Saturday, July 01, 2006

Expressiveness vs. public decorum

Moving Violations By DEBORAH TANNEN Homepage: July 1, 2006
Though my research focused on how the women talked (the Greek women were vivid story-tellers, using the present tense and setting dramatic scenes with dialogues and details), I can't help pondering the differing actions the two groups of women described. Surely some general cultural patterns are at play.
For one thing, most Greeks, like their Mediterranean neighbors, place value on expressiveness, whereas American culture is influenced by the Northern European and British emphasis on public decorum. That's why Americans often mistake animated Greek conversation for argument. Another cultural difference is how readily strangers get involved in others' interactions. I once saw two men arguing on an Athens street; when one raised his hand to strike, he was immediately restrained by a passer-by.
This incident may help explain another Greek woman's account of a strange man who followed her and then approached with unwanted advances. She told me: "I yelled and I gave him a strong smack...Though many of the Greek women reported feeling anger and fear, they didn't talk about feeling helpless, as many American women did, and as I recall feeling when it happened to me. Equally dreadful was the sense of isolation: though you're in a crowd, something is happening only to you, and no one else knows.
Speaking out dispels that isolation, as well as the sense of shame that it reflects and reinforces. Knowing that she had acted allowed at least one of my Greek storytellers to transform a potentially traumatic experience into bonding through shared laughter. Deborah Tannen is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author, most recently, of "You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation."

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