Friday, July 15, 2011

I Defend a Liberal - See I Can Be Fair and Balanced!

Deborah Tannen
(c) 2011 by Tom King

I just read “Aspects of Conversational Style-Linguistic Versus Behavioral Analysis” by Genae A. Hall, Regional Center of the East Bay, Oakland, CA. Hall likes B.F. Skinner’s behavioral analysis for describing problems with conversational style over the linguistic analysis approach used by Deborah Tannen in her books That's Not What I Meant (1986) and You Just Don't Understand (1990). You might have heard of Tannen. She’s written several other New York Times bestsellers and has appeared on Oprah. She blogs on the Huffington Post and writes for Politico, so politically, I have no stake in defending her at all. Genae Hall, you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re a behavioral psychologist in California somewhere. She may lead a Tea Party group for all I know, but I have a problem with her article. This is not about anyone's politics. It’s about scientific elitism.

Hall’s paper tells you right off where she stands with regard to Tannen, using, if I may employ linguistic analysis here, prejudicial words and sentence constructions like “…the linguist Deborah Tannen purports to explain how people exhibit different ‘conversation styles’” and “Judging from the popularity of Tannen's books, conversational style is an important topic to many people and the linguistic terms and concepts used in the analysis have been at least somewhat effective in describing this subject matter.” The underlining is mine. Ironically, for a paper purporting to explain how behavioral analysis is a better method for analyzing conversational style than is linguistic analysis, the whole thing gives off a metamessage (Tannen's very useful term) reeking of disdain for Tannen’s success in helping her readers improve their conversation styles.

To many academics like Hall, popularity is the kiss of death for any serious scientist’s work. Hall apparently has produced no popular works, though her name appears on many scientific papers on behavioral analysis and in related fields. That she dislikes Tannen’s use of linguistic terms like “metamessages” and “frames” which have at least some connection to ordinary reader experience is telling. Hall prefers instead to use more esoteric behavioral psychology terms like autoclit, pure and impure tacts, mands and interverbals to describe how we communicate and miscommunicate.

Ultimately the paper serves as little more than another example of a scientist arguing in support of describing things using complex terms in a way that ordinary people will have no clue what you are talking about. While she begrudgingly admits that Tannen’s book may have actually helped some ordinary folk solve their communication problems and may even have saved some marriages, she dismisses such help as largely accidental, stating, “Although Tannen's linguistic analyses have facilitated effective practical action to a certain extent, they may have done so in spite of the terminology used, rather than because of it."

Yeah, I'm sure it would have been much better if Tannen had buried her readers in incomprehensible psychological jargon. (Note: The metamessage in that last sentence was "No it wouldn't be." using sarcasm as the linguistic frame. You recognize sarcasm for what it is and therefore know what I really mean.  And you can understand what I just said even without a graduate degree in applied behavioral science).

Hall makes a telling statement just before calling Tannen's success second-rate, stating in the article that, “When the controlling variables for behavior are clearly specified, there is a greater likelihood that those variables can be manipulated to change behavior.”  By "clearly specified", she means couched in obscure scientific terms that only really smart, educated people can understand.

Once again, the behaviorist's belief that we are but the product of our cumulative experiences and that free will is an illusion shines through. The article is a virtual pooh-poohing of the idea that the non-scientist might be able to work out his or her own communication problems by reading a book from Barnes & Noble rather than by submitting themselves to the external brain power of the Ph.D. class, who would then “manipulate” them into changing their behavior.

One has to wonder whether Hall’s argument against Tannen’s approach to fixing problems in human communication has less to do with the approach being based on linguistics than it does with the fact that Tannen sold a lot of books to people and went on Oprah. And now many of those folks who read Tannen's book may decide not to go submit themselves to a behavioral psychologist to have their behavior manipulated? (A frightening idea to someone who charges outpatients $100 an hour and has a clinic to fill up.)

Magicians always hate it when someone explains their tricks so that ordinary folk can perform them too.


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