Emoji reaction cards

November 24, 2021

Early in the pandemic, I used Zoom and other video-chat platforms like never before. For me it was mostly social, not work-related: a way to see and stay in touch with family and friends when I wasn’t meeting them in person. I soon noticed ways the technology compromised communication.

Take back-channelling. This is when we say things like mm, yeah, and whoa to convey, minimally, that we’re listening, that we agree, that the speaker should continue their conversational turn, and so on. Back-channelling didn’t work well in some apps, because the timing was slightly out of sync or because the sounds briefly dominated the audio, interfering with the speaker instead of supporting them.

Such problems are not new, but they are newly prevalent. How to tackle them depends on the context: the technology, the conversation type, the people involved, and so on. One thing I did was reduce my back-channelling noises; in their place I nodded more often and more visibly and used more facial expressions.

I also made visual reaction cards based on popular emoji:

9 squarish pieces of cardboard, arranged 3x3 on a wooden floor. On each card I've drawn and coloured an emoji. From top left: Smiling Face with Heart-Eyes, Hundred Points, Grinning Squinting Face, Upside-Down Face, Thinking Face, Eyes, Grimacing Face, Pile of Poo, Partying Face.

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Secrets and private languages

July 28, 2020

Deborah Tannen’s book You’re Wearing THAT? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation (Virago Press, 2006) has no shortage of passages worth quoting. Here are two.

The title’s foregrounding of clothes, by the way, is indicative but potentially misleading: clothing is but one of many topics whose metamessages Tannen analyses.

A chapter on inclusion and exclusion in female relationships notes the early emergence of this preoccupation:

Much of the talk that little girls exchange with their friends is telling secrets. Knowing each other’s secrets is what makes them best friends. The content of the secret is less significant than the fact that it is shared: Exchanging secrets is a way to negotiate alliances. A girl can’t tell secrets in front of girls who aren’t friends, because only friends should hear her secrets. So when girls don’t like another girl, they stop talking to her, freeze her out of the group. That’s why when a little girl gets angry at a playmate, she often lashes out, “You can’t come to my birthday party.” This is a dreadful threat, because the rejected girl is left isolated. In contrast, boys typically allow boys they don’t like, or boys with low status, to play with them, though they treat them badly. So boys and men don’t tend to share (or understand) girls’ and women’s sensitivity to any sign of being excluded. (They tend to develop a different sensitivity: to any sign of being put down or pushed around.)

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Uptalk in Surrey: The Twinning Hypothesis

July 7, 2017

Uptalk, also called upspeak, rising intonation, and (misleadingly) high-rising terminal, is where someone ends a statement as though it were a question? These two are for illustration? Uptalk is stereotypically associated with Australians, ‘Valley Girls’, and young women generally.

It’s also widely hated. Get people talking about their language peeves, and sooner or later uptalk will crop up. It has been described as an ‘annoying tic’ (The Smithsonian), ‘worse than vocal fry’ (Time), and as a ‘nasty habit’ in Psychology Today, which also worries that ‘statements and opinions will become extinct’. This is feverish doom-mongering.

Even Stephen Fry, normally a tolerant sort, linguistically, gave out about uptalk on UK comedy show Room 101, complaining invidiously that it had ‘invaded Britain entirely’. The host, Paul Merton, said it could be a politeness strategy, though he didn’t call it that, but Fry was having none of it (and went on to censure quotative like, which Merton also defended). Most of the audience found uptalk ‘deeply irritating’:

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Gender differences in conversational rituals

May 31, 2016

Here is a short clip of Deborah Tannen describing one way boys and girls express themselves differently:

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Gender differences in listening signals

June 9, 2015

Deborah Tannen, in her 1991 book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,* describes how easy it is for a speaker to get the wrong idea about a listener’s behaviour if the listener is of the opposite gender.

Referring to ‘A Cultural Approach to Male-Female Miscommunication’ (PDF), a 1982 paper by anthropologists Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker, Tannen notes that women are more likely to ask questions and give more listening responses: using ‘little words like mhm, uh-uh, and yeah’ throughout someone else’s conversational turn to provide ‘a running feedback loop’.

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Conversational turns and silences

October 11, 2012

The latest post at Linguistics Research Digest is about turn-taking in conversations and how we automatically structure and detect this. It describes everyday conversations as “highly coordinated events” that we manage on a turn-by-turn basis:

Our role in conversations constantly alternates as we either take up the task of acting as the current speaker or the current hearer. Conversations can be analysed in terms of turn-constructional-units (TCUs) and transition relevance places (TRPs). A TCU is meant to describe a piece of conversation that may comprise an entire turn and a TRP is a point in the conversation where the talk could legitimately pass from one speaker to another. In reality, a hearer doesn’t always take up the opportunity to speak at every TRP and so the same speaker will often continue their turn with a new TCU.

Once you digest the jargon, this makes immediate sense. We take turns in conversation and there are pauses, brief silences, moments of potential transition when the momentum may be taken up by either party. (Though I have known people who want all the TCUs and never decline a TRP.)

By coincidence, the subject appears explicitly in a book I’m reading this week. Silver Threads of Hope is an anthology of new Irish short stories edited by my friend Sinéad Gleeson. Many of the stories are excellent, and Anne Enright has written an affecting and insightful introduction on depression and suicide and how we react to them: a different kind of silence, sometimes.

The TRP happens in ‘First Anniversary’, a story by Claire Kilroy (whose fine debut novel, All Summer, featured in a bookmash here last year). A man wakes up dazed, in a graveyard, confronted gently by an old man who works there and who offers him a cup of tea:

‘You’d be amazed how many I’ve found in here over the years when I open up in the morning,’ the old man added.

‘Really?’

‘It’s always the men. The women handle their emotions better.’ He scratched his chin. ‘Plus, they’re scared to wander around at night.’

‘Right.’

The gravedigger instituted a silence then. It was an alert silence, a lacuna inserted into the conversation to indicate that I was welcome to speak if I wished to speak and that he was willing to listen. I am no stranger to silences of this nature, not any more. I kept my counsel and sipped the tea.

“Instituted a silence”. I like that line and its elaboration, the way they carry the speaker’s measured, affable intent, and I enjoyed the coincidence of seeing a fictional, literary description mirror a factual, technical account of a transaction we carry out many times a day without normally reflecting on it.


James Joyce: ‘We must write dangerously’

June 16, 2012

On Bloomsday last year I wrote about Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s last and least-read book. This year, being less blessed with free time, I’ll share some lines from Arthur Power’s book Conversations with James Joyce (Barnes & Noble, 1974), which I’ve been thumbing through again.

The first excerpt offers a glimpse of domestic life chez Joyce in Paris, where Power and Joyce first met.

Joyce, a restless man, was continually changing his abode, partly through circumstances no doubt, but also on account of his nature, and shortly afterwards he moved to a pleasant, airy apartment opposite the Eiffel Tower, where I used to visit him frequently.

I always took care not to call at his flat until the late afternoon, when he used to come into the room from his study wearing that short white working-coat of his, not unlike a dentist’s, and collapse into the armchair with his usual long, heart-felt sigh. As often as not Mrs Joyce would say to him,
—For God’s sake, Jim, take that coat off you!

But the only answer she got was his Gioconda smile, and he would gaze back humorously at me through his thick glasses.

Nora’s line always makes me laugh.

On Tumblr I posted a few thoughts from Joyce, courtesy of Arthur Power, on his efforts to convey Dublin through the texture of his words, and his belief in the primacy of emotion in art.

Here he elaborates on the latter idea in relation to Ulysses and writing in general:

Emotion has dictated the course and detail of my book, and in emotional writing one arrives at the unpredictable which can be of more value, since its sources are deeper, than the products of the intellectual method. In the intellectual method you plan everything beforehand. When you arrive at the description, say, of a house you try and remember that house exactly, which after all is journalism. But the emotionally creative writer refashions that house and creates a significant image in the only significant world, the world of our emotions. The more we are tied to fact and try to give a correct impression, the further we are from what is significant. In writing one must create an endlessly changing surface, dictated by the mood and current impulse in contrast to the fixed mood of the classical style. This is ‘Work in Progress’. The important thing is not what we write, but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously: everything is inclined to flux and change nowadays and modern literature, to be valid, must express that flux. . . . A book, in my opinion, should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality.

Conversations with James Joyce is a short (111 pp.), appealing read, with enough contextual detail to enliven Power’s reports but with the pair’s ideas, dialogues and debates very much to the fore. Joyce expounds on his influences, reviews his own work, and muses on his tastes and preferences in literary and other matters.