Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Social Ineptness, or the Lack of Pragmatic Competence

So, what are the characteristics of a socially inept person? There are many, to be sure, but I dare say that one of them is pragmantic incompetence. I've been reading about this as part of my studies leading up to the ol' mid-term.

In language, pragmatics are the ways in which speakers use language in context; these are the common "rules" of language that are largely understood without explicit instruction. For instance, nobody probably taught you that when a question is directed at you, you should provide some sort of respone, and when someone else is talking, you should not be doing so at the same time. You know these rules, because they are part of the social context in which you live, and through experience you have come to realize that these constitute acceptable behaviours in society.

agmatics also have to do with knowing how to vary one's language according to the social norm of a particular setting; for example, you would speak with your best friends using language and content that you would not employ when speaking with your boss. Competent speakers are able to use a wide range of these registers, according to the diverse situations that they encounter.

I think that one major characteristic of the socially inept is their inability to select and use the proper registers in the correct contexts. These folks are oblivious to social cues, and either use the same registers in a variety of contexts, or use the wrong registers in certain contexts. This makes them appear awkward, overly-blunt, opinionated, or irrelevant. And this contributes to the perception of them as being socially-inept.

My sister and I were joking around a few conversations ago, about our occasionally lacking a "filter" when we speak. That is, we don't temper our language and content according to our audience, and we put our foot in our mouths. However, the truth is that we do know how to speak appropriately using the correct registers; it's just that we sometimes choose not to, because we want to get across a point that we know to be slightly offensive to the receiver, or we want to get a reaction out of our audience. This is a way to "test the waters."

Contrast this with a truly inept speaker, who tries to participate in conversation but either speaks of completely irrelevant things, or gives unsolicited opinions and advice, or blurts out comments while other people are trying to talk. These folks lack the pragmatic awareness to understand that the situations which they are in require them to behave and speak a certain way and follow certain language "rules" for social etiquette. They also have a hard time picking up social cues (like awkward silences or uncomfortable glances) that signal the inappropriateness of their chosen register. They don't understand why others feel uncomfortable around them, and have no conscious idea of how their language is coming across to their listeners.

I have come across several people in my life who were pragmatically incompetent. One person, shortly after meeting me, divulged to me the deep secrets of who she disliked and liked within a particular group. Awkward and inappropriate. Another person used to jump into conversations with paragraphs upon paragraphs of detailed rambling about something that was entirely unrelated to what the rest of us had been speaking about. Again, awkward and a real conversation-killer. A third person I can think of used to speak to me with very formal, very proper (but broken) English; she was a student of mine, but you could tell her speech was mimicked from some sort of old-time "Learn English by CD" program that only taught formal registers. It was entirely disjointed speech, and made it very hard for me to communicate with her on a real, personal level.

Anyway, bottom line is that one measure of social eptness is the ability to have communicative competence, and have at one's disposal a variety of registers for use in different situations with different audiences. Without understanding the pragmatics of language, people end up looking socially inept and incompetent and insecure.

Thanks for letting me study with you! ;)


Vien said...

Oh man, I feel like I don't I practice language pragmatics all that much Mrs. L.

There's constantly a foot in it. *gulp*

Happy reading to you!

Mrs. Loquacious said...

Really, Vien? I had never noticed that about you...I always found you to be a very encouraging person! Maybe a little self-deprecating, but very kind to others!

Definitely not socially inept!

superstarjo said...

I shake my head, Mrs. L. I shake my head.

Mrs. Loquacious said...

LOL, Superstar.

Wynn said...

Well, My husband and Son are BOTH talkers (don't ever let them drink coffee! they'll break sound bariers!) and my son often tries to control the topic of conversation (duct tape, explosives, airplanes, space travel, and alterative forms of fuel are his favorite topics), often interrupting, or just jumping into any silence with a return to the topic of conversation 10 minutes ago... My husband used to be that way, but has come along way to learning to listen... so the other day we were talking about talking, and lo and behold my son says "you know, you really have to pay attention to people when you talk. You know body language, shifting eye, fidgeting. Those all tell you that someone is kinda tired of listening to you..." We tried really hard not to laugh~