11/6/16

owlectomy: A squashed panda sewing a squashed panda (Default)
Deborah Tannen has an interesting article on "New York Jewish Conversational Style."

I'm interested in following up on Lakoff's discussion of the "rules of rapport"; I think I've seen quite a few conflicts between my family's Canadian-WASP emphasis on deference and the emphasis on camaraderie that's more common among Americans. (Conflicts, I think, that the Americans mostly never heard about, because you can't impose on someone by talking about their rudeness!)

When I started working at my current branch (which is very Jewish, but German much more than Eastern European, so I'm not sure to what extent there's overlap in conversational styles) I often had the experience of feeling -- put on the spot, I guess; like I wasn't being given enough time to answer, or to think of the right way to word something. But the thing is, whenever I start working at a new branch I feel like people are being so mean to me, and then after three months something clicks and I start to pick up on the subtle cultural and linguistic characteristics of the neighborhood, and suddenly I realize that most people weren't being mean to me at all.

I'm not sure if I wrote about this before, but I used to have this interaction a couple times a week and feel really anxious about it:

Patron: Where are your books on Subject X?
Me: Is there anything in particular that I can help you find?
Patron: Just books on Subject X.
Me: Here they are.
Patron: Fine.

In my idiolect*, "fine" in this context almost always means "Unsatisfactory, but I'll accept it's the best I'm going to get right now." "Fine" is what you say when your flight is canceled because of the weather and the person at the airport books you into a hotel that will certainly turn out to be unpleasant and inconvenient. It's when you drop your expensive gadget and support says it's not covered under warranty, but they'll give you a discount on a replacement.

In my patrons' dialect? "Fine" meant "fine," a lot of the time. (I can't be sure it NEVER meant what it means in my idiolect, because we have a lot of unsatisfactory spots in our collection, but I think most of the time it genuinely meant "fine"!)

This blog post on differences in "please" usage between the US and the UK also came to my attention recently. You know what's weird? I've lived in the US for close to twenty years, and I have never once noticed that the American norm isn't to use "please" when you're ordering in a restaurant. (This is one place where Canadian usage -- my Canadian usage, at least -- is entirely British; in fact, if my order is long I'll often start with "Can I please get a ....", say what I'm ordering, forget having said please already, and add another "Please?" at the end.) So I used to bristle a fair bit because my patrons' politeness norms weren't my politeness norms; it took me a little while to figure out that there was no rudeness intended, just different norms.

I hope people haven't been thinking I was rude or weird all this time, but I'm not sure I could break the habit. (I have been trying to change from things like "Please don't run in the library" to things like "The library isn't a good place for running," because of a blog post I read about how much time we spend ordering children to do things. But it's hard to change.)

*Just like a dialect is the version of a language spoken by a particular community, an idiolect is the version of a language spoken only by yourself. I'm often unsure whether a particular linguistic thing I do is from Canadian English, Southern US English, New York English, or somewhere else entirely.

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owlectomy

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