Friday, July 25, 2008

Intercultural communication in the woods

When I first came to teach in the city, I had to learn a new way to talk to children. Born and raised in a community of middle-class, white people, I spoke to children the way I had learned to in my culture. "Do you want to sit down now?" means "Sit down." (I know, it doesn't sound like it means "sit down," but most people raised by this culture know that's what it means.) "Is that how you clean up your dishes?" means "Clean up your dishes properly."

As outlined by Lisa Delpit in her life-altering (for me) piece "The Silenced Dialogue," working-class parents give their children more directives than do middle- and upper-class parents. They are more likely to say, very clearly, what needs to be done. (Delpit gives, as an example, the following line from a friend of hers: "'Boy, get your rusty behind in that bathtub.'") To those of us raised by parents and teachers who phrase directions as questions, these straightforward statements, which leave no question about who is in charge or what needs to be done, can seem jarring. We are used to the adults in charge pretending not to be in charge, or at least veiling the fact that they are the bosses. (Delpit contends that this reluctance to appear like an authority is "an attempt to reduce the implication of overt power in order to establish a more egalitarian and non-authoritarian classroom atmosphere." She furthermore suggests that "to act as if power does not exist is to ensure that the power status quo remains the same.")

Just as those used to indirect instructions can be discomfited by what seem like harsh words, children who are accustomed to being told clearly what to do may not know that a direction phrased as a question is indeed a direction. "Would you like to be quiet now?," when taken at face value, sounds like someone is offering you a choice. If you choose not to be quiet, a teacher unaware of this cultural divide may well label you as a disobedient child. And a working-class child taught by a teacher who couches orders in sweet, questioning tones may wonder why this teacher is such a pushover and isn't really in charge.

I highly recommend that, if you are unfamiliar with Delpit's article, you read it. There is a lot there, much more than I can cover in this blog. It is one of two or three pieces that have most affected the way I speak to children over the years, and I think about, and talk about, her ideas often. The first time Delpit's message came home to me, loud and clear, was when I was working as an AmeriCorps volunteer in a school and was sent to read with a boy who had arrived here from Nigeria the day before. "Can you read this sentence for me?" I would ask him. "Yes," he would reply, in the sweetest, most willing voice, and then he would sit in silence. "Okay, read it then!" I would be forced to say. Over and over again we went through this process. "Can you write that down?" I would say. "Yes," he would answer serenly, smiling, making no move to pick up the pencil. "Write it!" I would order, and he would. He probably wondered who was this simple-minded lady who kept asking if he could do things.

I have worked very hard over the past seven years to cultivate a clearer way of giving directions to children. When I need a child to sit down, I say, "Sit down, please," or "Sit down!," or "I am going to count from 3 to zero and you need to be sitting down when I get to zero," depending on the circumstances. I never say, "It's time to sit down now," or "Would you like to sit down?" unless I really want to know their feelings about sitting down. In my classroom, students generally know what they are supposed to do, and they generally do it. As a white, upper-middle-class teacher in an urban school, this seems like the thing to do, both in terms of acknowledging my own power, learning to communicate according to the norms of the culture of my students, and being an effective teacher.

So this little white girl who teaches in the city goes to Vermont to take primarily white, upper-middle-class, suburban youth on a wilderness trip. And guess what? She can't remember how to talk to them in their language! Isn't this the height of irony? I am so used to giving directions in no uncertain terms that the kids thought I was mad at them, or mean, or something like that. I mean, how fascinating is it that the kids literally referred to me "yelling" at them when I used a neutral tone? Do people only ever speak to them with warm, friendly, sweet voices, no matter the context? I have worked so hard on my neutral tone -- it is one of my most prized possessions! But now I must learn to temper it.

[An example of my neutral tone that they thought was mean: "It is not okay to use the word 'retarded' as an insult." Pretty straight-forward, no? Apparently not.]

I am unwilling to go back to asking questions when I mean to give a direction. I don't really believe in talking to kids in what now seems to me a duplicitous manner. But it was fascinating (and unnerving) to me that for these kids, my language was so very unexpected. Is it because I am white? A woman? And they think I will talk to them the way most people in their lives talk to them? In the end, I know I have to figure this out, become "bilingual" in white suburbia talk and urban working-class talk. I'm sure I will be able to find a way to continue to be clear in my instructions and expectations, but with more friendliness in my tone, or humor, or something that will keep me from seeming forbidding.

There is also, of course, the problem of learning to talk to teenagers, and the fact that teenagers are different from first-graders. I think I have to work on that too, on being careful to treat them more like young adults. (I don't think I did a bad job of this, but I have ingrained habits from the little kids that I'm sure come through sometimes.) The key is probably the same as with young children: having clear expectations, letting them know I trust them to make good choices, building relationships. Adolescence is just something of a new frontier for me, and one I'm not quite sure yet that I want to master.


  1. Actually, I disagree with this. I think the difference in communication is an age issue, not a socioeconomic one. Young children in general tend to be quite literal, and whatever socioeconomic group they belong to, if you speak to them less directly - as we tend to speak to other adults - they take you at face value, as in, "Do you want to clean up now?" "No." I haven't read this particular piece by Delpit, so I can't comment on it, but I think that most educators who work with children younger than the age of 10 or so quickly learn to be direct in their communication. However, I certainly have noticed that PARENTS of more privileged children are often less directive with their offspring, and I believe this is ultimately very detrimental to their children. This is not because the parents are ignoring the power structure, but because they have not created enough of one, allowing the child to make the decisions when they are far too young to be given such power.

  2. Um, I don't think little sisters are allowed to disagree with their wiser older sisters...

  3. shouldn't we just talk them like other people?


  4. Well, "Samsterdamned," I guess that mostly works. Except, how often when speaking to "other people" are you managing a room of 20 people, all sharing a small space, all trying to accomplish something important but at different paces? I think even if you were attempting a similar feat with adults, you'd spend some time thinking about how to talk to them -- how to ask them to do things, how to make suggestions, etc. Add to that the fact that these little people don't always know what we are talking about, or don't understand things the same way we do, and that we really are in charge of them in a way we're not usually of other adults.

    But I agree with you in general that talking in a straight-forward way makes sense. (Not talking down, or using baby talk.) You tend to do this with your own kids -- you are direct and clear, and you speak to them using grown-up language, and you expect them to be as independent as they can be (you don't do too much for them.) Nice work!