Ways and Whys of Talking

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Dr. Earl R. Smith II

(Read More From My Blog)

Ever eavesdrop on a couple of people talking? Sure, we all have. I started to do a lot of that a while back – just to see if there were patterns. I wasn’t interested so much in what was being said but how and why it was being said. What I found was fascinating. When people talk there almost always seems to be one of two broad structures to their conversation. These two patterns of ‘talk’ are quite different and seem to grow out of agreed upon assumptions about the purpose of their talking.

Information Transfer

The first reason people seem to talk is to impart information. I will be telling you something that I believe you didn’t know and, presumably, which you either want to or need to know. In this kind of ‘talking’ the exchange is unidirectional – from the informed to the uninformed – with the ‘transaction’ resulting in you being better informed. You will notice that I did not choose words that suggested any relationship between what I was telling you and either fact or truth. This kind of ‘talk’ is proselytizing and is a process of instruction.

Sometimes this exchange is two-way – but within the same pattern. I will tell you something that I suspect you didn’t know then it’s your turn to tell me something that you suspect that I didn’t know. This kind of ‘conversation’ often reminds me of a tennis game – when the ball arrives on your side of the net you have ‘received’ – then it’s your turn and you return fire – sending your gift of enlightenment back over the net. The pattern continues until an errant shot takes the ball outside the boundaries of the court.

Tennis is a good example for another reason – social distancing is a big part of ‘type of talk’. Participants see themselves as separate from each other and engaged in a process that is inherently both linear and binary – involving distinctly defined roles and prerogatives. I’ve noticed three variations on this pattern:

  1. The Lecture: In this situation it is mutually accepted that one of the participants is far better informed than the other and bears the responsibility to ‘educate the other. In this variation the objective is the transfer of information with the results that the ‘student’s’ beliefs becoming more closely aligned with the ‘instructor’s’. Most proselytizers prefer to adopt this stance – although sometimes the audience doesn’t go along with the proposed arrangement.
  2. The Debate: Here two or more people engage in a process designed to achieve ascendancy for their particular views. An organized debate can seem very much like a tennis match – with both sides lobbing their most potent weapons at the other – trying to impress the judge – whether that judge be an individual or the ‘public’ – that their position should be considered best. Here the objective is to dominate the other side and have your position prevail. A good example of this kind of communication is the back and forth ‘war of words’ engaged in by political hacks. This kind of communication is inherently tribal – driven by the proposition that the fortunes of a subset of humanity – for instance, the Democratic or Republican Party – is the most important issue – its the tribe against the rest of the world. These kinds of debates take on the dynamics of artillery duels with the civilian population considered little more that background noise – irrelevant bystanders. Debates are not about seeking the truth – they are about winning.
  3. The Competition: In a competition the principal objective is to win – the details of the position become secondary to the ‘game’. The objective becomes the ‘most effective advocacy’ or, to put it in post-modernist terms ‘lobbying’. Most of the practitioners of this form of talking are hired guns – lawyers, lobbyists, politicians or talk show hosts (my somewhat derisive terms for what passes for TV journalists these days). You get paid so you argue for your client’s position. You’re an actor and suddenly some soap becomes the best thing since sliced bread. You are a lobbyist and suddenly toxic waste is really not that toxic at all.

Once you start looking for them, you can find examples of all three of these ‘patterns’. They are dominant in the media simply because television and most radio programming are mono-directional. But, if you listen to most talk radio or watch most TV interview shows (the ones where the talking heads are not just interviewing each other), you will also see lots of examples of the tennis match approach to ‘talking’.

The overall defining characteristic of these types of ‘talking’ is that somebody wins – that one side prevails – that one person comes around to see it from another’s perspective. As a result the conversations are mostly a zero sum – I have been proven right and you have been proven wrong – or as a net plus one event – you were against now you are neutral. Of course, the grand objective of all this type or ‘talking’ is the net plus two result – you are now essentially me on this issue – we agree completely.

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