Saturday, October 31, 2015

veiled commands

In Ways with Words, Shirley Brice Heath quotes the verbal directives given by the middle-class "townspeople" teachers:
"Is this where the scissors belong?"
"You want to do your best work today."

By contrast, many black teachers are more likely to say:
"Put those scissors on that shelf."
"Put your name on the papers and make sure to get the right answer for each question."

Is one oral style more authoritarian than another? Other researchers have identified differences in middle-class and working-class speech to children. Snow and others, for example, report that working-class mothers use more directives to their children than to middle- and upper-class parents. Middle-class parents are likely to give the directive to a child to takes his bath as, "Isn't it time for your bath?" Even though the utterance is couched as a question both child and adult understand it as a directive. The child may respond with, "Aw, Mom, can't I wait until...," but whether or not negotiation is attempted, both conversants understand the intent of the utterance.

By contrast, a black mother in whose house I was recently a guest, said to her eight-year-old son, "Boy, get your rusty behind in that bathtub." Now, I happen to know that this woman loves her son as much as any mother, but she would never have posed the directive to her son to take a bath in the form a question. Were she to ask, "Would you like to take your bath now?" she would not have been issuing a directive but offering a true alternative. Consequently, as Heath suggests, upon entering school the child from such a family may not understand the indirect statement of the teacher as a direct command. Both white and black working-class children in the communities Heath studied "had difficulty interpreting these indirect requests for adherence to an unstated set of rules."

But those veiled commands are commands nonetheless, representing true power, and with true consequences for disobedience. If veiled commands are ignored, the child will be labeled a behavior problem and possibly officially classified as behavior disordered. In other words, the attempt by the teacher to reduce an exhibition of power by expressing herself in indirect terms may remove the very explicitness that the child needs to understand the rules of the new classroom culture.

-- Lisa Delpit, Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom

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