Have you ever wondered why we say the things we say? How a skilled interviewer can get celebrities to dish all? Why the first phrase we say after “hi” in the U.S. is still “how are you?” even if we know the answer is probably not “fine”?
Next fall, undergraduates majoring in linguistics at CU Boulder will be able to enroll in a new track called SAIL, focused on Socio-cultural, Anthropological and Interactional Linguistics.
“It’s all about language, interaction, society and culture, which are all inextricably linked,” said Chase Raymond, associate professor of linguistics and core faculty member in the Program in Culture, Language, and Social Practice (CLASP).
CU Boulder Today spoke with Raymond to learn more about how linguistics applies to our everyday lives and how communication has changed in the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is linguistics and what does a linguist do?
Linguistics at the broadest level is the study of language. Language is part of who we are and everything we do, and it can be taken in a lot of different directions. Folks who are interested in how the brain works work with language because language can be like a window into the brain. Historical linguists look at texts and see how languages change over time.
The type of linguistics that I do is called interactional linguistics. Using a method known as conversation analysis, I look at language in real life: Language in everyday contexts. Interactional linguists like myself are interested in real people doing real things in the real world. It doesn't matter if it's you and your friends chatting on the phone or at dinner, a UN negotiation, talking to the doctor, talking in courtrooms or giving a political speech: it's all fair game for us because language is part of what’s going on.
How does linguistics show up in our everyday lives?
You can get on a bus and talk to somebody that you've never met for 10 minutes, and then get off the bus. You could have nothing in common, but there’s this whole little machinery that ticks right along—and then you leave, and you never interact with that person again. But all of that takes so much work to make happen, and language is a part of that.
I’ve also done some studies on what happens when folks call 911 and don't speak English. “911, what’s your emergency?” And then you have someone who doesn't speak English. That’s something that an interactional linguist or conversation analyst like me would see and ask, how does that work? What happens? How does this institution deal with this sort of a call? Is there anything we can do to improve communication here?
What can we learn from this kind of research?
Lots of species have communication systems and language is a very special human communication system. So, this is part of the classic intrinsic question: what makes us human? It’s through our use of language that we show who we are to one another, build relationships and form communities. Linguists want to understand how that all works.
Then there are more applied dimensions. For example, we might look at a bunch of visits between doctors and patients, and figure out patterns about what words and phrases lead patients to talk more and give the doctor more information about their problem. We could then talk to doctors about using strategies that elicit more rather than less information. Language and interaction are such a big part of real big decisions and real-life stuff that happens. An interactional linguist is always asking: What are the mechanics that the interactants are using to make that happen?
So, linguists aren’t only interested in language?
In my area of linguistics, we are interested in language as a sense-making resource, and so that means we situate it alongside all these other resources that we're using as well. The whole rest of the body, the environment around us, the things that I may be holding—everything is part of the sense-making puzzle. So, we will set up cameras and use video to find out what’s happening in an interaction between people to capture the whole physical environment because it’s inextricably linked to the language that's coming out of their mouths.
Has the pandemic changed how we communicate?
Folks commonly think that everybody just does what they want in an interaction. But when we look at the footage, people often swallow at the same time, people coordinate their laughs together and even blink in interesting ways in relation to one another. Especially that first time you're interacting with somebody before you are accustomed to each other's norms, you're going to have to have this intricate back and forth—this mutual monitoring—where you are moment-by-moment evaluating the other person’s behaviors, making sense of them and responding accordingly.
During COVID-19 this mutual monitoring now includes things like: Are we distanced? Are we wearing masks? Are we going in for the hug? Are we going to do an elbow tap instead? And so on. These are new contingencies that a year ago weren't relevant, right? But it's the same sense-making processes that we have always had: All of these changes we’ve experienced are always part of a negotiation. And if there's glass between people now, or now they’re wearing masks, or whatever the case may be, that's now part of what they are using to make sense with one another, and they will adapt accordingly.
How can we connect better with each other during this pandemic, even with social distancing and masks?
As social beings, when we do things like come together and hug each other, we get “social goods” out of it. In that sense, COVID-19 presents us with a problem: We want to show intimacy, but during the pandemic, we're not supposed to touch. But just because we can't hug doesn't mean that we can’t still get those “social goods.” Rather than hugging you, I could explain why I'm not hugging you, or make a joke out of my inability to do so, or express how I’m looking forward to being able to hug you again; and then we sort of still get some what the hug would do for us. We haven't actually done it, but we've been able to kind of satisfy both things: Safety and social goods.
COVID-19 introduces all these new contingencies, but we're good at working these out. What’s inspiring is that humans are so good at this, we will always find another way to do what we want to do in interaction. And this is how language always works: We’re trying to do something, and we use the resources we have to make that happen.
After all that has happened this past year, why do we keep asking, “How are you?”
This is part of greeting someone and opening a conversation. In my area of study, it’s called the “how are you” sequence, which is normally a reciprocal thing with a sense of normativity to it. There’s more detail to it than that, but the issue is that it has this sort of default interactional usage which is now so ill-fitted to the present situation. It's the same with saying something like, “I hope this email finds you well,” which people are adapting because it’s ill-fitted to the context. We’ll say things now like, “I hope you're doing well, all things considered,” or “I hope you all are staying safe.” I'm a big fan of creativity on these things, because the real issue is that they’re occurring in a sea of everybody saying this kind of stuff. So more personalized greetings are great if you can do that sort of thing.
What might change as a result of the pandemic?
I think there is going to be a lot more Zooming, but at the same time, I think there's going to be a renewed appreciation for the in-person. Maybe people can't necessarily put their finger on it, but when they get back into it, they're going to really enjoy being available to one another. In that same vein, I think a lot of what people are missing is actually small talk. Everyone loves to comment on how stupid and worthless so-called small talk is, but now that it’s been so largely sanitized from our daily interactions and it’s just right down to the business a lot of the time, I think a lot of folks kind of miss it. We don’t have as many social interactions that arise out of you just being out and about living your life, and so I hope that people will embrace opportunities to enjoy those sorts of ‘smaller’ interactions again once we’re able.