Check out my new tumblr! I’ll be using it as a visual supplement to the themes and ideas written about here as well as a bucket for anything which strikes me as especially interaction-related. Tumble along with me!


The relationship between parents and their children is marked by a high degree of closeness strengthened throughout childhood and adolescence, as well as a strong sense of hierarchy where the parent typically holds power over the child. It is in this instance, where hierarchy and closeness form core characteristics of the relationship, that there is potential for ambiguity and perhaps polysemy in the interpretation of power and solidarity moves. The simple interaction between my sister, Mary, and my mother discussed below exemplifies this phenomenon of ambiguity and stresses the importance of attention to surrounding linguistic details to achieve the most accurate interpretation possible.

Earlier in the conversation from which this example has been taken, my parents, my sister Mary, my friend Ashley and I have been reminiscing about the playground at the elementary school to which Mary, Ashley and I went as children. The conversational frame shifts, however when my mother raises the topic of the removal of apparently unsafe playground equipment from schools. The act of raising a topic in itself might be considered a power move and in this instance may also serve to imbue my mother with power additional to that which she already has as a parental unit in the family hierarchy. As the conversation progresses, my sister Mary moves to align herself with my mother and express her opinion regarding this practice. It is here that the ambiguity presents itself:

Mary:   That’s stupid.
Mom:   Yèah. I think it’s stupid tòo.

Growing up in this household, my siblings and I were socialized to recognize our mother’s use of lowered voice pitch and lowered volume in combination with falling intonation at the end of intonation units as contextualization cues signaling a frame of “serious discussion” while simultaneously indexing her intelligence and power in the household. As members of this community, my siblings and I understand that this particular combination of paralinguistic features when employed by my mother indicates that what she is saying should be taken as true, reliable, and perhaps unquestionable information.

In this example, we see my mother employ both lowered voice pitch and final falling intonation in response to Mary’s comment, thus triggering a natural response of respect from her listeners. However, she also employs several means of signaling agreement with Mary’s comment: she begins her turn with a stressed “yeah” and concludes her turn with a stressed “too” framing her turn with signs of agreement with Mary’s previous statement. In addition, she repeats Mary’s use of the adjective “stupid” to describe the situation which serves to connect her utterance to Mary’s and at the same time evaluates that description as “correct” in her opinion.

Deborah Tannen demonstrates that “specific linguistic strategies have widely divergent potential meanings,” particularly in interpreting metamessages of power and/or solidarity in conversation. Thus, a polysemous interpretation of my mother’s response might be that in agreeing with Mary, she is demonstrating solidarity with her daughter and perhaps even employing her own pre-established power within the group to ratify and “upgrade” Mary’s comment. However, several aspects of the dialogue suggest that my mother’s response is instead a reinforcement of her power disguised as a closeness move.

My mother begins her restatement of Mary’s description with “I think,” demonstrating a highly reliable “mode of knowing” while simultaneously shifting the focus of the utterance from the topic of discussion to her own opinion. Because it was my mother who raised the topic in the first place and because she has employed linguistic cues signaling the “correctness” of her argument, she has already established herself as having a reliable opinion. It is key to note that while her repetition of Mary’s description of the practice as “stupid” is the only explicit indication that she does not agree, the listeners have already been cued in to her opinion and have aligned themselves with her accordingly based on their awareness of her power within the group. Thus, Mary’s comment is instead a signal of her agreement with my mother’s opinion as well as a ratification of her power within the group rather than the other way around.

In conclusion, it is evident from this example then that evaluations of power and solidarity within a group, and specifically between parent and child, are in fact not clear cut, but rather are complicated by the goals of an individual to maintain the culturally pre-established hierarchy-closeness parameters of the relationship. In this example my mother strives to create a sense of solidarity between herself and her daughter by showing agreement, but her role as parental unit and her reputation as being knowledgeable, intelligent and trustworthy outweigh that display of solidarity before she even takes her turn. Rather than accepting Mary’s observation as new information, she signals that this is the opinion at which she has already arrived and reestablishes her own power within the discussion.

A current and on-going project in which I am involved is a team ethnography of business school “talk.” Most of my efforts to this point have been focused on capturing the forms and functions of narratives both in the classroom and at prospective student events. The production and reproduction of real world events through narrative transforms personal experience into informative illustration and in the business school, these illustrations provide the foundation from which students re-enter the world as informed participants and creators of their own story.

This project also happens to be graced by my first attempt at a pecha kucha which I have digitally recreated here for lucky you! This is a very brief presentation (just under the maximum six minutes and forty seconds) and compresses my key findings up to this point. Enjoy!

Well it’s 2012 and I’m already backtracking to the past. Back in September of last    year I attended my first EPIC Conference (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference) and never quite got around to writing up my thoughts on the week.

The conference theme, “Evolution/Revolution: Change and Ethnographic Work,” got me thinking not only about the field of Ethnography outside of academia as a site of change and experimentation, but also as a site of growth and interdisciplinary collaboration. I was struck by the openness of this community to share themselves and their work with me and each other, and even more so by their willingness and availability to offer their thoughts, experiences, and suggestions to the community as challenges were presented and problems faced.

I realize this is a strange moment of crystallization to be taken away from any conference, but I often am disheartened by the lack of cooperation and willingness to be of help to others even in my own academic institution. Frequently a topic of discussion, this collaborative divide in the social sciences extends beyond the office space  to occupy a tension between industry and academia as larger entities. So in the spirit of evolution, revolution and new year’s resolution I encourage the continuation of this discussion back into offices and home departments in the hopes that the camaraderie I observed among colleagues at EPIC develops.

I wrote previously about the importance of sharing a life story, not only as a brand or company, but as a person. It is only fair then, that I follow my own advice and share a little with you about how I came to be interested in language and communication in the first place.

My high school guidance counselor was perhaps the primary impetus for launching me into Linguistics. She suggested I read The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker, and that was it really. I was off! I flew through my undergraduate coursework and (after a year hiatus in China) arrived at Georgetown to pursue a MA in Linguistics, focusing on language and communication. It has been the past three semesters that have solidified my suspicion that there is more to being a Linguist than spending quality time with a voice recorder and transcription software. Language permeates each and every thing we experience in the world, and likewise we create language to shape the experiences of others. And advertising is no exception. Much of today’s advertisements are skilled creations, artistically and linguistically, and this is where I want to make my mark. You might say commercials are nothing more than manipulation, but isn’t that what all language is? If not a manipulation of sounds, it’s a manipulation of word choice and verbal structure which frame our arguments and create the scenes we wish to present.

So this is where I am now. Working out my story here on this blog. Plotting my next move.

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