The other day I had a successful four-and a half-minute telephonic conversation with a friend of mine; by “successful” what I mean is that he did not withdraw from the conversation, he seemed to feel perfectly at ease during the interaction and did not ask me to repeat myself at any point of time, etc. It was mainly a “blow off steam” kind of conversation, topics for the most part being certain things happening at the institute where he is working, some regressive steps taken by the director, and the fall in the standard of higher technical education on account of some unimaginative and incompetent heads of such institutes as his.
What is interesting about our conversation is not really what we talked about – more correctly speaking, what he talked about – but what I was doing during our interaction. Much of what he was saying after the first minute –when the usual pleasantries were exchanged – I did not fully understand. He was speaking a bit too fast, which, I guessed, was due to his being in an irritated state of mind. Maybe the transmission wasn’t good; my phone is old, as are my ears of seventy-nine odd years. There was some noise in the living room and still in my bathroom towels, I wasn’t in a position to go out of my flat for better transmission. Calls often come when one is in an awkward situation; that is at least my experience – I can’t believe it is not your experience as well. All I did was the following: I did not interrupt him, kept saying yah, yah, made polite sounds at appropriate places (commonsense in an unfailing guide here) trying to convey to him that what he was saying was of immense interest to me. Not for nothing have the conversation theorists given so much importance to the politeness factor in verbal interaction!
By the way, if you get too many calls and you have no time or energy for them, you could try my strategy. Maybe, many of you are already doing it! But the strategy works when the subject matter is rather impersonal or relatively impersonal. Now, think, if a friend, who is very upset, is telling you over phone in a voice choked with grief, that he lost someone dear to him a couple of days ago and is telling you how all his efforts to save him from the vicious covid infection had failed, and you keep saying yah, yah – meaningless polite sounds the only function of which is to keep the conversation going – now and then, then aren’t you are being unfair to your friend and grossly unfair to the departed soul?
Incidentally, in face- to- face communication things are different. One simply cannot manage if one does not understand most of the content of what the speaker is saying. Unlike in the telephonic conversation, the hearer cannot, for long, pretend that he is interested; his body language would betray him. The speaker would notice his discomfort and both the participants would together take the necessary corrective steps, one of which, entirely understandable in that specific situation, would be to just give up.
It’s a common experience that in conversations, both face-to-face and telephonic, the hearer quite often feels certain, for no reason whatsoever, that he knows what the speaker was about to say and even before the latter has even half-finished, he starts talking, bringing, more often than tolerable, into the interaction irrelevant matter. He keeps talking, without listening to the speaker’s pleadings to listen to him before responding. Sometimes the hearer’s interruption starts after the speaker has said just a sentence or two. This is something to be encountered even in professional interactions, both semi-formal and formal; of course, the motivation here is usually different: more often than not, one wants to grab conversational space to dominate the conversation. It is true that some hearers are more impatient than others, and are really poor listeners, but even the best of the hearers is not free from this blemish.
This is one of the biggest problems in telephonic conversation in particular because the hearer cannot be controlled as he can be in face-to-face interaction. In the latter case, the speaker can request or ask him to have a little patience and allow him to complete his half-uttered utterance, but in the case of the former, one runs the risk of displeasing, if not offending, the hearer. Since generally telephonic communication is information-oriented (after all, one pays for it!), it can be frustrating when the hearer provides unsought for information and does not give the information needed. By the way, information theorists say that “information” is what is “new”, that which is not already known to the one for whom it is intended, not what is known to him already. It is rather simplistic in the context of a real-life conversation, but let it pass, for today.
Our world is a beautiful place, because it contains and supports contradictions. Just as there are some impatient listeners, there are some compulsive speakers – “liars”, by the way, are not the only ones for whom the adjective “compulsive” should be reserved. These speakers, once they get a chance to speak, speak non-stop, as though there would be no further occasion for them to speak. The hearer finds it difficult to join the interaction. If the hearer is too polite to intervene, he is reduced to a mere listener. The exchange becomes a harangue, rather than a conversation. Conversation is sharing, not merely sharing information, perspectives and feelings etc., but conversational space as well. By the way, in a lazy moment, you might enjoy yourself imagining an interaction between an impatient hearer and a compulsive speaker.
Talking about the function of language, most say it is communication; only some say, it is primarily self-expression and only secondarily communication. There are interesting arguments for each of these observations, but why trouble ourselves about those scholarly arguments, when we know that the output of such arguments is, more often than not, is more of the same thing, namely, scholarly arguments. Besides, communication subsumes self-expression with the constraint that it must not violate the requirement of honouring the other’s right of self-expression. Self-expression is common to both. When the impatient hearer interrupts the speaker more often than justified, then he is only asserting and misusing his privilege of self-expression. Man is the talking being among the species, not merely because he has the knowledge of how talk, but also because he enjoys talking and talking and talking, which is euphemistically called “self-expression’.
Some say, including quite a few cognitive linguists, whose arch enemy is Noam Chomsky, we acquire knowledge essentially through experience, oversimplifying things to an extent, in my opinion. Let’s see where this anti- Chomskyan position leads us to in our attempt to understand self-expression as the function of language. If one has been lucky in life to witness interactions – which are, to repeat – not “conversations” – between compulsive, if not consciously overbearing, speakers and impatient listeners, what other conclusion do you think he could have arrived at with respect to this matter?
(The views expressed are the writer’s own)
Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur
Email: [email protected]
(Images from the net)