Blesok no. 93, November-December, 2013

Language as Social Action in E-communication

Mira Bekar

Communication via social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, problematizes the understanding of language use and language function nowadays. The language surpasses the level of being used just as a system of symbols for establishing communication. In other words, it surpasses the referential function; therefore, the need emerges to approach language at an idiosyncratic level, not only as a system of specific linguistic symbols with universal usage. Various disciplines such as theoretical linguistics, applied linguistics, pragmatics, rhetoric, marketing, and communication studies approach the analysis of language by focusing on various concepts which define language. Some of these disciplines analyze language on a word and sentence level, other exceed the sentence level and explore the context, or the quality of argumentation (e.g., rhetoric and commutation studies), while some disciplines examine the relation between the structure of the spoken and written text along with the pragmatic function performed by a certain language structure in a specific local context (e.g., pragmatics and applied linguistics).
In this paper, I will analyze the relation between language and social action in e-communication along with the interactional problems that emerge in this type of communication, while simultaneously relating it to the theoretical frameworks relevant for the field. This will be done for the purpose of emphasizing the need to approach language as something more complex than a system of signs by which a message is conveyed. This paper is a reminder and a follow-up of the research which analyzes language not as a tool for performing an action, but as a social action itself. Several examples of a relatively new genre - online statuses and text-based chat on social networks, as well as some specific problems, such as misinterpretation of online statuses will be presented. Communication problems may occur due to the fact that social networks allow their users the freedom not to be simultaneously present in front of the computer/phone screens while the communication is taking place—the interactants can respond at their own convenience or can chose not to respond at all.
Social networks offer specific type of socialization of individuals who comment on both social and personal topics at any time. Because online chat may be performed between two individuals or larger groups, it is important to mention that the speaker meaning can be rooted into some social events; however, the sense of an utterance may vary among the group members. The individual meaning of an online post is relevant for the speaker, but the social meaning of an online status may become relevant for a larger group of both active and passive participants of the same social network. This, sometimes tectonic movement of meaning, happens even without a full control of the individual who posts an online status. When interlocutors engage themselves in interaction, the linguistic meaning is a critical point, however not a key point for the individual sense or the social meaning. In other words, one utterance does not have the same meaning for all interactants, or what follows in a conversation is not assumed in the same way, because it has different individual importance for each interlocutor. Frequently, utterances, although linguistically seen as proper structures, can be incoherent because of the absence of the social meaning.
The relationship between sense and meaning (sense and reference) of utterances has been examined in various scientific disciplines such as logic, hermeneutics, semantics, and so on. Drawing upon the views of the founders, i.e., on Frege’s (1982) and Grice’s (1957) theories, in utterances we distinguish the general linguistic sense from the individual speaker meaning. The distinction between sense and reference depends highly on the context and the co-construction of the directionality of the talk exchange. Grice’s cooperative principle and the maxims of quantity, quality, relation, and manner require from interactants to make their conversational contribution “such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which [they] are engaged.” In this manner, it seems that e-communication hastily encourages the idiosyncratic (individual) language use; one of the reasons being the hybrid nature of e-communication exhibiting features of both oral and written genres. E-communication resembles speech, i.e., face-to-face communication of individuals who exchange messages in a form of retorts with specific individual implementation of the existing linguistic forms, but also it involves larger social groups which are given the opportunity to participate actively by writing and posting comments or remain passive observers of other people’s exchanges.
What follows are three examples which illustrate the view that the non-existence of the social meaning and shared social experience can cause incoherence and affect the smooth flow of interaction. One interlocutor, in an online chat, asks the other interlocutor “Is that why you are ‘Back to Black’?” referring to her status posted on Gtalk. Although this sentence, linguistically speaking, is a proper interrogative sentence, there is a high possibility for the other interlocutors not to understand it because of the lack of shared social knowledge of the context and lack of shared social experience. If one party lacks the knowledge that some people place their current mood as an online status on some public social networks or media, which in this case is the status of being “back to black” announced on Gtalk, then the proper linguistic form is not determinant that the message will be properly understood. And if there is no shared knowledge of the current contextual factors (pragmatic factors, current cultural events), I claim that the interlocutors, as well as you readers, may have dilemmas whether someone is talking about his/her suntanned skin during summer holidays, or the work overload one will experience after the summer holidays. The status may also allude to the song by Amy Winehouse, “Back to Black,” for some. Only socially shared knowledge between interlocutors of the sad contextual circumstances one can find him/herself in and of the song by Amy Winehouse, i.e., only the presence of social meaning can assure truthful interpretation of an online status, which is “going back to an unwanted and sorrowful state after trying something different out, but realizing that the new condition wasn't right or natural for you.”
The second example is an online status stating “Red for a reason.” For those who regularly communicate through social networks, it is more than clear that someone has got annoyed by being constantly interrupted while working. This status means “not available” or “I can’t chat,” but some who do not take the social meaning into consideration or the ethics behind the e-communication will continue interrupting a friend who emphasized his/her status of unavailability. The cultural and social component of belonging to an online community, in which unwritten rules and regulations for proper interaction exist, is determinant. In other words, respecting the online statuses of being “busy,” “available,” and “invisible” are determinant for successful interaction.
The final example, which also demonstrates the relationship between language and social action in e-communication, is the Macedonian culture-specific phrase “i gjezve voda na sabajle,” (in Cyrillic alphabet “и ѓезве вода на сабајле“), which was used as a pre-closing greeting of a text-based chat. This phrase, if translated literally, means “and [spill] a pot with water in the morning.” The phrase is specific for the Macedonian culture; thus, to understand the social meaning of it, one needs to posses shared knowledge about the whole ritual of spilling water for luck. Thus, if the interlocutors engaged in an online interaction do not share the same social and cultural experience of the traditional customs of the predecessors, then the phrase will not be fully understood as a good-luck utterance. In such examples, language is social action since it transfers customs, rituals, and is an integral part of the folk linguistics. Structurally speaking, the place it occupies in the chat—which is closer to the end of the text-based chat— may help the interactants to assume its social function as a closing greeting phrase in a social interaction.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica (2013, online edition), social interactions are defined as 1. mutualism (when both sides have benefit); 2. altruism (the altruist makes a sacrifice and the recipient benefits), and 3. selfishness (the actor benefits at the expense of the recipient). If we take into consideration the complexity of proper understanding of certain messages, then the need to understand better the relation between language and social action, as well as the relation between mutualism and selfishness, gains higher importance. This relation emphasizes the meaning of a conversation in situ, through the functionality of the interaction, i.e., the meaning is recoverable in such cases. A certain discursive practice produces difference in meaning at a certain moment, and that meaning is determined by the momentary contextual physical factors (e.g., Internet access, availability to chat), by the word choice, syntax, the intonation used, and the social factors (e.g. knowledge of the language of interaction). It is even possible for the utterance of a linguistically meaningful and proper sentence to be incoherent at a certain moment if its social meaning is unrecoverable.
Thus, language seen as social action “feeds” itself from linguistic, psychological, interactional, institutional, and cultural resources, while each of those resources has a specific influence, in a specific scientific field, on the content, on the form and interpretation of the situated communication produced face-to-face or through a medium (e.g., PC, laptop, smart phone). In e-communication via social networks the number of individuals, groups and institutions ready to share the same social experiences cannot be controlled. At the same time, an indefinite number of opportunities open for various idiosyncratic speaker meanings.
Earlier, I stated that the purpose of this paper is to point out that language itself is social action. By “social action,” drawing upon Sanders (2005), I mean behavior as being produced for the purpose of its functionality. Sanders claimed that “a behavior counts as an action if 1) it produces a change in or contributes to a material or social state or condition (e.g., by means of the behavior, a computer is switched on; by means of the behavior, an invitation is issued or accepted) and if 2) the behavior is interpreted as having been produced with the intention of having that effect on a current state or condition” (pp. 6-7).
For some, it may seem unacceptable to become friends on social networks with someone you may never meet in person, to share your personal mood publically, as well as to act socially and cause social changes with unknown individuals through social networks. However, this type of interaction is not new. Ong’s (1982) concept “secondary orality” emphasizes the communal sense and focuses on momentary local contexts. The second orality resembles “talking” more than “writing”; it is a hybrid form whose effect on the social network members is hard to control (something that was true for the radio in Ong’s lifetime). Blog posts, online statuses, comments on other people’s FB walls, Youtube videos, and the frequent Tweets are all forms of expanded second orality, which is more deliberate, but not necessarily controlled.

Rosenberg (1988) explained the same phenomenon in a more formulaic way, saying that the occurrence of the activity A should be explained through the reason why person A performs action A. The formula to discover this is a kind of practical syllogism where if (a) person A wants some B and if (b) person A believes that performing action A is a way to get the wanted B, then (3) person A performs action A. This leads to a conclusion that one interlocutor may interpret the utterance of another interlocutor as one produced with the intention for a change of state or as one possessing functionality. I would problematize this opinion by adding that functionality is possible as long as interlocutors mutually believe that communication is a means to achieve what they want through mutualism and maintaining social interaction.
Disciplines such as pragmatics, spoken and written discourse analysis, and ethnography of communication differ in the precision of aspects linked to mutualism and social interaction, which are matters of their interest. Pragmatics, for example, focuses on defining what is wanted, as well as on defining the beliefs about the integral parts that explain the production of utterances with specific features. This approach is based on (1) Speech Act Theory, initiated by Austin in the 1940s, developed by Searle in 1975, and (2) Grice’s maxims and cooperative principle. Speech Act Theory differentiates one action from another according to the lexicon of words, specifically verbs interlocutors use to describe actions. This approach has been criticized by some scholars in the 1980s and 1990s among which are Edmondson (1981) and Rosaldo (1990), who explained that primarily there are differences in the verbal systems of various languages, and also that the lexicon is different on an individual level, i.e., the possibility that individual speakers use different lexis to describe same social action performed or a certain activity may not exist in a society (e.g., the concept of “meze” or “to do meze” is typical of Balkan contexts, but non-existent in some other geo-cultural contexts.)
Complementary to this, Grice (1975) argued that the stages of performing social action are dictated by the wanted or the purpose. In other words, if we take into consideration the types of information needed to perform certain action, then the interlocutors should follow the “cooperative principle.” This principle states that each utterance is produced cooperatively in order to achieve the wanted or planned exchange of information. Cooperation happens even in situations when we are not socially prepared for cooperation. For example, we can be engaged in a serious dispute, but at the same time cooperate to build argumentation in which the Grice’s maxims of quantity, quality, relation, and manner will be respected (for more see Grice’s theory, 1975).
It is of high importance to understand language as social action during which the cooperative interaction for changing a state bases itself on the personal wanted achievements. Respecting this view may help us fight against language ideology, a complex term to convey. The concept of language ideology refers to “any sets of beliefs about language articulated by the users as a rationalization or justification of perceived language structure and use” (Silverstein, 1979, p. 193). Silverstein examines the individual language user, not the dominant social group or nation to which that user belongs. He claims that language unity is not necessary for the sake of belonging in a group, but what matters is how people incorporate language forms into their interactional semiosis under locally relevant conventions. Silverstein (2010) illustrated this by giving examples for the taboo discourse of the tribe Worora. What Austin would define as illocutionary force, Silverstein would call it “indirectness.” He emphasized the fact that the way “indirectness” is performed must be examined through the locally relevant interpretations in order to understand the variety of typologies of the phenomenon “identity-in-interaction.” Worora people use rambarr-talk and may have rambarr-relationship. To be in a rambarr-relationship (e.g. a relationship between a mother-in-law and a son-in-law) for Worora people means to function in a “relational existence of avoidance” of any type of interaction. This means they avoid being visible to one another and the younger one is expected to move aside if the older, or the more senior member, exhibits presence. Not only do they avoid a direct contact with each other, but also they cannot be mentioned even in absent reference. In such conditions local pragmatics is created which excludes certain linguistic forms, and which allows contextual conditions for maintaining the rambarr-relationship, i.e., “indirectness” is created, and it is interpreted as avoidance on a local level.
The complexity of the relationship between idiosyncratic meaning and global sense expands since language planning and language ideology are closely related. For example, Spolsky and Shohamy (1999, p. 36) define “language planning as certain efforts to influence people’s language practices,” but simultaneously they emphasize that each individual has their own practices and manners to accomplish a speech act, to choose one particular alternative from many in accordance to the context. While language planning is exhibited, individuals with authority impose certain language policies on other individuals. For example, even in private people’s homes, some parents, because of various ideological or practical reasons, forbid their children to speak the mother tongue (e.g., for hiding the social status).
This practice of imposing language ideology portrays the reality in many offline environments, but the existence of various social networks alleviates this problem. Although some online spaces may also be created to promote language ideologies, the fact that their users/members come from various socio-cultural contexts weakens the strength of an ideology which is hard to avoid in a closed physical space.
The point of the above mentioned is that language planning and the definition of language should not be based on one of the dominant language ideologies present in a society, which promotes unification of people, but that “small talk” should matter more in the process of understanding language. Small talk refers to personal anecdotes, evaluating commentaries, affective utterances, etc., and all specific features of conversations and interactions in various local contexts cannot be ignored, because those variations are not meaningless and secondary, as some claim. Here, I support my view with the studies by Gumperz (1982), Coupland (2003), Tannen (1984, 2005), and Schiffrin (1994), who emphasize the importance of interpersonal mutual inclusion in the process of creating social meanings.
The interpersonal mutual inclusion is a form of identification. Recent research focuses on identification through social network belonging; for example, the Culture Tweeters: Digital Thinkers in the Arts Sector are a subgroup of the Tweeter subculture, whose members share same social experiences. Furthermore, a group of Finnish applied linguists explore how through the processes of entextualization and re-semiotization, phenomena such as identity, unity, belonging, mutuality, but simultaneously de-identification, detachment, exclusion, the feeling of being different are being created. These processes are dominant in social networks such as Tweeter, Facebook, various forums and interest groups due to the fact that these networks represent important endless, virtual arenas for interaction and cultural activities such as web writing, or football forums (Kytölä, 2012; Leppänen, 2012). Other scholars, such as Sanders, Fitch, and Pomerantz (2001) contribute to a significant body of research on the relation between language and interaction, which focuses on the communicative practices of communities, instead of individuals, but as well, what is relevant for this paper, on how interactants use specific behaviors and communicative practices to accomplish social action.
To sum up, communication via Internet using electronic gadgets such as PCs, androids, tablets seems to be an effective way for performing social action, where language is not only a tool to perform a speech act, but has a more complex nature of interactional, cooperative work. Laughter, jokes, flirting are just few of the array of social actions, and they cannot be treated only as speech acts or isolated linguistic units. The relationship between language and social interaction is based on “doing social action” as doing any other cooperative work. Social action, similarly to life, is scaffolded moment by moment, through in situ conversation in micro-contexts, turn-by-turn. Online social action is intertwined with, fed from, and has influence on the offline social action. Language in these online arenas is social action in its own right. With its specific format, it provides contexts for interactions of various nature—or to put it differently—it provides array of possibilities to be social in various ways.

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