Tuesday, May 1, 2012

So, Feministe has a pretty interesting post (responding to this article in the New York Times) about family dinner conversations, and how they shape a person's rhetorical style.

Here's how Jill describes her family's dinnertime ritual:
Even when I go home, still, a sit-down dinner and a long discussion is non-negotiable. The TV gets turned off. We don't answer the phone. There are no cell phones allowed at the table. There isn't a structured conversation --- we just talk. And since I come from a family of political junkies, the conversation inevitably turns to politics; since I also come from a family of people who like to push boundaries and challenge each other, the conversation inevitably turns into an argument. No one yells --- we aren't a yelling family --- but voices get raised and sarcasm gets thrown around and even though we're all lefty liberals we get deep into it.
And then we clean up and we watch some CNN and we all move on with our lives. It never occurred to me that dinner-time arguments over, say, farming subsidies or the proper legal treatment of child molesters could create lasting wounds or ongoing anger. Which is maybe why it's taken me years to figure out that, in the blogosphere, you can't come at someone hard in a comment section and expect that they understand you're challenging them because you respect them and find their views interesting, and that they will respond to your challenges and heated critiques with the same, and you'll both walk away still liking each other and not thinking about it much beyond, "Well that was an interesting discussion." Most people just think you're a flame-throwing asshole. I blame my parents.
One person, in comments, mentioned how they felt like the absence of any dinnertime conversation (or, really, any conversation at all beyond the most perfunctory) while they were growing up deprived them of the chance to develop any kind of rhetorical or conversational skills.

My own experiences are like Jill's in a lot of ways: my family, too, sits down for a home-cooked meal and unstructured conversation every night, and does not really consider any subject to be taboo. Certainly not politics, which is discussed frequently. But we don't argue like Jill's family does; we're more conflict-averse, we're not very emotionally expressive (indeed, we tend to be uncomfortable with strong emotions), and, for me at least, argument is not a style of discussion that I am very good at. My mind works slowly, taking time to unfold and absorb every aspect and ramification of whatever I have just been told (besides the fact that I don't think in words and need to "translate" something into the pictorial/abstract colors-and-shapes milieu of my thoughts, and auditory-processing issues mean it takes me longer to decode spoken language than written language, so in conversation I have a particularly long lag time between hearing and understanding), and any thoughts I might have in response to whatever I've just been told also take time to form themselves. I am thus in the position of not yet knowing what I think when it is time for me to speak. I may not even know what you've just said by the time you're done saying it and waiting for me to respond. 

To accommodate this, I tend to treat discussion less as a contest between ideas than as a process of discovering what each person's ideas are

Because I have often found that people's ideas are interconnected in unpredictable ways (including my own), just stating what one thinks about something isn't always enough. Sometimes if you say one thing, the person you're talking to proceeds as if you had said that thing, and a whole bunch of other things you haven't said and aren't sure you even understand. I have also made these assumptions about other people, thinking that I had found a word or phrase to express a bundle of concepts and then finding that, in the other person's lexicon, that word didn't come with all the connotations it carried in my head. So I try and identify the premises I am starting from, and the premises that I and my interlocutor hold in common. From there, I will try to explain how I get to whatever proposition we're debating from those premises, and will also listen to my friend (I can pretty much only do this with friends) draw me a similar map of his or her reasoning.

What Jill's post got me to realize is that this style of conversation, which it has taken me years to develop, might not solely be an accommodation of my cognitive and communicative quirks. It might also be something I have carried with me from childhood, modeled somewhat on the kind of dinnertime conversations my family has.

(Obviously, it couldn't be an exact copy of my family's conversational style, or I wouldn't have had to develop it, but I do feel that what I have jerry-rigged together for myself probably has roots in how my family communicates. It's an adapted version, but I am starting to see some shared features).

Anyway, if you were going to describe my family in terms of what kind of people they are (like Jill describes her family as political junkies), you'd probably call us science nerds. As much as we talk about politics, it's not the thing we talk about most. Most of our dinnertime conversation is of a technical nature, drawing on whatever field each of us is trained in (electromagnetics, chemistry, biology, medicine). Because we are not all trained in the same things, we often have to include a lot of background information leading up to whatever it is we want to discuss. (When my siblings and I were children, this was almost always our dad explaining something about electromagnetics, but now that I have my own body of knowledge and experience, I will sometimes find myself holding forth about chemistry or biochemistry). So my family tends to explain rather than argue, because many of the things we talk about require explanation before they can be discussed in any depth. 

I think now that habit, as much as my needing to slow conversations down and check repeatedly to make sure everyone is on the same page, has predisposed me to prefer a collaborative, expository conversational style to an adversarial, argumentative one, and to feel myself disadvantaged when I do find myself in the middle of an actual debate.     

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting piece.

"Sometimes if you say one thing, the person you're talking to proceeds as if you had said that thing, and a whole bunch of other things you haven't said and aren't sure you even understand."

I have to fight that tendency, both being used to trying to puzzle out higher-context communication and because my mother did that all the time. (Mostly down to PTSD and learned responses, I know now, but that didn't make it any easier to deal with.) Just fairly heated debates would have been (more) OK, but we had heated debates in which people heard insults that were never even said and went on the attack, past any reasonable or respectful point. While insisting it's all in the spirit of debate. Which is even harder to deal with when it takes you a while to process what's being said and formulate a response, yes.

I've actually become a lot more conflict-avoidant in style, thanks to those kinds of interactions. Your family's style sounds much easier to deal with, especially while autistic.

Another one that got me thinking down similar paths, with how much is "you" and how much is how you learned to do social interactions: Boiling Frogs and Family. (Which I hope to be able to work into a post, soon.) The learning "how to say what you want instead of giving bizarre hints and then screaming when people don't read your mind" thing has been an uphill struggle, poorly as it obviously works. *wry smile*