The concept of the self will be explored in this essay – where it comes from, what it looks like and how it influences thought and behaviour. Since self and identity are cognitive constructs that influence social interaction and perception, and are themselves partially influenced by society, the material of this essay connects to virtually all aspects of psychological science. The self is an enormously popular focus of research (e.g. Leary and Tangney, 2003; Sedikides and Brewer, 2001; Swann and Bosson, 2010). A 1997 review by Ashmore and Jussim reported 31,000 social psychological publications on the self over a two-decade period to the mid-1990s, and there is now even an International Society for Self and Identity and a scholarly journal imaginatively entitled Self and Identity.
The concept of the “self” is a relatively new idea in psychological science. While Roy Baumeister’s (1987) painted a picture of a medievally organised society where most human organism’s reality were fixed and predefined by rigid social relations and legitimised with religious affiliations [family membership, social rank, birth order & place of birth, etc], the modern perspectives adopted by scholars and innovative psychologists has been contradicting such outdated concepts. The idea of a complex & sophisticated individual self, lurking underneath would have been difficult, if not impossible, to entertain under such atavistic assumptions of social structures affecting an individual human organism.
However, all this changed in the 16th century, where momentum gathered ever since from forces such as:
Secularisation – where the idea that fulfilment occurs in afterlife was replaced by the idea that one should actively pursue personal fulfilment in this life
Industrialisation – where the human being was increasingly being seen as individual units of production who moved from place to place with their own “portable” personal identity which was not locked into static social structures such as extended family
Enlightenment – where people felt they were solely responsible for choosing, organising and creating better identities for themselves by overthrowing orthodox value systems and oppressive regimes [e.g. the French revolution and the American revolution of the late 18th century]
Psychoanalysis – Freud’s theory of the human mind unleashed the creative individual with the notion that the self was unfathomable because it lived in the depth of the unconscious [e.g. Theory of social representations – theory invoking psychoanalysis as an example of how a novel idea or analysis can entirely change how people think about their world (e.g. Moscovici, 1961; see Lorenzi-Cioldi and Clémence, 2001).
Together, these and other socio-political and cultural influences lead to society thinking about the self and identity as complex subjects, where theories of self and identity propagated and flourished in this fertile soil.
As far as self and identity are concerned, we have noticed one pervasive finding in cultural differences. The so called “Western” world involving continents such as Western Europe, North America and Australasia, tend to be individualistic, whereas most other cultures, such as in Asia, South America and Africa are collectivist (Triandis, 1989; also see Chiu and Hong, 2007, Heine, 2010, 2012; Oyserman, Coon and Kemmelmeier, 2002). Anthropologist Geertz puts it beautifully:
“The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated, motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic centre of awareness, emotion, judgement, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against a social and natural background is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.”
Geertz (1975, p.48)
Markus and Kityama (1991) describe how those from individualistic cultures tend to have an independent self, whereas people from collectivist cultures have an interdependent self. Although in both cases, people seek a clear sense of who they are, the [Western] independent self is grounded in a view of the self that is autonomous, separate from other people and revealed through one’s inner thoughts and feelings. The [Eastern] interdependent self on the other hand, unlike in the West, tends to be grounded in one’s connection to and relationships with other people [expressed through one’s roles and relationships]. As Gao explained: ‘Self… is defined by a person’s surrounding relations, which often are derived from kinship networks and supported by cultural values based on subjective definitions of filial piety, loyalty, dignity, and integrity’ (Gao, 1996, p. 83).
From a conceptual review of the cultural context of self-conception, Vignoles, Chryssochoou and Breakwell (2000) conclude that the need to have a distinctive and integrated sense of self is “likely” universal. However from individualist and collectivist cultures, the term “self-distinctiveness” holds a set of very different assumptions. In the individualist West, separateness adds meaning and definition to the isolated and bounded self. In the collectivist & Eastern others, the “self” is relational and gains meaning from its relations with others.
A logic proposed by analysing historical conceptions of self with an account of the origins of individualist and collectivist cultures along with the associated independent and interdependent self-conceptions may be related to economic policies. The labour market is an example where mobility helped the industry by viewing humans as “units” of production who are expected to shift their geographical locations from places of low labour demand to those of higher demand, along with their ability to organise their lives, relationships, self-concepts around mobility and transient relationships.
Construction workers eat their lunches atop a steel beam 800 feet above ground, at the building site of the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center.
Independence, separateness and uniqueness have become more important than connectedness and long-term maintenance of enduring relationships [values that seem to have become pillars of modern Western Labour Culture – self-conceptions reflect cultural norms that codify economic activity].
However, this logic applied to any modern human organism seems to clearly offer more routes to development [personal and professional], more options to continuously nurture the evolving concepts of self-conception through expansive social experience and cultural exploration, while being a set of philosophy that places more powers of self-defined identity in the hands of the individual [more modern and sophisticated].
Now that some basic concepts and origins of the “self” along with its importance and significance to psychological science has been covered, we are going to explore two creative ways of learning about ourselves.
Firstly, the concept of self-knowledge which involves us storing information about ourselves in a complex and varied way in the form of a schema means that information about the self is assumed to be stored cognitively as separate context specific nodes such that different nodes activate different ones and thus, different aspects of self (Breckler, Pratkanis and McCann, 1991; Higgins, van Hook and Dorfman, 1988). The concept of self emerges from widely distributed brain activity across the medial prefrontal and medial precuneus cortex of the brain (e.g. Saxe, Moran, Scholz, and Gabrieli, 2006). According the Hazel Markus, self-concept is neither “a singular, static, lump-like entity” nor a simple averaged view of the self – it is a complex and multi-faceted, with a relatively large number of discrete self-schemas (Markus, 1977; Markus and Wurf, 1987).
Most individuals tend to have clear conceptions of themselves on some dimensions but not others – generally more self-schematic on dimensions that hold more meaning to them, for e.g. if one thinks of oneself as sophisticated and being sophisticated is of importance to oneself, then we would be self-schematic on that dimension [part of our self-concept], if not then we would not [would not be part of our self-concept – unsophisticated]. It is widely believed that most people have a complex self-concept with a large number of discrete self-schemas. Patrice Linville (1985, 1987; see below) has suggested that this variety helps to buffer people from life’s negative impacts by ensuring enough self-schemas are available for the individual to maintain a sense of satisfaction. We can be strategic in the use of our self-schemas – Linville described such judgement colourfully by saying: “don’t put all your eggs in one cognitive basket.” Self-schemas influence information processing and behaviour similarly to how schemas about others do (Markus and Sentis, 1982): self-schematic information is more readily noticed, is overrepresented in cognition and is associated with longer processing time.
Self-schemas do not only describe how we are, but they are also believed to differ as we have an array of possible selves (Markus and Nurius, 1986) – future-oriented schemas of what we would like to become, or what we fear we might become. For example, a scholar completing a postgraduate may think of a career as a lecturer, writer, entrepreneur, politician, actor, rock musician, etc. Higgins (1987) proposed the self-discrepancy theory, suggesting that we have 3 major types of self-schema:
- The actual self – how we are
- The ideal self – how we would like to be
- The ‘ought’ self – how we think we should be
Discrepancies between the actual, ideal and/or ought, can motivate change to reduce the discrepancy – in this way we engage in self-regulation. Furthermore, the self-discrepancy and the general notion of self-regulation have been elaborated into the regulatory focus-theory (Higgins, 1997, 1998).This theory proposes that most individuals have two separate self-regulatory systems, termed Promotion and Prevention. The “Promotion” system is concerned with the attainment of one’s hopes and aspirations – one’s ideals. For example, those in a promotion focus adopt approach strategic means to attain their goals [e.g. promotion-focused students would seek ways to improve their grades, find new challenges and treat problems as interesting obstacles to overcome. The “Prevention” system is concerned with the fulfilment of one’s duties and obligations. Those in a prevention focus use avoidance strategy means to attain their goals. For example, prevention-focussed students would avoid new situations or new people and concentrate on avoiding failure rather than achieving highest possible grade.
Whether an individual is more approach or prevention focussed is believed to stem during childhood (Higgins and Silberman, 1998). Promotion-focus may arise if children are habitually hugged and kissed for behaving in a desired manner and love is withdrawn as a form of discipline. Prevention-focus may arise if children are encouraged to be alert to potential dangers and punished when they display undesirable behaviours. Against this background of individual differences however, regulatory focus has also been observed to be influenced by immediate context, for example by structuring the situation so that subjects focus on prevention or on promotion (Higgins, Roney, Crowe and Hymes, 1994). Research also revealed that those who are promotion-focussed are more likely to recall information relating to the pursuit of success by others (Higgins and Tykocinski, 1992). Lockwood and her associates found that those who are promotion-focussed look for inspiration to positive role models who emphasise strategies for achieving success (Lockwood, Jordan and Kunda, 2002). Such individuals also show elevated motivation and persistence on tasks framed in terms of gains and non-gains (Shah, Higgins and Friedman, 1998). On the other side of the spectrum, individuals who are prevention-focussed tend to recall information relating to the avoidance of failure by others, are most inspired by negative role models who highlight strategies for avoiding failure and exhibit motivation and persistence on tasks that framed in terms of losses and non-losses. After being studied in intergroup relations (Shah, Higgins and Friedman, 1998), the regulatory focus theory was found to strengthen positive emotion related bias and behavioural tendencies towards the ingroup when in the context of a measured or manipulated promotion focus. Prevention-focus strengthens more negative emotion-related bias [haters] and behavioural tendencies against the outgroup (Shah, Brazy and Higgins, 2004).
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The second way of learning about the concept of self is through the understanding of our “many selves” and multiple identities. In the book, The Concepf of Self, Kenneth Gergen (1971) depicts the self-concept as containing a repertoire of relatively discrete and often quite varied identities, each with a distinct body of knowledge. These identities have their origins in a vast array of different types of social relationships that form, or have formed, the anchoring points for our lives, ranging from close personal relationships with other professionals, mentors, trusted friends, etc and roles defined by skills, fields, divisions and categories, to relationships fully or partially defined by languages, geography, cultures [sub-cultures], groups values, philosophy, religion, gender and/or ethnicity. Linville (1985) also noted that individuals differ in terms of self-complexity, in the sense that some individuals have more diverse and extensive set of selves than others – those with many independent aspects of selves have higher self-complexity that those with a few, relatively similar, aspects of self. The notion of self-complexity is given a rather different emphasis by Marilynn Brewer and her colleagues (Brewer and Pierce, 2005; Roccas and Bewer, 2002) who focussed on self that is defined in group terms (social identity) and the relationship among identities rather than number of identities individuals have.
They argued that individuals have a complex social identity if they have discrete social identities that do not share many attributes but a simple social identity if they have overlapping social identities that share many attributes [simple]. For example, when Cognitive Psychologists [cognitive psychology explores mental processes] study high-level functions such as problem solving and decision making, they often ask participants to think aloud. The verbal protocols that are obtained [heard] are then analysed at different levels of granularity: e.g. to look at the speed with which participants carry out mental processes, or, at a higher level of analysis, to identify the strategies being used. Grant and Hogg (2012) have recently suggested and empirically shown that the effect, particularly on group identification and group behaviours of the number of identities one has and their overlap may be better explained in terms of the general property of social identity prominence – how subjectively prominent, overall and in a specific situation, a particular identity is one’s self-concept. Social identity theorists (Tajfel and Turner, 1979) argued 2 broad classes of identity that define different types of self:
(i) Social Identity [which defines self in terms of a “particular” group membership (if any meaningful ones exist for the individual)], and
(ii) Personal Identity [which defines self in terms of idiosyncratic traits & close personal relationships with specific individuals/groups (if any) which may be more than physical/social, e.g. mental [strength of association with specific others on specific tasks/degrees]
The first main focus question here is asked by Brewer and Gardner (1996), ‘Who is this “we”?’ and distinguished three forms of self:
- Individual self – based on personal traits that differentiate the self from all others
- Relational self – based on connections and role relationships with significant/meaningful others
- Collective self – based on group membership [can depend of many criteria] that differentiates ‘us’ from ‘them’
More recently it has been proposed that there are four types of identity (Brewer, 2001; Chen, Boucher and Tapias, 2006):
- Personal-based social identities – emphasising the way that group properties are internalised by individual group members as part of their self-concept
- Relational social identities – defining the self in relation to specific other people with whom one interacts [may not be physical or social only] in a group context – corresponding to Brewer and Gardner’s (1996) relational identity and to Markus and Kitayama’s (1991) ‘interdependent self’.
- Group-based social identities – equivalent to social identity as defined above [sense of belonging and emotional salience for a group is subjective]
- Collective identities – referring to a process whereby those who consider themselves as “group members” not only share self-defining attributes, but also engage in social action to forge an image of what the group stands for and how it is represented and viewed by others.
The relational self [for those who choose to be defined by others at least] is a particularly interesting concept as it can also be considered a particular type of collective self. As Masaki Yuki (2003) observed, some groups and cultures (notable East-Asian cultures) define groups in terms of networks of relationships. Research also revealed that women tend to place a greater importance than men on their relationships with others in a group (Seeley, Gardner, Pennington and Gabriel, 2003; see also Baumeister and Sommer, 1997; Cross and Madson, 1997).
In search for the evidence for the existence of multiple selves which came from research where contextual factors were varied to discover that most individuals describe themselves and behave differently in different contexts. In one experiment, participants were made to describe themselves on very different ways by being asked loaded questions which prompted them to search from their stock of self-knowledge for information that presented the self in a different light (Fazio, Effrein and Falender, 1981). Other researchers also found, time and time again, that experimental procedures that focus on group membership lead people to act very differently from procedures that focus on individuality and interpersonal relationships. Even “minimal group” studies in which participants are either: (a) identified as individuals; or (b) explicitly categorised, randomly or by some minimal or trivial criterion as ‘group’ members (Tajfel, 1970; see Diehl, 1990), a consistent finding is that being categorised tends to lead people to being discriminatory towards an outgroup, conform to ingroup norms, express attitudes and feelings that favour ingroup, and indicate a sense of belonging and loyalty to the ingroup.
Furthermore, these effects of minimal group categorisation are generally very fast and automatic (Otten and Wentura, 1999). The idea that we may have many selves and that contextual factors can bring different selves into play, has a number of ramifications. Social constructionists have suggested that the self is entirely situation-dependent. An extreme form of this position argues that we do not carry self-knowledge around in our heads as cognitive representations at all, but rather that we construct disposable selves through talk (e.g. Potter and Wetherell, 1987). A less extreme version was proposed by Penny Oakes (e.g. Oakes, Haslam and Reynolds, 1999), who does not emphasise the role of talk but still maintains that self-conception is highly context-dependent. It is argued that most people have cognitive representations of the self that they carry in their heads as organising principles for perception, categorisation and action, but that these representations are temporarily or more enduringly modified by situational factors (e.g. Abrams and Hogg, 2001; Turner, Reynolds, Haslam and Veenstra, 2006).
Although we have a diversity of relatively discrete selves, we also have a quest: to find and maintain a reasonably integrated picture of who we are. Self-conceptual coherence provides us with a continuing theme for our lives – an ‘autobiography’ that weaves our various identities and selves together into a whole person. Individuals who have highly fragmented selves (e.g. some patients schizophrenia, amnesia or Alzheimer’s disease) find it very difficult to function effectively. People use many strategies to construct a coherent sense of self (Baumeister, 1998). Here is a list of some that we have used ourselves.
Sometimes we restrict our life to a limited set of contexts. Because different selves come into play as contexts keep changing, protections from self-conceptual clashes seem like a valid motive.
Other times, we continuously keep revising and integrating our ‘biographies’ to accommodate new identities. Along the way, we dispose of any meaningless inconsistencies. In effect, we are rewriting our own history to make it work to our advantage (Greenwald, 1980).
We also tend to attribute some change in the self externally to changing circumstances [e.g. educational achievements, professional circle, industry, etc] rather than simply internally to construct who we are. This is an application of the actor-observer effect (Jones and Nisbett, 1972).
In other case, we can also develop self-schemas that embody a core set of attributes that we feel distinguishes us from all other people – that makes us unique (Markus, 1977). We then tend to recognise these attributes disproportionately in all our selves, providing thematic consistency that delivers a sense of a stable and unitary self (Cantor and Kihlstrom, 1987). To sum up, individuals tend to construct their lives such that their self-conceptions are both steady and coherent.
One of major elements in the conception of self, is the ability to communicate through language and its varying degrees of granularity that hold a major role in social identity.
The remaining part of this essay will focus on the power and importance of language as the essence of the human being.
The Essence of the Modern Human Being: Language, Psycholinguistics & Self-Definition
Human communication is completely different from that of other species as it allows virtually limitless amounts of ideas to be expressed by combining finite sets of elements (Hauser, Chomsky, & Fitch, 2005; Wargo, 2008). Other species [e.g. apes] do have communicative methods but none of them compare with human language. For example, monkeys use unique warning calls for different threats, but never combine these calls on new ideas. Similarly, birds and whales sing complex songs, but creative recombination of these sounds in the expression of new ideas has not occurred to these animals either.
As a system of symbol, language lies at the heart of social life and all its multitude of aspects in social identity. Language may be at the essence of existence if explored from the philosopher Descartes most famous quote, “Cogito Ergo Sum” which is Latin for “I think, therefore I am.”, as thought is believed to be experienced and entertained in language. The act of thinking often involves an inner personal conversation with oneself, as we tend to perceived and think about the world in terms of linguistic categories. Lev Vygotsky (1962) believed that inner speech was the medium of thought and that it was interdependent with external speech [the medium of social communication]. This interdependence would lead to the logical conclusion that cultural differences in language and speech are reflected in cultural differences in thought.
In the theory of linguistic relativity devised by linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, a more extreme of that logic was proposed. Brown writes:
Linguistic relativity is the reverse of the view that human cognition constrains the form of language. Relativity is the view that the cognitive processes of a human being – perception, memory, inference, deduction – vary with structural characteristics – lexicon, morphology, syntax – of the language [one speaks].
Rene Descartes (1596-1659) was not only one of the most prominent philosophers of the 17th century but in the history of Western philosophy. Often referred to as the “father of modern philosophy”, Descartes profoundly influenced intellectuals across Europe with his writings. Best known for his statement “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), the philosopher started the school of rationalism which broke with the scholastic Aristotelianism. Firstly, Descartes rejected the mind-body dualism, arguing that matter (the body) and intelligence (the mind) are 2 independent substances (metaphysical dualism) and secondly rejected the causal model of explaining natural phenomena and replaced it with science-based observation and experiment. The philosopher spent a great part of his life in conflict with scholastic approach (historically part of the religious order and its adherents) which still dominated thoughts in the early 17th century.
Communication & Language
The study of communication is therefore an enormous undertaking that draws on a wide range of disciplines, such as psychology, social psychology, sociology, linguistics, socio-linguistics, philosophy and literary criticism. Social psychologists have tended to distinguish between the study of language and the study of non-verbal communication [where scholars agree both are vital to study communication (Ambady and Weisbuch, 2010; Holtgraves, 2010; Semin, 2007)]; with also a focus on conversation and the nature of discourse. However the scientific revolution has quickly turned our era into one hugely influenced by computer-mediated communication which is quickly turning into a dominant channel of communication for many (Birchmeier, Dietz-Uhler and Stasser, 2011; Hollingshead, 2001).
Communication in all its varieties is the essence of social interaction: when we interact we communicate. Information is constantly being transmitted about what we sense, think and feel – even about “who we are” – and some of our “messages” are unintentional [instinctive]. Communication among educated humans comprises of words, facial expressions, signs, gestures and touch; and this is done face-to-face or by phone, writing, texting, emails or video. The social factors of communication are inescapable:
- It involves our relationship with others
- It is built upon a shared understanding of meaning
- It is how people influence each other
Spoken languages are based on rule-governed structuring of meaningless sounds (phonemes) into basic units of meaning (morphemes), which are further structured by morphological rules into words and by syntactic rules into sentences. The meanings of words, sentences and entire utterances are determined by semantic rules; which together represent “grammar”. Language has remained an incredibly and endlessly powerful medium of communication due to the limitless amount of meaningful utterances it can generate through the shared knowledge of morphological, syntactic and semantic rules. Meaning can be communicated by language at a number of levels, ranging from a simple utterance [a sound made by one person to another] to a locution [words placed in sequence, e.g. ‘It’s cold in this room’], to an illocution [the locution and context in which it is made: ‘It’s cold in this room’ may be a statement, or a criticism of the institution for not providing adequate heating, or a request to close the window, or a plea to move to another room (Austin, 1962; Hall, 2000)].
Linguistic mastery therefore involves dexterity at many levels of cultural understanding and therefore should likely differ from one individual to another depending on their personality, IQ, education and cultural proficiency in adaptation. This would lead to being able to navigate properly in the appropriate cultural context through language whilst knowing the appropriateness of the choice of words in term of “when, where, how and to whom say it.” Being able to master these, opens the doors to sociolinguistics (Fishman, 1972; also see Forgas, 1985), and the study of discourse as the basic unit of analysis (Edwards and Potter, 1992; McKinlay and McVittie, 2008; Potter and Wetherell, 1987). The philosopher John Searle (1979) has identified five sorts of meanings that humans can intentionally use language to communicate; the can use language:
- To say how something is signified
- To get someone to do something.
- To express feelings and attitudes
- To make a commitment
- To accomplish something directly
Language is a uniquely human form of communication, as observed in the natural world, no other mammal has the elaborate form of communication in its repertoire of survival skills. Young apes have been taught to combine basic signs in order to communicate meaningfully (Gardner and Gardner, 1971; Patterson, 1978), however not even the most precocious ape can match the complexity of hierarchical language structure used by a normal 3-year-old child (Limber, 1977).
Language has been called a human instinct because it is so readily and universally learned by infants. At 10 months of age, little is said, but at 30-month-old infants speak in complete sentences and user over 500 words (Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek, 2006). Moreover, over this very 20 month period, the plastic infant brain reorganises itself to learn the language of its environment(s). At 10 months infants can distinguish the sounds of all languages, but by 30 months, they can readily discriminate only those sounds to which they have been exposed (Kraus and Banai, 2007). Once the ability to discriminate particular speech sounds is lost, it is very hard to regain in most, which is one of the reason why most adults tend to have difficulties with learning a new language without an accent.
Most intellectuals researching the evolution of sophisticated human languages turned first to comparative studies of the vocal communications between human beings and other lesser primates
Processes involved in the brain when speaking a heard word. Damage to areas of the Primary auditory cortex on the Left temporal lobe induce Language Recognition Problems & damage to the same areas on the Right produce deficits in processing more complex & delicate sounds [e.g. music, vocal performances, etc]. Hence, in Neuroscience, although it is not always the case, it can be generalised with a fair amount of confidence that Left is concerned with Speed, and Right is focused on Complex Frequency Patterns.
[e.g. apes / monkeys]. For example, vervet monkeys do not use alarm calls unless other similar monkeys are within the vicinity, and the calls are more likely to be made only if the surrounding monkeys are relatives (Cheney and Seyfarth, 2005). Furthermore, chimpanzees vary the screams they produce during aggressive encounters depending on the severity of the encounter, their role in it, and which other chimpanzees can hear them (Slocombe and Zuberbuhler, 2005).
A fairly consistent pattern has emerged in the study of non-human vocal communication: There is a substantial difference between vocal production and auditory comprehension. Even the most vocal non-human primates can produce a relatively few calls, yet they are capable of interpreting a wide range of other sonic patterns in their environment. This seems to suggest that non-human primates’ ability to produce vocal language is limited, not by their inability to interpret sounds, but by their inability to exert ‘fine motor control’ over their voices – only humans have this distinct ability. It also confidently suggests that human language has likely evolved from a competence in comprehension already existing in our primate ancestors.
The species specificity to language has led to some linguistic theorist to assume that an innate component to language must be unique to humans, notably Noam Chomsky (1957) who argued that the most basic universal rules of grammar are innate [called a “Language Acquisition Device”] and are activated through social interaction which enables the “code of language” to be cracked. However some other theorists argue for a different proposal, believing that the basic rules of language may not be innate as they can be learnt from the prelinguistic parent-child interaction (Lock, 1978, 1980), furthermore the meanings of utterances are so dependent on social context that they seem unlikely to be innate (Bloom, 1970; Rommetveit, 1974; see Durkin, 1995).
Motor Theory of Speech Perception
The motor theory of speech perception proposes that the perception of speech depends on the words activating the same neural circuits in the motor system that would be activated if the listener said the words (see Scott, McGettigan, and Eisner, 2009). Support for this theory has come from evidence that simply thinking about performing a particular task often activates the similar brain areas as performing the action itself, and also the discover of mirror neurons, motor cortex neurons that fire when particular responses are either observed or performed (Fogassi and Ferrari, 2007).
Broca’s area: Speech production & Language processing // Wernicke’s area: Speech Comprehension
This seems to make perfect sense when solving the equation on the simple observation that Broca’s Area [speech area] is a part of the left premotor cortex [motor skills/movement area]. And since the main thesis of the motor theory of speech perception is that the motor cortex is essential in language comprehension (Andres, Olivier, and Badets, 2008; Hagoort and Levelt, 2009; Sahin et al., 2009), the confirmation comes from the fact that many functional brain-imaging studies have revealed activity in the primary or secondary motor cortex during language tests that do not involve language expression at all (i.e., speaking or writing). This may also suggest that fine linguistic skills may be linked to fine motor skills. Scott, McGettigan, and Eisner (2009) compiled and evaluated results of recorded activity in the motor cortex during speech perception and concluded that the motor cortex is active during conversation.
Since the unique ability of a high degree of motor control over the vocal apparatus is present only in humans, communication in lesser non-human primates are mainly gestural rather than vocal.
This hypothesis was tested by Pollick, and de Waal in 2007, who compared the gestures and the vocalisations of chimpanzees. They found a highly nuanced vocabulary of hand gestures being used in numerous situations with a variety of combinations. To conclude, chimpanzees gestures were much more comparable to human language that were their vocalisations. Could this simply suggest that primate gestures have been critical stage in the evolution of human language (Corballis, 2003)?
On this same note, we may focus on the already mentioned “Theory of Linguistic Relativity” (Whorf, 1956) which states that our internalised cognitions as a human being, i.e. perception, memory, inference, deduction, vary with the structural characteristics, i.e. lexicon, morphology and syntax of the language we speak [cultural influence shapes our thoughts].
In support of of Sapir and Whorf’s position, Diederik Stapel and Gun Semin (2007) refer poetically to the “magic spell of language” and report their research, showing how different categories in the language we speak guide our observations in particular ways. We tend to use our category of language to attend to different aspects of reality. The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that language entirely determines thought, so those who speak different languages actually perceive the world in entirely different ways and effectively live in entirely different cognitive-perceptual universes. However extreme this suggestion may seem, a good argument against this assumption would be to consider whether the fact that we can distinguish between living and non-living things in English means that the Hopi of North-America, who do not, cannot distinguish between a bee and an aeroplane? Japanese personal pronouns differentiate between interpersonal relationships more subtly than do English personal pronouns; does this mean that English speakers cannot tell the difference between relationships? [What about Chong, Khan, Balaraggoo, Tyrone, Vodkadinov, Jacob, Obatemba M’benge and Boringski – where would you attribute their skills in the former question?]
The strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is believed to be the most extreme version to be applicable to the mainstream, so a weak form seems to better accord with the quantitative facts (Hoffman, Lau and Johnson, 1986). Language does not determine thought but allows for the communication of aspects of the physical or social environment deemed important for the community. Therefore in the event of being in a situation where the expertise in snow is deemed essential, one would likely develop a rich vocabulary around the subject. Similarly, should one feel the need to have a connoisseur’s discussion about fine wines, the language of the wine masters would be a vital requisite in being able to interact with flawless granularity in the expression finer experiences.
Although language may not determine thought, its limitations across cultures may entrap those ‘cultured’ to a specific one due to its limited range of available words. Logically, if there are no words to express a particular thought or experience we would not likely be able to think about it. Nowadays such an idea based on enhancing freedom of expression and the evolution of human emancipation, a huge borrowing of words across languages has been noted over the years: for example, English has borrowed Zeitgeist from German, raison d’être from French, aficionado from Spanish and verandah from Hindi. This particular concept is powerfully illustrated in George Orwell’s novel 1984, in which a totalitarian regime based on Stalin’s Soviet Union is described as imposing its own highly restricted language called “Newspeak” designed specifically to prohibit people from even thinking non-orthodox or heretical thoughts, because the relevant words do not exist.
Further evidence over the impact of language on thought-restriction comes from research led by Andrea Carnaghi and her colleagues (Carnaghi, Maas, Gresta, Bianchi, Cardinu and Arcuri, 2008). In German, Italian and some other Indo-European languages [such as English], nouns and adjectives can have different effects on how we perceive people. Compare ‘Mark is gay’ [using an adjective] with ‘Mark is a gay’ [using a noun]. When describing an individual, the use of an adjective suggests an attribute of that individual; whereas a noun seems to imply a social group and being a member of a ‘gay’ group. The latter description with a noun is more likely to invoke further stereotypic/prejudicial inferences and an associated process of essentialism (e.g. Haslam, Rothschild and Ernst, 1998) that maps attributes onto invariant, often bio-genetic properties of the particular social category/group.
Paralanguage and speech style
The impact of language on communication is not only dependent on what is said but also by how it is said. Paralanguage refers to all the non-linguistic accompaniment of speech – volume, stress, pitch, speed, tone of voice, pauses, throat clearing, grunts and sighs (Knapp, 1978; Trager, 1958). Timing, pitch and loudness (the prosodic features of language; e.g. Argyle, 1975) play major roles in communication as they can completely change the meaning of utterances: a rising intonation at the end of a statement turns it into a question or communicates uncertainty, doubt or need for approval (Lakoff, 1973). Underlying emotions are often revealed in prosodic features of speech: low pitch could signify sadness or boredom, while high pitch could communicate anger, fear or surprise (Frick,1985). Naturally fast speech often reflects power and control (Ng and Bradac, 1993).
To gain further understanding of the feelings elicited by different paralinguistic features, Klaus Scherer (1974) used a synthesizer to vary short neutral utterances and has had individuals identify the emotions that were being communicated. Fig. A shows how different paralinguistic features communicate information about the speaker’s feelings.
In addition to paralinguistic cues, communication can also happen in different accents, different language varieties and different languages altogether. These are important speech style differences that have been well researched in social psychology (Giles and Coupland, 1991). From social psychology, the focus in language is mainly on how something is said rather than on what is said, with speech style instead of speech content; whereas discourse analytic approaches also place importance on what is said.
Fig. A | Emotions displayed through paralinguistic cues
Social Markers in Speech
Most individuals have a repertoire of speech styles that is automatically or deliberately tailored depending on the context of the communicative event. For example, one would tend to speak slowly, use short words and simple grammatical constructions when dealing with foreigners and children (Clyne, 1981; Elliot, 1981). Longer, more complex constructions along with formalised language varieties or standard accents tend to be used in more formal contexts such as an interview or a speech.
In 1979, Penelope Brown and Colin Fraser categorised different components of a communicative situation that may influence speech style and distinguished between two broad features:
- The scene (e.g. its purpose, time of day, whether there are bystanders or an audience, etc)
- The participants (e.g. their personality, ethnicity, chemistry between them)
It is important to note however that individual differences have a major role to play in this objective classification of situations as different individuals may not define the similar “objective” situations similarly. For example, what is deemed formal for some may simply be common place to others; this subjective perception of objective situations has an effect on one’s chosen speech style.
One amazing point raised by Adrian Furnham (1986) is the fact that not only does one adjust speech styles to subjectively perceived situational demands, but one also seeks out situations that are appropriate to a preferred speech style. Contextual variations in speech style contains information about who is speaking to whom, in what context and on what topic? Speech contains social markers (Scherer and Giles, 1979). The most researched markers in social psychology are of group “memberships” such as society, social class, ethnicity, education, age and sex. Social markers are in most cases clearly identifiable and act as reliable clues to group membership. For example, most of the English can easily identify Americans, Australians and South Africans from their speech style alone, and (see Watson, 2009) are probably even better at identifying people who have been cultured in Exeter, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and Essex! Speech style generally elicits a listener’s attitude towards the group that the speaker “represents” [at the exception of some non-mainstream individuals – as in any other group]. A mainstream media example could be the actress Eliza Doolittle’s tremendous efforts in the film My Fair Lady to acquire a standard English accent in order to hide her Cockney origins. This idea or concept is known as the match-guise technique, one of the most widely used research paradigms in the social psychology of language – devised to investigate language attitudes based on speech alone (Lambert, Hodgson, Gardner and Fillenbaum, 1960). The method involves individuals rating short speech extracts similar in paralinguistic, prosodic and content respects, differing ONLY in speech style (accent, dialect, language). All the speech extracts were spoken by the very same individual – who was fluently bilingual. The speaker is rated on a number of evaluative dimensions, which fall into 2 clusters reflecting competence and warmth as the 2 most basic dimensions of social perception (Fiske, Cuddy and Glick, 2007).
- Status variables (e.g. intelligent, competent, powerful);
- Solidarity variables (e.g. close, friendly, warm).
The matched-guise technique has been used extensively in a wide range of cultural contexts to investigate how speakers of standard and non-standard language varieties are evaluated. The standard language variety is the one that is associated with high economic status, power and media usage – in England, for example, it is what has been called received pronunciation (RP) English. Non-standard varieties include regional accents (e.g. Yorkshire, Essex), non-standard urban accents (e.g. Birmingham, North/South London) and minority ethnic languages (e.g. Afrikaan, Urdu, Arab, Hindi, Mandarin and other foreign minority languages in Britain). Research reveals that standard language varieties are more favourably evaluated on status and competence dimensions (such as intelligence, confidence, ambition) than non-standard varieties (e.g. Giles and Powesland, 1975).
There is also a tendency for non-standard variety speakers to be more favourably evaluated on solidarity dimensions. For example, Cindy Gallois and her colleagues (1984) found that both white Australians and Australian Aborigines upgraded Aboriginal-accented English on solidarity dimensions (Gallois, Callan and Johnstone, 1984). Hogg, Joyce and Abrams (1984) found that a similar scenario occurs in other linguistic cultures, for e.g. Swiss Germans upgraded speakers of non-standard Swiss German relative to speakers of High German on solidarity dimensions.
Language, Identity & Ethnicity
Matched-guise technique and other studies in linguistics have revealed how our speech style [accents, language, grammatical proficiency & voice] can affect how others evaluate us socially. This is unlikely to be due to the fact that some speech styles are aesthetically more pleasant than others, but more likely to be because speech styles are associated with particular social groups that are consensually evaluated more or less positively in society’s scale. Unless being acted, a person speaking naturally in the speech style of lower-status groups may lead to an evaluation similar to that of the group and their image [in terms of way of life] in society [for most mainstream cases & not expert assessors of individuality]. This simply suggests that processes associated with intergroup relations and group memberships may affect language and social behaviour among the mainstream crowd.
Howard Giles and Richard Bourhis and their colleagues employed and extended principles from the social identity theory to develop an intergroup perspective on the social psychology of language (Giles, Bourhis and Taylor, 1977; Giles and Johnson, 1981, 1987). Since the original analysis focussed mainly on ethnic groups that differ in speech style, the theory is called ethnolinguistic identity theory; however, the wider intergroup analysis of language and communication casts a much wider net to embrace all manner of intergroup contexts (e.g. Giles, 2012; Giles, Reid and Harwood, 2010).
Speech Style and Ethnicity
Although it is well know that ethnic groups differ in appearance, dress, cultural practices, and religious beliefs, language or speech style is often one of the most distinct and clear markers of ethnic identity – social identity as a member of an ethnolinguistic group (an ethnic group defined by language or speech-style). For instance, the Welsh and the English in the UK are most distinctive in terms of accent and language. Speech style, then, is an important and often central stereotypical or normative property of group identity: one of the most powerful ways to display your Welshness is to speak English with a marked Welsh accent – or, even better to simply speak Welsh.
Language or speech style cues ethnolinguistic identity. Therefore, whether people accentuate or de-emphasise their ethnic language is generally influenced by the extent to which they see their ethnic identity as being a source of self-respect or pride. This perception will in turn be influenced by the real nature of the power and status relations between ethnic groups in society. Research in England, on regional accents rather than ethnic groups, illustrates this (e.g. Watson, 2009) – some accents are strengthening and spreading and others retreating or fading, but overall despite mobility, mass culture and the small size of England, the accent landscape is surprisingly unchanged. Northern accents in particular such as Scouse and Geordie have endured due to low immigration and marked subjective regional pride of these respective communities. Brummie is slowly spreading into the Welsh Marches due to population spread, and Cockney-influenced Estuary English popular due to it being portrayed in mainstream middle-class films has luckily not influenced East Anglia and South East England – that have kept their grammar and granularity.
It should be noted that almost all major societies have a multicultural component with ethnic groups, however all contain a single dominant high-status group whose language is the lingua franca of the nation with ethnic groups whose languages are subordinate. However, in major immigrant economies such as the United States, Canada and Australia some of the biggest variety of large ethnic groups occur. Unsurprisingly, most of the research on ethnicity and language comes from these countries, in particular, Australia and Canada. In Australia for example, English is the lingua franca, but there are also large ethnic Chinese, Italian, Greek and Vietnamese communities – language research has been carried out on all these communities (e.g. Gallois, Barker, Jones and Callan, 1992; Gallois and Callan, 1986; Giles, Rosenthal and Young, 1985; Hogg, D’Agata and Abrams, 1989; McNamara, 1987; Smolicz, 1983)
Social categories such as ethnic groups may develop and maintain or lose their distinctive languages or speech style as a consequence of intergroup relations. However, categories do not speak. People speak, and it is generally done with one another, usually in face-to-face interaction. As mentioned earlier, when people interact conversationally, they tend to adapt their speech style to the context – the situation, and in particular the listener. This concept is the foundation of the speech accommodation theory (Giles, 1984; Giles, Taylor and Bourhis, 1973), which invokes specific motivations to explain the ways in which people accommodate their speech style to those who are present. Motivation involved for such adaptations may be a desire to help the listener to understand what is being said or to promote specific impressions of oneself.
Radcliffe Square at Night, Oxford [Image: Y. Song]
Speech Convergence and Divergence
Since most conversations involve individuals who are potentially of unequal social status, speech accommodation theory describes the type of accommodation that might occur as a function of the sort of social orientation that the speakers may have towards one another (See Fig. B). Where a simple interpersonal orientation exists (e.g. between two friends), bilateral speech convergence occurs. Higher-status speakers shift their accent or speech style ‘downwards’ towards that of the lower-status speakers, who in turn shift ‘upwards’. In this scenario, speech convergence satisfies a need for approval or liking. The act of convergence increases interpersonal speech style similarity and this enhances interpersonal approval and liking (Bourhis, Giles and Lambert, 1975), particularly if the convergence behaviour is clearly intentional (Simard, Taylor and Giles, 1976). The process is based on the supported idea that similarity typically leads to attraction in most cases (e.g. Byrne, 1971).
Fig. B | Speech accommodation as a function of status, social orientation and subjective vitality
Consider a particular scenario where an intergroup orientation exists. If the lower status group has low subjective vitality coupled with a belief is social mobility (i.e. one can pass, linguistically, into the higher status group), there is unilateral upward convergence on the part of the lower status speaker and unilateral speech divergence on the part of the higher status speaker. In intergroup contexts, divergence achieves psycholinguistic distinctiveness: it differentiates the speaker’s ingroup on linguistic grounds from the outgroup. Where an intergroup orientation exists and the lower status group has high subjective validity coupled with a belief in social change (i.e. one cannot pass into the higher status group), bilateral divergence occurs. Both speakers pursue psycholinguistic distinctiveness.
Speech accommodation theory has been well supported empirically (Gallois, Ogay and Giles, 2005; Giles and Coupland, 1991). Bourhis and Giles found that Welsh adults accentuated their Welsh accent in the presence of RP English speakers (i.e. the standard non-regional variety of English). Bourhis, Giles, Leyens and Tajfel (1979) obtained a similar finding in Belgium, with Flemish speakers in the presence of French speakers. In both cases, a language revival was under way at the same time, and thus an intergroup orientation with high vitality was salient. In a low-vitality social mobility context, Hogg (1985) found that female students in Britain shifted their speech style ‘upwards’ towards that of their male partners. Accommodation in intergroup contexts reflects an intergroup or social identity mechanism in which speech style is dynamically governed by the speakers’ motivation to adopt ingroup or outgroup speech patterns. These motivations are in turn formed by perception of:
- The relative status and prestige of the speech varieties and their associated groups;and
- The vitality of their own ethnolinguistic group
One important factor that may actually govern changes in speech style is conformity to stereotypical perceptions of the appropriate speech norm. Thakerar, Giles and Cheshire (1982) distinguished between objective and subjective accommodation. People converge on or diverge from what they perceive to be the relevant speech style. Objective accommodation may reflect this, but in some circumstances it may not: for instance subjective convergence may resemble objective divergence if the speech style stereotype is different from the actual speech behaviour of the other speaker.
Even the “Queen’s English” is susceptible to some accommodation towards a more popular stereotype (Harrington, 2006). An analysis of the phonetics in the speech of Queen Elizabeth II from her Christmas broadcasts to the world since 1952 show a gradual change in the Royal vowels, moving from ‘upper-class’ RP to a more ‘standard’ and less aristocratic RP. This may simply reflect a softening of the once strong demarcation between the social classes – social change may sometimes be a catalyst for speech change. Where once she might have said “thet men in the bleck het”, she would now say “that man in the black hat”.
Red Queen Illustration from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass (Oxford Classics)
Speech accommodation theory has been extended in recognition of the role of non-verbal behaviour in communication – now called communication accommodation theory (Gallois, Ogay and Giles, 2005; Giles, Mulac, Bradac and Johnson, 1987; Giles and Noels, 2002), which acknowledges that convergence and divergence can occur non-verbally as well as verbally. Anthony Mulac and his colleagues found that women in mixed-sex dyads converged towards the amount of eye contact (now called ‘gaze’) made by their partner (Mulac, Studley, Wiemann and Bradac, 1987). While accommodation is often synchronised in verbal and non-verbal channels, this is not necessarily the case. Frances Bilous and Robert Kraus (1988) found that women in mixed-sex dyads converged towards men on some dimensions (e.g. total words uttered and interruptions) but diverged on others (e.g. laughter).
Bilingualism and second-language acquisition
Due to the excessive and culturally destructive waves of migration caused by the exploitation of diplomacy and some corrupt mainstream media and politicians to promote mass migration, most major countries are now bilingual or multilingual, meaning that people need to be able to speak two or more languages with a fair amount of proficiency to communicate effectively and successfully achieve their goals in different contexts. These countries contain a variety of ethnolinguistic groups with a single dominant group whose language is the lingua franca – very few countries are effectively monolingual (e.g. Portugal and Japan) anymore – which may be reflected in the rise in cultural conflict and lack of social coherence.
The acquisition of a second language is rarely a matter of acquiring basic classroom proficiency, as one might in order to ‘get by’ on holiday – in fact, it is a wholesale acquisition of a language embedded in a highly cultural context with varying degrees of granularity to reach the levels of flawless/effective communication (Gardner, 1979). Second-language acquisition requires native-like mastery (being able to speak like a native speaker), and this hinges more on the motivations of the second-language learner than on linguistic aptitude or pedagogical factors. Failure to acquire native-like mastery can undermine self-confidence and cause physical and social isolation, leading to material hardship and psychological suffering. For example, Noels, Pon and Clément (1996) found low self-esteem and marked symptoms of stress among Chinese immigrants in Canada with poor English skills. Building on earlier models (Gardner, 1979; Clément, 1980), Giles and Byrne (1982) proposed an intergroup model of second language acquisition. There are five socio-psychological dimensions that influence a subordinate group member’s motivational goals in learning the language of a dominant group (see Fig. C):
- Strength of ethnolinguistic identification
- Number of alternative identities available
- Number of high-status alternative identities available
- Subjective vitality perceptions
- Social beliefs regarding whether it is or is not possible to pass linguistically into the dominant group
Low identification with one’s ethnic ingroup, low subjective vitality and a belief that one can ‘pass’ linguistically, coupled with a large number of other potential identities of which many are high-status, are conditions that motivate someone to acquire native-like mastery in the second language. Proficiency in the second language is seen to be economically and culturally useful; it is considered additive to our identity. Realisation of this motivation is facilitated or inhibited by the extent to which we are made to feel confident or anxious about using the second language in specific contexts. The converse set of socio-psychological conditions motivates people to acquire only classroom proficiency. Through fear of assimilation, the second language is considered subtractive in that it may attract ingroup hostility and accusations of ethnic betrayal. Early education, individual Intelligence, personality and aptitude may also affect proficiency.
This analysis of second-language acquisition grounds language firmly in its cultural context and thus relates language acquisition to broader acculturation processes. John Berry and his colleagues distinguished between integration (individuals maintain ethnic culture and relate to dominant culture), assimilation (individuals give up their ethnic culture and wholeheartedly embrace the dominant culture), separation (individuals maintain their ethnic culture and isolate themselves from the dominant culture) and marginalisation (individuals give up their ethnic culture and fail to relate properly to the dominant culture (Berry, Trimble and Olmedo, 1986).
Human brain specimen being studied in neuroscience professor Ron Kalil’s Medical School research lab. © UW-Madison News & Public Affairs 608/262-0067 Photo by: Jeff Miller
While the only effective forms of adjustments that completely benefit a system remain “native citizens” [in terms of designing culturally fitting human organisms from the lower to the upper scale of society], and assimilation [the small number of culturally & educationally worthwhile & proficient organisms that manage to], the remaining could simply be qualified as burden to most systems, specially children deriving from economic migration [who are already being born in mass (in some cases) due to the higher fertility culture from their parents’ cultural origins, and who seem to want native treatment while not being able to culturally navigate with native-like proficiency (illogical demands with illogical cultural belonging). This ‘nomadic‘ generation of children whose parents initially moved from land to land for nothing else but the simple rush for cash from a socio-economic system with better financial prospects may unfortunately [at the exception of some illogical mainstream college-educated far-left human rights activists] be a scenario fitting with a parasitic ‘metaphoric example’, while to others [such as left wing economic policy makers], this could be what they cheaply describe as “modernism” & “cultural-enrichment“.
In a ‘psychological’ reality, from a social-psychologist’s perspective this may simply be described as a mass phenomenon that society is not used to dealing with and has not been monitoring effectively since the 1950s, to a point where confusion and sheer desperation sets for both native citizens and authorities when thinking of a “rational” solution that seems to be constantly destroyed by outdated, irrational and illogical human rights laws, forever unfavourable to major western societies while defending cheap unskilled migration originally from culturally and economically disastrous systems [e.g. the third world, middle east & some parts of Southern and Eastern Asia].
Thus, the consequences for second language learning can indeed be very dramatic and have a life changing impact. Most major economies today are fragmented due to linguistic barriers and cultural differences, furthermore, since language is refined from interactions, the lack of chemistry and coherence may well be a major factor in the drop in cultural and educational standards – not to mention a generation that does not seem to represent any values [cultural or philosophical] – but simply regional classroom proficiency and barely any granularity or refinement in the linguistic and cultural context of a heritage that comes with traditions ‘developed’ over centuries of civilisation.
Majority group members do not generally have the motivation to acquire native-like mastery of another language. According to John Edwards (1994), it is precisely the international prestige and utility, and of course widespread use of English that makes native English speakers such poor language students: they simply lack the motivation to become proficient. Itesh Sachdev and Audrey Wright (1996) pursued this point and found that English children were more motivated to learn languages from the European continent (e.g. French, German, Italian) than those from the Asian continent (e.g. Mandarin, Hindi, Russian, Urdu, Tamil, Arabic, etc) even though a fair amount of children in the sample were exposed to more Asian & African immigration [due to years of mediocre policies linked to cheap democratic governments & leftist agendas bent on promoting alien invasions – fragmenting societies & destructively shifting geographical compositions] than languages & cultures from Europe. A possible reason would be that English children perceive more prestige and desirability in mastering additional languages & cultures such as French, German & Italian instead of far-flung incompatible foreign ones [e.g. African Third world, Middle-East, Asia etc].
Communicating without words
Speech rarely happens in complete isolation from non-verbal cues. Even on a phone, individuals tend to automatically use a variety of gestures [body language] that cannot be ‘seen’ by the recipient at the other end of the phone line. In a similar fashion, phone and computer-mediated communication (CMC) conversations can be difficult precisely because many non-verbal cues are not accessible [e.g. users may interpret some messages as ‘cold’, ‘short’ or ‘rude’ when a participant might simply not be proficient at expressing themselves on a keyboard]. However, non-verbal channels do not always work in combination with speech to facilitate understanding. In some cases, non-verbal message starkly contradicts the verbal message [e.g. threats, sarcasm and other negative messages accompanied by a smile; Bugental, Love and Gianetto, 1971; Noller, 1984].
Agony, Torture, and Fright | Charles Darwin, 1868
Human beings can produce about 20,000 different facial expressions and about 1,000 different cues based on paralanguage. There are also about 700,000 physical gestures, facial expressions and movements (see Birdwhistell, 1970; Hewes, 1957; Pei, 1965). Even the briefest interaction may involve the fleeting and simultaneous use of a huge number of such devices in combination, making it unclear even to code behaviour, let alone analyse the causes and consequences of particular non-verbal communications. However, their importance is now acknowledged in social psychology (Ambady and Weisbuch, 2010; Burgoon, Buller and Woodall, 1989; DePaulo and Friedman, 1998), and doing research in this area has remained a major challenge. Non-verbal behaviour can be used for a variety of purposes, one may use it to:
- Glean information about feelings and intentions of others (e.g. non-verbal cues are often reliable indicators of whether someone likes you, is emotionally suffering, etc);
- Regulate interactions (e.g. non-verbal cues can signal the approaching end of an utterance, or that someone else wishes to speak)
- Express intimacy (e.g. touching and mutual eye contact);
- Establish dominance or control (non-verbal threats);
- Facilitate goal attainment (e.g. pointing)
These functions are to be found in most aspects of non-verbal behaviour such as gaze, facial expressions, body language, touch and interpersonal distance. Non-verbal communications has a large impact, yet it goes largely ‘unnoticed’ – perhaps since we acquire them unaware, we tend not to be conscious when using them. Most individuals acquire non-verbal skills without any formal training yet manage to master a rich repertoire of non-verbal behaviour very early in life – suggesting that huge individual differences in skills and uses should be noticed. Social norms can have a strong influence on our use of non-verbal language, for example, if one is delighted at the demise of an arrogant narcissist or foe, one would be unlikely to smile at their funeral – Schadenfreude is not a noble emotion to express [at least in most situations].
Individual and group differences also have an influence on, or are associated with, non-verbal cues. Robert Rosenthal and his colleagues (Rosenthal, Hall, DiMatteo, Rogers and Archer, 1979) devised a profile of non-verbal sensitivity (PONS) as a test to chart some of these differences. All things equal, non-verbal competence improves with age, is more advanced among successful people and is compromised among individuals with a range of psychopathologies (e.g. psychosis, autism).
Reviews conclude that women are generally better than men at decoding both visual cues and auditory cues, such as voice tone and pitch (E. T. Hall, 1979; J. A. Hall, 1978, 1984). The explanation for this seems to be rather social than evolutionary (Manstead, 1992), including child-rearing strategies that encourage girls more than boys to be emotionally expressive and attentive. One major question remains whether women’s greater competence is due to greater knowledge about non-verbal cues. According to Janelle Rosip and Judith Hall (2004), the answer seems to be ‘yes’ – women have a slight advantage, based on results from their test of non-verbal cue knowledge (TONCK). A meta-analysis by William Ickes has shown that when motivated to do so, women can become even more accurate: for example when women think they are being evaluated for their empathy or when gender-role expectations of empathy are brought to the fore (Ickes, Gesn and Graham, 2000).
Most individuals can improve their non-verbal skills (Matsumoto and Hwang, 2011), that can be useful for improving interpersonal communication, detecting deception, presenting a good impression and hiding our feelings [when required in some situations]. Practical books have been written and courses on communications has always had an enduring appeal. Why not try yourself out on the TONCK?
Non-verbal behaviour differs among individuals since most have different attachment styles thus different relationships too. In the case of intimate relationships, we would tend to assume that partners would enhance each other’s emotional security through accurate decoding of their individualistic non-verbal cues and responding appropriately (Schachner, Shaver and Mikulincer, 2005). Although there are data dealing with non-verbal behaviour in parent-child interactions and how they relate to the development of attachment styles in children (Bugental, 2005), there is less research focussing on how adult attachment styles are reflected ‘non-verbally’ in intimate relationships.
The concept of self is not an overnight process but a gradual and intelligent process involving calculated, precise and minute adjustments to one’s inner thoughts, thus, over time, changing one’s cognitive schemas, personality, identity and linguistic proficiency. It is a process hugely dependent on individual motivation, education, dedication, capability, IQ and cultural proficiency. Along with it, languages are the essence of identity as it also leads to cultural belonging and thus, cognitive schemas related to inner thoughts that allow one to navigate efficiently within the particular cultural theme and be part of the societies related to the languages. Together, psychology, linguistic culture, personality and education are the core of individual conception – to sum it up beautifully for colleagues in innovation, science and psychology out there, “It is not what is in the head that counts, but the ability to turn it into a believable logical reality and a psychologically valid human concept/identity.”
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