Language and Thinking
  • Polite Talk

    One the more important functions of spoken language is to maintain the peace. Polite talk is a collection of sounds, words and phrases that signal peaceful intuitions and acknowledge social status. Some polite sounds send a direct signal that inhibits aggression and anger. Polite talk is part of a collection of behaviors that manifest social status within a hierarchy. Stability in a group involves spoken interactions that fine-tune social status. A dominant human is confident and can command or demand with little or no polite talk. A submissive human makes appeasing sounds and uses words of deference along with statements of compliance. When strangers meet, they exchange greeting words and behaviors that establish status.

    Calm is an important emotional expression with social significance. Humans associate dominance with strength and confidence. A powerful leader will be emotionally neutral. His or her strength is expressed as fearlessness and competence as composure. Distraught humans in threatening circumstances will follow a calm, confident leader. A leader who loses his composure will lose his followers.

    The goal of polite society is to create and maintain social environments that are emotionally neutral. Thus, public places, schools and work environments are designed to inhibit emotional displays and encourage polite behaviors. Emotional stability is an essential requirement for polite behavior.

    Polite conversations are constrained by implicit rules so that provocative comments, rude gestures and negative emotions are avoided. An impolite participant can lead a conversing group toward an angry confrontation and disrupt the entire gathering. An astute host will only invite compatible guests to the party and will arrange seating and entertainment to avoid abrasive encounters. Polite society has always used breeding, education, and past performance as the main criteria to include appropriate guests or to exclude unsuitable people who may misbehave. Training in polite talk begins at an early age in the best of families, continues in schools and is fully expressed in the social behaviors of adults who enjoy acceptance, privilege and prestige.

    At a deeply personal level, states of contentment are emotionally neutral – no disturbances. Your consciousness is clear. You are content, calm and centered. The idea of perfect happiness has been expressed in metaphors such as the still pool of water and the clear blue sky. Emotions are disruptive. Even “good feelings” disturb the calm, untroubled mind. Smart, competent people tend to be calmer people. Compassionate people have conquered their anger and fear.

    Equal strangers are polite when the first meet; they exchange standard greetings and converse about neutral subjects such as the weather. If their conversation continues, both will attempt to establish dominance over the other, at first by subtle gestures and well chosen words. Unequal strangers will show status-specific behaviors with degrees of dominance and submission. Conflict arises when one of the strangers behaves inappropriately. Deference is the antidote to conflict. In well-organized social situations status is recognized and conspicuously displayed so that there are few opportunities for inappropriate encounters.

    Proper distance is another feature of polite talk. Standing close is permitted only among friends and intimates. A stranger who stands too close is unwelcome or threatening. A dominant human who approaches closely is threatening.

    Humans evaluate each other continuously and notice speech features, peculiarities and inappropriate words. The description “good personality” suggests that a person’s language and behavior suits the needs and standards of a specific group. Skilful humans learn appropriate polite talk and tell suitable stories in different social settings. The most agreeable people are polite, informative and entertaining. While a good performance is a social asset, a good listener may be more highly regarded. Asking good questions and listening attentively to the answers is a time-honored strategy for social success. A polite listener uses little sounds as counterpoint to show approval of the speaker’s remarks. You can say very little, listen with agreement and your companion will conclude that you are very intelligent. A well informed rebuttal will have the opposite effect.

    • Dr. Gislason wrote: "In this brief reflection I describe some basic truths about languages that are aspects of human nature most likely to endure. I feature storytelling and selftalk as the two most important features of the human use of language. I consider how languages fit in the larger scheme of intelligence and human interactions. Interesting challenges emerge when language is used to describe itself. Spoken language is an innate ability of humans that emerges in all human groups. Spoken language is the key to interaction among humans. There are several thousand languages in human groups that enhance group cohesion and at the same time separate groups that cannot communicate. I trace the evolution of sound communication from animals who have lived on earth for hundreds of millions of years to computer programming that uses condensed forms of cryptic languages that are received and expressed by electronic circuits."

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      Human Nature
      The Good Person
      Pieces of the Puzzle
      The Sound of Music
      Surviving Human Nature
      Language and Thinking
      I and Thou
      Emotions and Feelings
      Neuroscience Notes
      Children and Family
      Intelligence and Learning
      Religion for 21st Century

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      The Psychology, Neuroscience and Philosophy series was developed by Persona Digital Books. The books are copyright; all rights to reproduction by any means are reserved.
      The author is Stephen Gislason and the publisher is Persona Digital Books.