starting point Carol Delaney’s dictum that anthropology is an experiential venture, set out to be an anthropologist for a short time. Take one (or more) of the themes we discussed in class so far: time, space, language. Choose an appropriate subject for observation and analysis (an object, a place, a person, a group, a sound, a text) available to you in your everyday environment. Observe/analyze this chosen item and write an essay about your experience from an anthropological perspective (remember what this implies, as discussed by the readings and in class).
I decided to observe two people communicating to one another. One happened to be Hispanic, the other Caucasian, but this is incidental to the essay. What was central was my endeavor of reliving Carol Delaney’s dictum that language comes from what we experience and what we speak. Language is the end result of our personal experiences that makes us see the world / our environment in a certain way. These perceptions then saturate our thoughts (since experience and cognition is linked) and comes out in our communication. Everything in the world from tree to desk to person is simply a symbol. It is just a ‘thing’. It is our experience that imbues it with certain deeper layers of meaning. And these can sometimes distort the ‘thing’ totally. To elaborate: we have the flag of a country. It is just a rectangular cloth with a certain number of stripes and stars. Reducibly that is all it is. Yet, some stand on and burn this cloth, and others find that looking at it brings them to tears. It is the symbol that evokes certain reactions based on our experience. Language is the conveyor of that experience.
To relive this, I watched two people communicating to one another and thought of something that I once picked up from linguistics (I think Korzybski, 1933) where language was described as a construct that exists of three items: the sender, the recipient, and the medium. The medium is the channel in which the message is sent (e.g. telephone, e-mail, face-to-face, and so on). For effectiveness of the message the sender has to send it in such a way that the recipient will understand and accept it. Perfect transmission, therefore, necessitates shared communication which involves understanding of the other and his possible reception to the message, understanding of his mood and emotions, and a being-with-him amongst other capacities. The recipient has to decode the message and use the same tools to effectively ‘bounce’ the message back.
There were two people in the cafeteria who were talking to one another. We would say that they were ‘dialoguing’, but take the term ‘dia’ — it means two — we gain the impression that the one is transmitting to the other and the other is receiving: message sent, message received. But is this truly so? Don’t the different backgrounds and experiences of sender and recipient (and both become senders) effect the way that each sends his message and interprets reception of message? Doesn’t each imbue the message with his own meanings and gesticulations as well as with nuances and innuendoes that, rooted from particular experience and background, are understood only by him?
I compared the dialogue to a ball where what you have is the incoming message (the ball), the conveyance — sender bounding “ball’ to recipient – and the recipient catching the ‘ball’. The two parties – recipient and receiver – decode and encode and then again encode and decode the message through their respective brains. Each person’s brain has been formed by his or her experiences and biological makeup. In other words, each person infuses different meanings — particular meaning — in the message when he places it together, and when he decodes it, understands it in his particular way. This affects the way that he receives the ball, and some can so completely misread the ‘ball’ that they can drop it altogether. Others get only part of the message and receive the ‘ball’ with a sleight of hand.
The person’s encoding effects, too, not only the way that he articulates his words or the words that he/s he uses but also the mannerism that accompany it. A person’s cultural patterns — vocabulary, tone, terms, as well as mannerisms, accompany the message. This is understandable to the person, but may be incoherent and sometimes awkward or painful to the other. British people, for instance, are said to have as special sense of humor. Understood by the British, it may be hurtful to Americans. Hispanics are said to be more informal and enjoy more touch (as are Russians). This may be misconstrued to an American. People from some backgrounds, therefore, may be playing the ball in a backhanded way whereas Americans may want the ball to be more direct. Since the ball comes from a person who has his/her individual experiences and particular life perspective, in order to correctly catch that ball, the recipient needs to decipher the context of that message / ball precisely as the tosser intends. This is dialogue in its literal sense: an ‘I-Thou’ form of transmission where each perfectly tosses and catches the ‘ball. And given that sense, I concluded, the term ‘dialogue’ may be a misnomer since it is a nonentity and a virtual impossibility.
Carol Delaney compared anthropology to Van Gemp’s schema where rites of passages have three stages:
1. The rite of separation where the person is detached from family or friends
2. Rites that characterize the liminal period which is the transitional stage
3. Rites of reggregaition when the transformed person is inserted back into society.(p.8)
The act of practicing anthropology achieves these same three stages. In the first stage, we distance ourselves form the routine act that we are habituated. For instance, Communication to me seems one holistic act. I am so used to one person speaking to another that I take it for granted that the other receives and must understand. I would feel frustrated and find it incomprehensible that another could not understand my meaning, particularly if I phrased it clearly and on his level. It is only when separating myself from that act, distancing myself from it and seeing it as a ‘ball’ with the three modes of sender, medium, and recipient that I begin to grasp that it is miraculous that we can understand the other (and catch the ball) to the extent that we do.
This then — this new insight — is the transitional stage in anthropological practice which is where I have managed to distance myself from the routine and see the phenomena / circumstance in a new innovative, insight-provoking way.
In the third stage, I, as transformed person, am ‘inserted’ back into society. I have learned something from the experience. Transcended the mundane. Grown. And can now use it.
To return to this experience of communication as a ‘ball’, I think I am a better listener now than I used to be. It helps me to image communication as a ball that is being flung from one individual to the other (I.e. from client to counselor and back). The other is trying to convey his message to me. I need to ‘catch’ the ‘ball’ in all its nuances. Listening is an arduous task, for in order to catch that ball, I have to shutter my thoughts and zone in, in a laser-tight movement, on the other and on his precise words and actions. I have also realized that this catching the ball is a reciprocal act. I have to throw the ball back to the client and ascertain that he catches it in return. This, therefore, necessitates that I speak and act on the recipient’s own level.
The scenario with the ball also reminded me of another one of Delaney’s observations where she remarked that the terms ‘advanced’ and ‘primitive’ cultures are used only as comparison coming from the standards of the particular individual. This ties in with the ‘ball’ throwing. Each has his pattern of throwing the ball based on the geographical realm that he comes from. It is a different way of tossing the ball that to the thrower is usual and ‘normal’ whilst to the recipient may be unusual and ‘weird’. Neither can be called ‘advanced’ or ‘primitive’ simply different. Nonetheless, in real life we often err by categorizing the other’s very different forms of actions, speech, dress, mannerisms, and so forth as ‘advanced’ or ‘primitive’ based on where we come from. We see as we are prepared, and habituated to see, and according to Franz Boas (*), founder of Anthropology, we are also indoctrinated by long-term cultural training.
Alan Dundes further developed this point in his classic “Seeing is Believing” which “shows how American culture affects the way Americans experience their world” (1972, p.14). Our judgments are forged by values and meanings supplied by our culture. (In a similar vein, Brink-Danan (2010) demonstrated that even people living in the same geographical realm can be seen as different due to something as small as different names. The Jewish naming in Istanbul was foreign to the local people.)
It is for that reason too that we are so apt to see communication or transmission of language as a ‘simple’ ordinary activity and expect the other to understand us. We forget (as Delaney for one pointed out) that language is a string of interpretations that symbols into verbal form. The symbols — the way that we see the phenomena — are engineered by our own particular experiences. Ipso facto, it therefore makes sense that each interprets these phenomena differently and that each imposes a different lens as symbol. It follows, therefore, that we are bound to fail in catching the drift of the person’s message (or communication) as the sender intends it.
This was the insight that came to me through the project of watching two people communicate to one another in the cafeteria. It was as though they were throwing a ball to one another. There was the sender. The ball was the medium, and there was the recipient. There were also all the unseen factors surrounding the ball; floating in the air as it were. These included the context, the mood in which ball was thrown and received (one person could have been tired, the other experiencing the stress of menstruation and so forth). Each of these contexts and more invisibly attach themselves to the act of ball throwing and reception and can adversely impact the passage of communication.
Detaching myself and seeing the process of language and the subject of communication in this way enabled me to achieve the rite of reggregaition where I benefitted from the anthropological experience.
Boas, F (1982) Race, language, and culture Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Delaney, C (2011) Investigating Culture: An Experiential Introduction to Anthropology John Wiley & Sons
Korzybski, A. (1994). Science and sanity: An introduction to non-Aristotelian systems and general semantics Institute of GS: UK.
Alan Dundes (1972) Seeing is Believing Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.
Marcy Brink-Danan (2010), Names That Show Time: Turkish Jews as Strangers and the Semiotics of Reclassification. American Anthropologist 112(3): 384-396.
A” ki Dil Bir Bavul (Two Languages, One Suitcase), 2008, Orhan EskikAy and A — zgAr DoAYan
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