The Social Bases of Language and the Linguistic Underpinnings of Social Behavior

Credit: Thomas M. Holtgraves, Professor of Social Psychology, Ball State University

Welcome. My name is Ori M. Zuckerman and I’m the CEO and co-founder of SubStrata, a new startup that develops socioaffective technology for business—primarily for B2B Sales & HR. In this blog my team members and I, together with a small group of carefully selected guest writers, will shed light on various fascinating facets of pragmatics and social dynamics and explore how they intersect with technology.

This post focuses on the learnings of Ball State University Professor Thomas M. Holtgraves, who summarized many of what we know about language pragmatics in his seminal book, Language as a Social Action: Social Psychology and Language Use.

Ori M. Zuckerman, CEO & Co-founder of SubStrata

In his book, Holtgraves discusses the following concepts:

(a) Language Use as Action

Traditionally, language has been viewed as an “abstract system” that can be analyzed apart from its use. But language can also be viewed as a tool used to achieve particular goals. This type of language use is a meaningful action that has consequences for everyone involved in the conversation. To really “understand” meaning, language cannot be abstract and context is critical. The meaning behind a speaker’s words (the speaker’s goal) can only be derived through the context in which they are spoken.

(b) Language Use as Interpersonal Action

Language is simultaneously an interpersonal action in that it has implications for the thoughts and feelings of the involved parties and for the relationship that exists between them. Our words are typically addressed to other real people, not to abstract entities. Our use of language, therefore, must be sensitive to other people’s feelings, goals, thoughts, concerns, and values. By attending to the feelings of others, we increase the likelihood that they will attend to ours.

Language seems to be remarkably responsive to these concerns, and its use is interpersonal in another way: it’s a rich resource of identity-related, impression-forming, social status-determining information including accents, speech rate politeness level, social connectivity cues (name-dropping), and more. In fact, many of these variables can be strategically altered in an attempt to influence or manage the impressions we convey to others or—more accurately—to influence the formation of other people’s perceptions of our social rank and other identity traits.

(c) Language Use as Contextualized Action

Conversational utterances are not isolated things. Meanings (both intended and unintended) reside not so much in an utterance as in the placement of that utterance within the sequence of a conversation.

(d) Language Use as Coordinated Action

As an interpersonal action involving additional people, language is also a collective action. It is important for interlocutors to coordinate their relative perspectives to make sense of how their conversation partners will interpret their utterances. Considering perspective in this way is important for many levels of language use.

(e) Language use as Thoughtful action

Language and thought are related in various ways, especially because thought and cognition are mediated by language. This is particularly true for human social cognition. Language provides a recursive vehicle for perceiving and thinking (and re-perceiving and re-thinking) about others. For example, telling a story to another person can affect what we (and our interlocutors) think and remember about ourselves and others.

Conclusion

Almost like breathing, language is one of those things we often take for granted, considering it necessary for life but seldom paying attention to it unless problems or issues develop. Unlike breathing, however, language has profound implications for our social existence. It plays a role in virtually every aspect of our dealings with others. Understanding what we’re doing when we use language can aid our understanding of what it means to be a social being.

Tech Entrepreneur, co-founder of SubStrata Technologies

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