Saturday 30 June 2012

Fitting in

Finding niches, and snuggling around in them, seems to be in our genes. Just see how small children love playing cubbyhole, and how bigger children can’t wait until they’ve moved out of parental abodes into a flat (or equivalent-sized cubbyhole) of their own.

These sequential or simultaneous places-to-be are what we call our homes. We begin life by finding ourselves in someone else’s home(s), those environments in which we are socialised as infants, and with which we naturally merge because there’s not much we can do about it – human beginnings are rather helpless, both physically and cognitively. We then start realising that we can question our “belonging”. This happens at around age 3, when we develop awareness of our surroundings as independent from ourselves, and of ourselves as just one of many actors in them. It’s now up to us to embark on socialising journeys of our own: we will (want to) merge with what appeals to us, from wearing the same clothes as our little friends in school to buying the same cars as our big friends at work. That is, we go on finding ourselves in someone else’s home(s), only now by choice rather than by accident – human development is rather predictable, both physically and cognitively. Imitare humanum est, we could say.

As we search for friendly environments, we hone our adaptive skills by becoming acquainted with what makes us (un)acceptable to other people, and vice versa. This is particularly true of the ways in which we use our languages, in that language pervades human socialisation processes. The American linguist William Labov showed that we can vary our uses of language to fit our wish to either identify with other people, or to detach ourselves from them: we make our linguistic patterns converge with theirs or diverge from theirs, respectively. This is why many of us use motherese (a technical term for ‘baby talk’) to accommodate small children’s budding linguistic skills, and why many of us resort to legalese, doctorese, teacherese or bureaucratese (rather less technical terms for ‘gobbledygook’) to fend off inquisitive common mortals – more on which in a coming post.

We can react to our awareness that there are differences among people and among their linguistic resources in other ways too. One of them is aggression, actual or potential. A number of years ago, in response to an article on language diversity, a Scientific American reader had this comment to offer: “Different languages are a menace to a friendly world.” Besides mooting the intriguing issue that you shouldn’t feel threatened in worlds where everyone around you uses the same language because they’re all your friends, the comment draws on f(l)ight instincts which associate any deviation from what people come to identify with their comfort zones as an actual or potential threat. Fitting in, to like-minded people, means fitting in with their “world”.

This reader’s comment struck me as a perfect example of Dostoyevsky’s observation, in Crime and Punishment, that “what people fear most [is] whatever is contrary to their usual habits”. We fear what we don’t understand, in other words. Which means that we won’t ever get to understand what we don’t understand if we go on not daring to understand it – or not wanting to. Dealing with difference, instead of fearing it, starts with awareness that if we, whoever we are, don’t understand them, whoever they are, then they are as likely to not understand us either. This is the kind of awareness that tells you that differences are bridgeable – if we, and they, so wish. Whether we prefer to complain about other people not adapting to us, or about our own difficulties adapting to them, we might be well-advised to remember that fitting in is a two-way road. 

Photo: MCF

I’ll have more to say about this, next time.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Intelligibility rules. Saturday 14th July 2012.

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