. As another example, say you are watching a movie with your significant other. There is likely little verbal interaction, but instead you are using a media device (the film) as a component in the interaction as being a shared object to orient your interaction around; furthermore, you have gestures, body position (you may have your arm around that person indicating a physical intimacy, or you may be sitting up next to each other, indicating some distance), and non-linguistic verbal cues like laughter or winces that are related to the shared object of interaction (the movie).

In thinking about this kind of modal density, I have thought about some of my own interactions with people. I am notorious for disliking conversations on the phone. I think now, having this knowledge, that it’s because of the heavy use of only one mode in interaction, that being the verbal mode; I am a person who likes very much to share experience and comment on observations in the environment. That’s why I like to meet with people in real life, go to shopping malls to spend time together, watch a sporting event, or hang out at a coffeeshop. I think that this even extends to computer-mediated communication, because online you can link another person to a news article or website that you want to talk about, or watch a YouTube video together, or play an online game.

This is exactly the kind of viewpoint that I was seeking when I first encountered discourse analysis and realized that there was something missing. Documenting everything that goes on is, of course, a lot harder than just documenting speech; however, it is important that we do so, because there’s more to communication than just language, and more to linguistics than language as well.