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PostPosted: Fri Mar 31, 2000 3:54 pm 

Joined: Fri Jan 07, 2000 6:01 am
Posts: 69
Location: Huntsville, Arkansas, USA
A student has posted this message:
"Yes, Suzette, but what do you _really_ mean?" (Plus an icon-face that I'm not sure about -- it's very toothy, but doesn't look menacing, so I'm guessing that it's a grin; correct me if I'm wrong.)

That question, even if posed lightly, is the crux of the matter. That's what all of us, if we are interested in two-way communication, always want to know. What does the other person _really_ mean by the words being spoken or written?

For English, the only way to know what somebody really means by their spoken words is to pay very close attention to their body language -- especially their tone of voice and the tune their words are set to. The words by themselves give you factoids, but aren't reliable as carriers of emotional messages. When somebody says, "The bus leaves at 7:20 a.m.," you can assume that that's what they really mean and that the bus leaves at 7:20 a.m. -- unless they're lying or mistaken, which you couldn't know without further investigation. When somebody says, "The BUS leaves at 7:20 A.M!," you can assume that not only do they mean that that's when the bus leaves, they also mean something else -- maybe "Of COURSE you can't sleep until 8:30 tomorrow morning! What a stupid IDEA!"; maybe "It would be riDICulous to take the train, which doesn't leave until mid-afternoon, when we need to be there in the MORNing! Why are you being so ABSURD?"; maybe something else.

However, when somebody _writes_ "The bus leaves at 7:20 a.m.," all bets about knowing what they really mean are off. You can't know, from those written words, what is really meant. You can't know, from my written words, what I really mean. That's what makes written English so ideal for business and politics; it's so opaque, and so deniable. Wiggle room galore.

I'll answer the question as best I can, under the circumstances and in the context of this thread.

When I am wearing my Verbal Self-Defense Teacher hat, as I do for this forum, I am always operating on at least two levels. One level is the level that carries what I believe to be the facts and beliefs and attitudes and other information of that kind; I word it as well as I can. The other level -- the metalevel -- is entirely devoted to the act of teaching; for that level I try very hard to make my words serve as a demonstration of what I'm trying to teach.

In seminars there's often one participant who decides to try to deliver my seminar for me from the floor, or who presents me with deliberately obnoxious or offensive questions, or who persists in dominance displays as the Alphas in the group struggle to establish their pecking order. At one level, I respond to that person just as I would to anyone else in the seminar. At the other level, I intend my response to be a _demonstration_ to the other participants, a demonstration of a lesson we could title "How To Deal With Someone Who Tries To Make A Public Nuisance of Himself/Herself In Your Seminar." As a teacher, I consider it my obligation always to present that second level of information.

I have been trying to operate on both levels in this forum, in all the threads; I have been trying to teach lessons about how to be courteous without being a wimp, how to make offers and negotiate them without groveling or threatening, how to respond to criticism constructively rather than defensively, how to pose questions clearly.....things like that. It's very difficult to do with written English -- it may be impossible.

Few things are more wicked than a teacher who can't be trusted. If I can't be trusted, then you have to _worry_ about what I "really" mean. You have to worry that I'm using my skill with the written language to mislead you, to confuse you, to give you false information, perhaps to play tricks on you. If I can be trusted, then you know that you only have to worry about the possibility that I may be mistaken at times -- something you can check by going to other sources. The fact that I was invited to moderate the forum by George Mattison, whom you've known a long time and whom you _know_ you can trust, is evidence that I _am_ trustworthy; you can safely assume that he had plenty of evidence of my competence and character before he made the invitation. But you need outside evidence of that kind whenever your teacher is available to you only in written English.

There's a review of one of my books online in which a woman writes that she "shudders to think" of what a verbal abuser could do with the book. I understand her concern. However, in the same way that you almost never read headlines about how someone with a black belt in a physical martial art has been beating people up on the street, you will rarely encounter someone highly skilled in verbal self-defense who uses those skills for perverse purposes. The more someone knows that they can easily deal with whatever comes at them, the less likely they are to be interested in throwing their weight around, and the more likely they are to feel that it's unethical to lean verbally on people who are less skilled that they are.

Suzette http://www.worldvsdleague.com

PostPosted: Fri Mar 31, 2000 4:36 pm 

Joined: Mon Nov 08, 1999 6:01 am
Posts: 1064
Yes, Suzette, it is a grin. It was meant to underline in a humorous way that you have spent a great deal of effort in achieving clarity by my attempting to appear denser and more opaque than I actually am. (Granted, there's a school of thought that believes that to be impossible, but I digress....)

No offense or criticism is intended; my apologies for any and all jokes you find offensive.


[This message has been edited by student (edited March 31, 2000).]

PostPosted: Sat Apr 01, 2000 2:07 am 

Joined: Sat Jan 08, 2000 6:01 am
Posts: 191
Location: Sydney, NS, Canada
I couldn't agree more, on how difficult it is to be clear in the written word. Now if you, with your skills, find it taxing to be direct without being offensive, imagine how one like myself feels. Not only is the job the same, I may not have the proper tools.

So, although it may seem to be uncalled for, I like the idea of adding "I think" or "it is widely known/believed...". These "code words" allow us to accept criticism, correction, or advice without the feeling that we are being talked down to.

We can then talk to each other and not have feelings building inside our heads on the hidden motives of those we are debating.

Granted, these tools would not be needed in a verbal discussion, but here I think it wise...and polite. In this medium we must take care not to offend, and I fear I fail here as much as any.

PostPosted: Fri Apr 07, 2000 4:50 pm 

Joined: Fri Jan 07, 2000 6:01 am
Posts: 69
Location: Huntsville, Arkansas, USA
Gilbert writes: "Now if you, with your skills, find it taxing to be direct without being offensive...."

If I'm understanding you correctly, your words above refer to the language environment of this VSD Forum and the context of this ongoing discussion. In which case, I must tell you that I don't find this taxing. Time-consuming, yes, but not taxing. Not at all. I find it interesting and challenging, and am only sorry that I don't have more time to spend at it. I have been learning a great deal from it, and I appreciate that.

Gilbert goes on to say that he likes the idea of adding code words/phrase such as "I think" and "it is widely known/believed" to messages, as a strategy _for_ being direct without being offensive. [This is what linguists call a "politeness strategy," and there is a large literature on the subject in linguistics. By comparison with many other languages, English has few politeness strategies.] "These tools would not be needed in a verbal discussion," he says, "but here I think it is wise...and polite. In this medium, we must take care not to offend...."

I agree that taking care not to offend is a reasonable goal, but I would amend it slightly and say that we must take care not to offend without reason, simply through laziness or carelessness. It's impossible, in my opinion, to _never_ offend anyone, especially in written language. But I agree with Gilbert that the effort should be made. (You will remember that there are some members and students who disagree with this idea, however. They are entitled to their opinions.)

For me, however, the principle is not to avoid giving offense but to avoid using hostile language. And for me, the primary reason for following that principle is not politeness. It is the fact that hostile language is toxic to human beings and pollutes the language environment; there is abundant evidence that this is true. Polluting the language environment is just as dangerous as polluting the physical environment; the results are just not as easy to perceive as a pile of smelly trash is. And hostile language is just as dangerous to the person dishing it out as it is to the person(s) listening to it. Often I find that people who are unwilling to avoid using hostile language when it's presented as a politeness strategy are very willing to do it when they understand that it's in their own personal self-interest.

Finally, I should point out one problem. You know that I constructed the verbal self-defense system called "the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense" (hereafter, GAVSD, for all our sakes) and have been teaching it for 30 years. Suppose I make statements here and add to them "I think" or "It is widely believed" or some of the other code items in the set. How will readers know whether (a) I am in fact telling them that I'm not certain about what I'm saying, or (b) I am trying not to offend them by being overly direct? For example, suppose I want to provide the following information, which, based on years of research and experience, I am convinced is true--

"Hostile language in English is characterized by the presence of personal vocabulary and, at the same time, extra emphasis on words and parts of words."

--and I post it with this wording:

"It is widely believed that hostile language in English is characterized by the presence of personal vocabulary and, at the same time, extra emphasis on words and parts of words."

The result is ambiguous. Maybe I'm trying not to offend you. Maybe I mean exactly what I've written -- that what I'm saying is widely believed. Maybe what I mean is that lots of people believe it, but that I _don't_. Maybe I mean that I'm astonished that lots of people believe it. In written language, there is no way to tell. There are languages where a sentence is no grammatical without a chunk of language that specifies the reason the speaker feels justified in saying what he or she is saying; English is not one of those languages.


PS: The classic example of the stubborn opaqueness of written English is the one in which someone writes in the ship's log, "The captain was sober today."

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