Practica: Listening to Unspoken Conversations

Culture as conversations

People talk to themselves all the time. They carry on a constant inner conversation while working on the computer, watching television, reading books or juggling smartphone apps. We don't know what they say to themselves about the messages we give them when they are listening to us speak to them.

If we were talking directly to them we could ask questions and listen "actively" to their responses. When communicating through the media, however, we may not even know who they are personally, to say nothing of knowing what goes through their minds as they take in what we send. So, we guess. We try to construct a message that will reach them. We weigh words and images to avoid "red flags" and "red herrings." We want them to track the direction we intend.

If we could know more about the conversations people have with themselves, we could create more effective messages. This analysis will help.

We are born into a Prevailing Conversation carried on by the people about us, our parents, family, neighborhood, etc. We learn our language along with the meanings, beliefs, and values that words contain from what people around us say. We talk to ourselves as others have talked to us. We have no other choice. This is the Primitive Conversation that we have with ourselves.

Most men, for example, are likely to have been born into a Prevailing Conversation which stated that, "Women are the weaker sex," or, "Women need men to look after them and protect them." This becomes their Primitive Conversation about women.

It is automatically present when a word like "woman" is mentioned and shows up spontaneously when men are called to interact with women. They interpret new situations in the light of their Primitive Conversations with conversations derived from them.

So, for example, when a daughter is about to go off to summer camp dad is likely to have a different Derivative Conversation with himself about her than he might if his son was about to do the same thing, e.g., "I wonder if Amy will be ok and can take care of herself," or, "Will the environment be 'safe' for a fourteen-year-old girl?", instead of, "Camp is good for Charlie–it’ll make him self-reliant."

Unexamined, our Primitive and Derivative Conversations become unconsciously the active "biases" with which we listen to and "understand" what others say to us and the "reality" out of which we act.

As individuals grow and mature, particularly in a pluralistic environment, they are challenged with other Prevailing Conversations of a new time and place and flowing from new experiences. They begin to create new or Alternative Conversations for themselves, which puts them in the position of needing to make choices about how they will understand others and act toward them.

For a man such an alternative conversation might be, "Girls are as intelligent and capable as boys and need to have many of the same experiences to grow up." Obviously, women learn Alternative Conversations, although their Primitive Conversations may be different because as children they were and now are likely spoken to differently than men are.

When we speak to people either directly or through the media, we can ask of ourselves and our sources of information:

  1. What are the Primitive and Derivative Conversations of our audience likely to be, given the Prevailing Conversations of the time and place in which they have grown up?
  2. What Alternative Conversations will they be challenged to accept for themselves or defend themselves against, given:
  • the various new conversations which are prevailing in the society in which they are immersed today, and,
  • what we are now saying to them.

When we have constructed our hypothetical answers, we can aim our message at the audience and try it out. We can then test our hypothesis by getting feedback from a sample of the population we are reaching. Such feedback can be had, even informally, by questions which ask people to share the conversations they have been having with themselves. Here are samples of such questions:

  • What did X mean to you?
  • What came to mind when you read X?
  • What did you tell yourself when you saw X?
  • What would you have liked to have heard or seen instead of X?
  • What sort of discussion did you have with yourself about the pros and cons of X?

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