The challenge of understanding our linguistics boundaries in different contexts

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(Photo credit: weelakeo)

I remember my first email account, a @hotmail.com one, that I had done to be able to chat with my friends on messenger. That was after ICQ became obsolete. A few years later, I would change it for a @gmail.com, the same one I use until today, 12 years later. This new account grew up with me, as my e-mails about school essays and group activities became an intellectual exchange about linguistics with my master’s advisor and a way to reach out for friends living abroad. Also, it quickly became THE way to apply for jobs, make new business connections and broadcast my ventures into blogging. When I started dating my husband, three and a half years ago, e-mails, text messages and skype talks were our way to stay in touch, since I lived in Brazil and he in the US.

Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) was the main theory I used on my master’s research. The main concern of SFL is to understand how language functions in different ways, according to a context of culture and a context of situation. A context of culture is the broad social environment we are in. It includes everything that constitutes an individual as a social being: his country, language, education, social status, customs, religious beliefs. A context of situation refers to the social environment where communication is established, something more specific than the context of culture. It is directly related to three variables: how meaning is construed (textual metafunction), what meanings are beings expressed (ideational metafunction) and who is involved in the communication (interpersonal metafunction). This means that people within a determined culture, when communicating, adapt their written or verbal texts accordingly to what they want to say, how they want to say it and to whom they are speaking to.

Going back to my e-mails, we can see they were used in different situations, with different purposes. I used to write my boyfriend about my day and ask about his, tell him funny stories, and so on. This specific interactions have certain language features that, of course,  were not present on job interview requests. On one of the first emails I wrote my american boyfriend, 2 weeks after we met, I accidentally signed “Bj, Juliana”, like I would do if I was writing to a Brazilian friend. Bj, in portuguese slang, means Kiss. In my mind, I was sending him a kiss, not implying anything more sexual, which you can imagine surprised the hell out of him. He awckardingly-jokingly replied, I would imagine a bit chocked with my audacity, but still not sure what I meant with that. His reply made me blush after I realized the misunderstanding, and it became a joke between us. Our cultural differences certainly had put as through some funny episodes like this one. After a few months, the friendly “Kisses” were replaced by the much more sentimental “Love you”, way more suitable for two people that were actually falling in love and taking their relationship seriously, apart from the geographic distance. The closer we grew, the language we used in our emails naturally changed.

Now, I would never write to a possible-future-boss the same way I wrote to my boyfriend. First of all, since I talked about slangs, I would never sign an email with a slang term, it is too informal. If I wanted to be taken seriously by him, I would have to use my e-email as an opportunity to show that I can write accordingly to certain social established rules. Treat the person with respect, thanking him or her for taking the time to get to know me through my resumé. Tell a little about myself and why his open position add compelled me to write, how perfect I think I am for that job. I want to make sure he will read my resumé, so I keep it short and give maybe one key information that would catch his attention and make him interested. I would have to keep a formal distance, mainly because he is stranger with the power to hire me or not, and to whom I may have to work for. Not as formal as “your highness”, but still formal. I would start the email with a short “Hello”, introduce myself and finish it off with, maybe, a “Thanks for your time, hope to hear back from you, Juliana”.

The two situations described above wildly vary in terms of what meanings were expressed, how they were expressed and who I was talking to. The degree of formality in my speech would change depending on how intimate is my relationship with the person I am talking to, the informations would vary according to what is suitable for me to talk about to each person and the way I would expressed myself, for instance, using or not slang, also followed the social standards for each interaction.

Our main challenge is to adapt our language to the distinct social situations we face everyday. While personal emails are easier to be written, the main problem is when we push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable in a professional atmosphere. To avoid this problem our perception of propriety needs to be sharp, and, in order to do that, we need to understand our audience, the topic we are talking about and language, itself.

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One thought on “The challenge of understanding our linguistics boundaries in different contexts

  1. Pingback: functionality, confusion, and humor | power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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