Themes: identities and difference, speaking
Identities and difference
We all have a set of identities or 'selves' which we bring to social encounters. We make choices (consciously and unconsciously) to 'play' up one identity over another at different times and in different situations. And the selves which we are able to use are affected by the selves of the other/s in a social situation (Reinharz,1997).
Drawing on Reinharz's ideas, Jean brings different selves to her encounter with Nazra. Although it is the 'practice teacher based self' which Jean will wish to put to the fore in her meeting with Nazra, the other bits of herself are still there, and will impact on the communication throughout:
- Her practice teacher based self (being a practice teacher, being a listener etc)
- Her brought self (being a mother, soon to be a grandmother, being in her 50s, being white, being a socialist etc)
- Her situationally created self (being tired, being menopausal, being someone with a large caseload etc)
Consider the selves that you bring to your work with students. Which would you wish to forefront, and which might you wish to tone down a little? And why?
Communication isn't just affected by identities. It is also affected by difference - for example, by age, ethnicity/'race', culture. One of the things which we do all the time is to work from stereotypes or 'typifications' - this is explored in Berger and Luckman's classic study of the social construction of reality. When we meet someone for the first time, we make up our minds about them within the first 15 seconds, on the basis of their age, gender, accent, hairstyle, clothing etc etc. And having decided who they are, we then make up whole stories about who we think they are, and how they will behave. So we think we know how 'young people' will act; we can predict how a 'working-class person from urban Scotland' might feel in a given situation. But can we?
This is important in thinking about our communication with students (and, of course, with service users). This is not to suggest that we are prejudiced or discriminatory in any kind of conscious way; instead, we need to acknowledge that this is something about human behaviour which goes on all the time. For example, look at the photographs below of Nazra, Jean and Paul. Being honest with yourself, think about their relationships and try to note any assumptions you find yourself making.
Nazra comes from a middle-class, educated background. When she was an undergraduate student, she made use of student counselling services to help her to cope with extreme anxiety and unhappiness about her course.
Paul grew up in a lower middle-class family where maintaining appearances was all important. His upbringing was characterised by secrets; it is difficult for him to trust enough to let people know what he really thinks and feels about things. But he has been working with other service users in hospital to begin to see his problems as societal, not just individual.
Jean is from a working-class background. There was no expectation that she would stay on at school or go to university. When she was doing her Access course, she discovered for the first time that she has dyslexic difficulties. Jean is caring for her elderly mother who lives nearby and is beginning to get forgetful. She has recently had extensive contact with adult services to discuss her mother's care.
This exercise raises important issues about power and difference. Whilst Jean may have power over Nazra based on age, experience and ethnicity, Nazra may experience class-related power over Jean. And all three people have experienced (or are currently experiencing) being users of services. So we can get it badly wrong if we act on our assumptions in an unthinking way.
Jean and Nazra will have lots of pre-existing ideas about each other which may be changed and challenged as the practice learning develops. It will be important that Jean, as the practice teacher, checks out her own assumptions about Nazra and is not afraid to ask her to explain aspects her own background and culture if this is having an impact on her learning or practice.
It will also be helpful if Nazra gains confidence so that she can ask questions of Jean in the same way. And it will be good for Paul to be able to confront both Nazra and Jean as a person of equal standing. His experience with other service users may encourage him to do this.
There are different kinds of speaking, just as there are different kinds of writing. Thompson (2003: 84-85) calls these 'speech genres'. He suggests that these may include:
- Formal interviews (e.g. for a job)
- Highly ritualized greetings (e.g. about the weather)
- Transactions (e.g. ordering a round of drinks in a pub)
- Chat-up lines
- General social chit-chat
Each speech genre has its own style or 'rules' and its own forms of language - as we have a social encounter with another person or persons, we may find ourselves moving in and out of different forms and conventions. So when Jean speaks with Nazra, the genre used is probably closest to what Thompson identifies as a tutorial - it is a formal conversation, but probably less formal than a job interview. It may have aspects which are more informal - most likely at the beginning and end of the meeting - and there may be an element of transaction (contract making) too. More information on speaking…
Spend 10 minutes observing people speaking to each other and list your observations.