Tone, meaning, and socialisation

An extremely interesting topic has come in my more immediate blogging community – that of language, use, tone, and meaning. It seems to have began with the blog, written by a man named Bruce, often mentioned by Ninglun, occasionally visited by me,  called The Thinker’s Podium, specifically this post. It’s the author’s battle with mastering tone of voice, and how he still has trouble with it. The first (and, at the time of writing, only) comment for the post made me laugh.

Anyway, that post inspired Ninglun, of New Lines from a Floating Life notoriety, to write this post. This title is a good reflection of what the post is about: ‘Always remember your readers are human, so are other bloggers, and so are you…’. Where Bruce, who wrote a post about personal problems with the trickery of tone, took an informal approach to the topic, Ninglun has taken a more academic one. He cites a pyramid table of ‘disagreement’, originally found on the blog Five Public Opinions, who still links here (thanks!) and where I visit also occasionally. That table is here. It’s rather interesting, and probably of worth in trying to get a grasp of the ‘study’ of arguing.

Ninglun also references a writing guide (as I would expect a teacher to – and hosted by an education website of all things!), found here, which is to provide writing advice and outlines for people in the business community with a specific focus on tone. It’s an interesting read, if you can handle the dose. It certainly isn’t the most riveting topic to read that much on, but for my interests, it was.

At the same time as this was going on (it would seem), Jim, on Personal Reflections, was writing a post about a somewhat related topic – the inherent legal problems in blogging, which then turned into a bit about the blogging community and its evolution. Jim has written on this topic before, which has encouraged me to write about it. In fact, in the weeks before I started my pseudo-second job last year, I had started hand-writing a post about how I conceive the blogging community – how I conceptualise it, how I’ve seen it develop and change, where I see it going, and my ‘place’ in it. That A4 page turned into a whole exercise book, where the post turned into not a look at the blogosphere from the inside, but a look at the blogosphere as a branch of society. This then turned into 3 exercise books about the place of the Internet in society, how the Internet facilitates sub-cultures, and how these sub-cultures interact with both the society’s constructed community, and with one-another in e-communities. There’s references from scholars, delvings into theories and writings that are explored in my sociology and psychology textbooks, personal anecdotes and stories, and examples of things I was looking to explore pasted in.

Of course, the whole post got out-of-hand, I got busy, and it proved to be such a monumental and ill-focused idea, that I had to abandon it. The books are somewhere under my bed, just begging to be taken up again. But unless I found a want in myself to have something published (which, on this topic and with my handiwork (or lack thereof), would be an extreme pass of fortune), I suspect I’ll never go back to it.

So back to the actual topic. Jim wrote his post, found here, and after some time, went back and added a postscript that sent us back to Ninglun because the two blogger’s focus on tone in writing and speech was a common denominator.

And so we get to where I come in. I checked all of my regular blogs once I got in from work today (2.5 hours ago), and this topic had obviously made the rounds. Which, of course, got to me thinking about it. Ever since I took a course at university on functional grammar (Language and Image – do it if you’re at Sydney University and interested in language, literary critique, or English), I have always been interested in meaning behind language. Michael Halliday’s and Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories on the meaning, identity through language, dialogue, and more just fascinated me. If I was engaged in a different degree, or had more time on my hands, I may very well have pursued a major with subjects like this.

So it wasn’t long before I had digested what was being written about tone, argument construction, good and bad rhetorical choices, before I started thinking about the speaker, the receiver, and meaning. I came to the conclusion that as important tone was being considered, meaning and meaning perception was even more important in what was being looked at.

I thought back to the fact that meaning is not found in words. George Mead’s theory that words are symbols, and that they don’t just stand for objects, but also define them, was what I first thought back to. Interaction between individuals would thus be through the use of symbols – they provide the means by which people can interact and communicate with one-another.

But our communication with one another is flawed. The symbols that Mead talks about are man-made. Languages that people use in society are man-made. And these symbols came to have meaning not of the actual nature of objects and events, but of the ways in which people perceive them. The symbol ‘word’ doesn’t refer to a string of letters, or black ink on a page, but how we perceive them – an arrangment of letters that creates meaning.

Ferdinand de Saussure, a linguist, unlike the sociologist Mead, turned his attention semiotics of meaning, and termed the signifier, the signified, and the sign. The signifier is the audible sound or the written word – in essence, the form. Saussure originally wrote that the form was a psychological one, but in more recent times this has expanded to include the physical representation. The signified is the cognitive image or construction that is conjured when one perceives the signifier – the concept. Saussure then posits that the sign is the results of the association between between the signifier and the signified. All signs must have a signifier and a signified because a sign only exists as a recognised relationship between a form and a concept. The sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and a particular arrangement of letters or a certain string of sounds.

But signs are arbitrary. There is nothing that forces the signifier ‘dog’ to trigger the signified of ‘dog’ in your mind – there is nothing ‘doggish’ about the word ‘dog’. From this, any signifier could be related to any signified. This brings into the equation the social nature of language, and the issues that arise from it. It is wider social agreement, learned from socialisation, from parent culture, and from social awareness in individuals, that people learn language and meaning.

Individuals can only communicate with one-another because there is an agreement between the signs. It might not be 100% agreement – which is where you get confusion, contestation, problems, and disagreement – but there is enough there for communication and action to occur. And while the arbitrariness of the sign may, originally, seem to be the source for more problems than any benefits, Saussure theorised that it is the arbitrariness nature of signs that actually makes language work.

So what was all this for? Well, I started thinking about how tone might reflect meaning, but socialisation will determine meaning, and a person’s reaction to it, it more. A person who has not been socialised to the same extent as others may gather entirely different meaning from a sentence. Someone may not be socially aware to the same extent as those around them, and may miss intentions of tone. Let’s take a few examples.

A person makes a sarcastic joke. A person hasn’t been exposed to the tone of sarcasm to enough of an extent that they understand it, and the person takes offense. That’s a pretty simple example – taking literal meaning of words, which was not intended, and ignorant of tone.

On the other hand, a person could be too socialised, and find, or look for, meaning where it doesn’t exist. Take a boy smitten by a girl. The girl is friendly and says kind things to the boy with a friendly tone, with only friendly meaning. The boy interprets this reciprocated interest, reading ‘too much’ meaning, into what she says’. The boy does this because he has very little of a socialised experience with girls. Boy asks girl out, expecting reciprocated interest. We know how that story will end. But can you see how the receiver was perceptive of tone, but not socialised enough for certain circumstances to understand the meaning as intended?

I could go on for a lot longer, and perhaps I should to fully explain why I think social factors have more important role to the receiver of your message’s reaction than the tone of a person. But this post could easily turn into the one I was talking about – out of control. But I’ll leave it summed up in this: Intentions of what is being said stand a chance of not being received in the same way because of the social nature of meaning attached  to words.

Turning to the online world (such is my associated interest), this has radical implications for the e-community. A person more e-socialised will be able to read the intend meaning of something written by a person as e-socialised as the sender of the message. Equivalent e-socialisation (or socialisation for that matter) begets more meaning, and more of the intended meaning, than disparate levels. This brought forward a question, in my mind, of whether a person more e-socialised can comprehend intended more of the actual meaning from a person of a lesser level, but not the other way round? A one-way street, if you will? Because they have been through the evolving process of e-communication and e-socialisation, yet the lesser level person has not. The process, in many of the Internet’s e-sub-cultures, is very ‘initiation’-orientated, so by having been through them, those of the higher-level can ‘comprehend’ more of what is being said of lower-level people.

And I’ve typed more than 200 words since I said I would finish this up, so I’ll do it abruptly here.


P.S. – I foresee this being the first in many posts on this topic. If it proves to be successful enough, or interesting, or even maintainable, I might try and start getting all my thoughts on the e-community/Internet/etc. post onto this blog.


4 thoughts on “Tone, meaning, and socialisation

  1. Good heavens, Thomas! But I am pleased you are taking the topic up, and of course I commend your references to such as Halliday and Bakhtin, which takes me back to my UTS course among other things…

    I was also reflecting on some of my less noble blogging experiences too… (You may even recall one or two of those.)

  2. I didn’t mean to not credit you, or anyone I spoke about, for writing on the topic. It only got attributed to Jim because it came up while I was talking about it. Sorry about that. I’ll be sure to re-track some of yours down when I revisit the topic.

  3. This was interesting, Thomas. Do get those exercise books out! I need to think about a couple of the points you made and will try to do so in the midst of the workshops I am running at the moment.

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