Intimate talk with family and friends can be examined as a product, process, or resource. It is a product of a relationship that has become intimate over time. This is the focus of studies involving social penetration (Altman & Taylor 1973) or social exchange theories (Thibaut & Kelley 1959), which find that as one person self-discloses, the other may reciprocate and the relationship becomes closer or more intimate. A different understanding comes from seeing intimate talk as process: speakers co-construct meaning and through talk create the relationship. This is the focus of scholars interested in conversation analysis. Standing between these two approaches is intimate talk as resource, whereby speakers are competent in the performance and interpretation of certain forms of talk, such as joking or greeting, and intentionally use these to create, index or point to, and sustain intimate relationships. This is the focus of studies in such fields as sociolinguistics and the ethnography of communication.
Intimate Talk As Process
In an oft-cited study, the prominent conversation analysts Jefferson, Sacks, and Schegloff (1987) studied laughter in everyday conversations. They found laughter occurs at strategic points, e.g., at the completion of speaker turns. Laughter may occur as a component of “improper” talk, or talk that is marked as rude, obscene, or profane, and marks a move from non-intimate to intimate talk. That is, when one speaker utters such words as “orgasmic” or “diarrhea,” the other speaker may laugh at length and show appreciation, or laugh and show “affiliation” by carrying on and contributing to the talk. For example, when one person said “syphilitic,” the other laughed and then said, “I keep running tests onyuh I know yer not” (Jefferson et al. 1987, 167). This indicates topics considered “improper” are evaluated and marked through laughter, which may signal the process of moving to more intimate talk among friends.
A study by Kitzinger (2005) also looks at intimate talk as process. In a classic lecture, Sacks (1972) explained the sentences, “The baby cried. The mommy picked it up” as providing speakers with membership categories upon which they decide appropriate activities. That is, upon hearing these sentences, the reader assumes the baby belongs to the mother and thus it is appropriate for her to pick it up. Kitzinger (2005) applied this to an analysis of recorded telephone conversations between patients and “after hours” doctors in the United Kingdom. (“After hours” doctors are those with no specialization who work 24-hour shifts answering phone calls from unknown patients.) She found that when the caller utters a kinship term, such as daughter, wife, or husband, the doctor assumes the caller lives with the patient and has intimate knowledge of the sick person’s condition. However, when other kinship terms are used, such as grandson or boyfriend, or non-kinship terms such as friend or “the lady,” the doctor does not assume intimate knowledge of the condition. Thus, these terms play a role in how speakers make on-the-spot evaluations of the degree of intimacy of relationships, demonstrating how talk is coconstructed as a process.
Intimate Talk As Resource
Hymes (1974), who first articulated the ethnography of communication, helps us understand intimate talk as resource. As children mature into adulthood it is necessary that they develop “communicative competence.” They must learn not only the language of their community, but also the rules and norms which guide the performance and interpretation of speech. One important part of communicative competence is to know how to perform “speech acts,” a minimal unit of speech such as a joke or greeting. One well-known example of a speech act as a resource of intimate talk comes from Basso’s (1979) observations of talk among the Western Apache. Over several years he observed joking imitations of “the whiteman.” In each performance the speaker code switched from Apache to English and selected a status-role of Anglo American (e.g., doctor or tourist) and contrasted it with a Western Apache one (e.g., patient). The Anglo American role was exaggerated and marked by verbal and nonverbal behaviors that contrasted with proper Apache behavior: pointedly and loudly asking, “How are you?” while shaking the hand in an accentuated up-and-down fashion, speaking loudly, inquiring about the other person’s health. Each performance would end with the evaluative comment, “White men are stupid.” Basso found these joking performances were considered to be both funny and dangerous. They were dangerous because the joke could be taken in the wrong way and they functioned as a social commentary on proper Apache behavior. These jokes were performed among people who were family members or intimate friends. Such jokes were a resource of intimate talk, both indexing the nature of the relationship – because we are close I can joke with you – and building the relationship – by joking I make our friendship stronger.
Another example of a speech act for intimate talk is found in a study by Sandel (2002). He looked at greetings involving the use of kinship terms in Taiwan. When visitors enter a home or place where adults and children are present, be they kinfolk or familiar others, children are instructed to “address” the visiting adult with an appropriate kinship term, such as A-yi (auntie) or Shu-shu (uncle). Following this greeting, the child may be praised – “You are so well-behaved!” – conversation among the adults may begin, and the child is then free to remain or leave. It is not required that the adult reciprocate and use a kinship term to address the child. Adults in Taiwan see this speech act as important because it demonstrates the child is polite and has been taught well; it shows the child understands what is proper behavior and is grasping moral teachings of right and wrong; and the child learns that he or she is a member of a world inhabited by family members related to one another, indexed through a complex system of kinship terms based on generation, birth order, and gender. For example, members of younger generations must use the appropriate kinship term to address their elders, while elders may address younger by name; the term for older brother (gege) is not the same as younger (didi); and the term for mother’s sister (A-yi) is not the same as brother’s sister (Gu-gu). Finally, when children do not use kinship terms to address family members, this is interpreted as indexing problems with the relationship. For example, one boy’s parents moved to the city to work and he remained in the country where his grandmother cared for him. During holidays or weekends when his parents returned, the boy did not address his parents as “daddy” or “mommy.” His inability to utter these words was interpreted as his lacking an intimate relationship with his parents.
The above examples draw attention to cultural differences when looking at how intimate talk is performed and interpreted. Many other examples of culturally shaped talk can be found. Among the Beng of West Africa, young children, like those in Taiwan, are taught to properly greet others in the community using kinship terms (Gottlieb 2004). However, unlike children in Taiwan, they are also taught to tease and use “dirty names” with certain relatives. For example, a mother will call her son, “Shit prick!” and a young child is considered “cute” when shrieking “You red balls!” to his grandfather (Gottlieb 2000). These are utterances used as resources to create intimacy not only with kinfolk, but with anyone in the village who can be considered as kin. Likewise, Schieffelin (1990) found that among the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, mothers instruct children how to interact with their siblings, using different methods according to sex. A mother will encourage same-sex siblings to ask for company and assistance. Boys, however, are taught to tease and provoke their sisters. Schieffelin explains that these ways of interacting are carried on into adult life as brothers who live in the same village cooperate on a number of tasks. Sisters cooperate in gardening and household tasks as they grow up, but upon marriage usually move to other villages, where they establish cooperative networks with other women. Thus, children’s knowledge of how to interact becomes a resource they use in adulthood to guide competent and cooperative communication.
Code Switching In Intimate Talk
A final way for understanding intimate talk with family and friends as resource is informed by studies of code switching. As a majority of people in the world speak more than one language, the ability to code switch, or shift from one language to another, is a common, everyday practice. Communication accommodation theory (Giles et al. 1973) finds that among bilinguals, the more effort a speaker makes to converge, the more favorably this is evaluated, and the greater the sense of social and individual integration. For example, if am a Canadian bilingual, and I speak French with a Canadian who identifies as Québécois, our speech will converge and our sense of solidarity grow.
Taiwan is another context where most people are bilingual and code switching is used as a resource for creating intimacy (Sandel et al. 2006). While Tai-gi (also called Hokkien, Taiwanese) is the Chinese language spoken by the majority of the population, Mandarin Chinese (mutually unintelligible with Tai-gi) is Taiwan’s official language. Furthermore, from 1945, when control of Taiwan was handed over to the Chinese Nationalists, until 1987, when martial law was lifted, the government pursued a language policy actively promoting Mandarin and limiting and repressing “dialect speaking.” In recent years the political climate has changed and the government is now promoting the learning of “mother tongues” in addition to Mandarin, as many children grow up learning to speak Mandarin only. These language policies and practices affect people’s everyday interactions. For example, it is common for a bilingual adult to see an elderly person and speak to her in Tai-gi, and a child in Mandarin. However, when talking to another middle-aged adult, the choice is not always clear. The conversation may begin in Mandarin; a switch to Taigi, however, may occur if the speakers discover they are both benshengren, or native-born Taiwanese. This then changes the nature of the relationship as the feeling becomes “more intimate” and the relationship is drawn closer. In sum, we find that intimate talk with family and friends can be understood as product, process, and resource.
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- Kitzinger, C. (2005). Heteronormativity in action: Reproducing the heterosexual nuclear family in after-hours medical calls. Social Problems, 52, 477– 498.
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- Sandel, T. L., Liang, C. H., & Chao, W. Y. (2006). Language shift and language accommodation across family generations in Taiwan. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 27, 126 –147.
- Schieffelin, B. B. (1990). The give and take of everyday life: Language socialization of Kaluli children. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Thibaut, J. W., & Kelley, H. H. (1959). The psychology of groups. New York: John Wiley.