Category: Language

Poetry Couture + Pinker

I read at a gathering organized by Poetry Couture alongside Smeetha Bhowmick and others at Kulture Shop in Bandra, Mumbai. We were the featured poets before an open mic session.  The audience and energy were fantastic. The folks at Poetry Couture are organized, professional, and lovely. They gave Smeetha and me a generous amount of time each. They seemed genuinely happy to be doing this. And they’re trying to do some great stuff around the country. Please give them some love on their FB page.

Besides being in between places, I’m also in between jobs. After three years of handling communications at Gender at Work, I’m moving on. To what?  This and that, say I vaguely. Which is to say the freedom of freelance, the getting up in the morning, hunting for a gig kinda thing. It’s time. Frightening as it may be, I feel more alive this way.    The hunt, the perpetual hunt.  The possibility of being anyone.  Less romantically, I’m in the market for writing/editing contracts etc.

I almost called this post in medias res, then didn’t. Convincing experts to simplify their language is tough. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time now, because it’s the kind of work I’ve been doing for a long time now. Steven Pinker says in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century that “When we are apprentices in our chosen specialty, we join a clique in which, it seems to us, everyone else seems to know so much! And they talk among themselves as if their knowledge were second nature to every educated person.” We then start to jabber, speak in code, nonsensical to people outside the universe. Sometimes we’re convinced that’s the right way to speak. Sometimes, we’re shit scared of not speaking like that. “Even when we have an inkling that we are speaking in a specialized lingo, we may be reluctant to slip back into plain speech. It could betray to our peers the awful truth that we are still greenhorns, tenderfoots, newbies.”

Good ol’ insecurity.

He goes on to say: “…if you are enough of an expert in a topic to have something to say about it, you have probably come to think about it in abstract chunks and functional labels that are now second nature to you but still unfamiliar to your readers—and you are the last one to realize it. As writers, then, we should try to get into our readers’ heads and be mindful of how easy it is to fall back on parochial jargon and private abstractions. But these efforts can take us only so far. None of us has, and few of us would want, a power of clairvoyance that would expose to us everyone else’s private thoughts.” The answer, he suggests is reviewers, people who will offer critique. The logic of the workshop. I helped out at a writer’s room for a tv series earlier this month. It was interesting to see how each of us have our own linguistic tics, words we keep using, phrases, even character arcs that we fall back on. The collaborative process is great for avoiding one person’s particular weaknesses.  (On the flip side, things can go awfully slow on a bad day and pleasing everyone can mean a design-by-committee problem i.e. everyone’s ok with it but nobody loves it.)

 

Context of Cultures: High and Low

On Edward Hall’s Context of Cultures: High and Low which basically classifies societies on the basis of interaction, communication, relationships. High-context cultures tend to rely more on context: references, old relationships, community. A lot is unsaid. What is said is flowery, indirect.  Low-context cultures have open, direct communications, based on specific rules that are accessible to everyone. Commonly, China, India, Brazil, Japan have been talked of as high-context and the US and Germany are examples of low-context societies.

This website comes with a neat little test to help you figure out whether you function better in high-context situations or low-context ones. I’m not sure how accurate the test is but it is fun.

Ruchir Sharma talks about India and Brazil as high-context cultures in his book Breakout Nations. 

“High-context societies believe deeply in tradition, history and favoring the in-group, whether it is one’s family or business circle, and thus they are vulnerable to corruption. If this description sounds questionable to businessmen or tourists who know Brazil and India as open, familiar and straightforward, that is because they’ve experienced only the low-context facade adopted by the outward-facing elites who need to deal in a clear way with foreigners. Everyone is welcome at Brazil’s Carnival or an Indian wedding, and they may even be made to feel like an insider, but the reality is that it takes decades to become a real part of these cultures.”

I think of times I’ve tried to ‘explicate’ India to foreigners. At one time, I worked as a ‘cultural fluent’ for a consumer research firm called Iconoculture. My job consisted of decoding Indians, categorized into tidy market segments of course, our particular triggers and responses. To them, India was a vast and mysterious place with its intricate coded meanings and these needed translation.

In classes at UCLA, I found myself saying, ‘No, I can’t put that in the screenplay; that would never happen in India’–and a moment later–felt the discomfort of generalizing, of ‘speaking for’. The question of representation.  But ‘outward-facing elites’ are often those who get heard, those who get to speak. At night, I’d stay up late, replaying conversations in my head. What had I left out? What had I mis-conveyed? Sins of omission.

Once, I hosted ‘Indian night’ at our place, aware of the ridiculous inadequacy of any such endeavor. I cooked Punjabi-ish food. There had been vague discussions about watching a Hindi movie. I couldn’t choose one. What would be appropriate, encompassing, enough? Personal faves didn’t make it. Lootera was too period, Queen too atypical, Kahaani too much of a genre movie. Finally, I decided to show a montage of trailers. Bits and pieces of upcoming Hindi films, collated to add up to something like a ‘fair’ picture. Of course, it wasn’t. I didn’t include a single Khan movie (the upcoming ones just didn’t appeal to me). It was at best a representation–in fragments–of my taste in Hindi films.

From this article: For Indians, the purpose of communication is to maintain harmony and forge relationships but we’re moving towards an LC culture, largely because of technology, trade, travel and television. Indians are more verbose and dialogue-oriented than other high-context societies like the Japanese, Chinese or Koreans, which also makes this move easier.

And another view on this whole thing and the danger of stereotyping.

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