Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
What do Frank Gehry-style architecture and Copacabana beach have in common? And what do they have in common with genre?
This post is my 30th blog post and my six-month anniversary of writing this blog. A short life for many bloggers; an achievement for me. (And we should always pause to recognize our achievements when they come, especially those of us who are quicker to criticize than celebrate ourselves.)
My very first post was actually published in August 2015. I wrote about What I Notice--And Write About and then lost my nerve. So I drafted posts for the next nine months without publishing anything, trying to teach myself how to write a blog. (I haven’t used any of those drafts, but I wrote about some of the challenges I discovered in my post on An Academic Learns to Blog.) Today I’m still learning, of course, since we’re all always learning to write. But I’m also still writing, once a week, every week.
In honor of the anniversary I’ve changed my background photo, from a Weebly-provided stock photo of a Gehry-style building to my own photo of the sidewalk at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. (See my note at the bottom of this post for more about that building image.) I think the photos may say something about my blog and me. Where we’ve been, where we are now, and maybe where we’re headed. And--surprise surprise!--they say something about genre, those ways of acting that we come to expect in particular situations.
The two photos share some features that I was looking for to represent my work and interests—especially genre but also language.
If you've read some of my previous posts, you probably see some connections to genre, especially my view of genre, already. Whether you're new to this way of looking at genre or not, here are some of the highlights that make genre so interesting and rich to me.
Every genre is a whole pattern made up of smaller parts. I can analyze a genre into those little pieces, but all the little pieces put together add up to something more than each piece alone. So I can say an apology includes the words "I’m sorry," sincerity, and a promise not to do it again. But an apology is much more than those pieces put together. It's the complete package of genuineness, regret, and the action, the whole experience of apologizing. And we feel we’ve received a good apology or a bad apology--or that an apology just won't cut it--because of the total experience, not any particular word or part.
And I think every genre is meaningful, and some are beautiful. They represent and reveal who we humans are, because we make them, whether to commemorate 9/11. Independence Day, Labor Day, or our favorite sports team. They also shape how we interact with them, whether we notice or not.
Every genre includes both straight lines and curves. You can see the direct and efficient paths that genres take as they work to achieve our goals. But every example of the genre varies from the straight path to find its own thing to say and do. A syllabus may be the most efficient way to get course information in the hands of students on the first day of class. But every teacher adds their particular take on it, their own teacher voice and personality. If I want to undermine the syllabus’s insistence on me as authority, I can throw in more curves and put the students’ names on the first page, put policies in small print at the very end, or leave blanks for students to fill in what they want the course to be.
I even think genres represent the natural as well as human world. They’re categories, and categorizing comes from the very nature of our brains.
So I see what interests me about genres in the fine architecture of a contemporary building and the mosaic artistry of a Brazilian sidewalk. (It's part of what interests me about language, too, as I’ll explain in a future post.)
I see differences, too, in the two photos and what they represent. Both are works of art, but the building is metal and neat. The only traces of humans are the visible rivets. The sidewalk instead is made of stones, irregular and pieced together manually. Some genres certainly are more mechanical and rigid, while others are more artistic and variable. Maybe the side of a metal building fits the patient medical history form or a haiku, while the stone mosaic sidewalk fits a condolence or sports fan chant.
The photo of the Copacabana sidewalk also gives a glimpse of its surroundings. You can see the street in the upper left and the beach on the right. You can see that the sidewalk could use sweeping, with bits of sand on it. Genres aren’t perfect either, with traces of the people who’ve used them in the past, leaving behind little messes for others to walk around or sweep away. Like locker room talk? And genres always exist within other contexts, and with other genres surrounding them. What’s nominated for an Emmy award as a TV comedy might be a drama in your Netflix recommendations.
Before I push this analogy too far (too late?), let me add something about the new photo and my continuing blog. One of the things I like about the new photo is that I took it. It’s not a stock photo and it’s certainly not professional. So you can see the street and the beach around it and the sand littering it. And the color is not the pure black-and-white that the Copacabana sidewalk is always described as. Somehow that day for me it was partly blue. The photo is my experience and my perspective, with all its weirdnesses and irregularities.
So I hope this blog continues for the next six months showing you the weirdness of how I see the world through my genre-colored glasses. And I hope my blog continues to include you, Readers. You've been expanding my experience and changing my perspective through your comments, whether on this website, Twitter, Facebook, or private emails. And just knowing you’re there sharpens my wording, nudges me to add another example, and reminds me to try to tell you why any of this matters to me.
At least I didn’t end with the image of us walking down the Copacabana sidewalk together, hand in hand into the future. My perspective is definitely optimistic, but it isn’t that weird.
See you next week
PS The original background image that I used on my blog, the close-up of a contemporary metal building, is not the photo I've included above. The original came from Weebly, and I've been unable to find a public domain version to share here. I also can’t find any information about what the Weebly photograph depicts. I had always assumed it was a Frank Gehry building, probably the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. But all I can say for sure now is that the building reminds me of Gehry's style in architecture and so can offer you, as I did above, an image that is similar in style.
Do we need Thanksgiving? Americans already say thank you all the time.
Have you noticed that Thanksgiving is the only major US holiday that is an action?
Thanksgiving----thanks giving----giving thanks
Take a look at Federal public holidays in the US, and you'll see no other actions
New Year’s Day
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
George Washington’s Birthday
Even though Labor Day refers to Labor, it doesn’t tell us to do labor on Labor Day.
Same for popular holidays that aren’t Federal days off work
Super Bowl Sunday
Of course, we do stuff on every holiday, but only Thanksgiving tells us exactly what to do in its very name. Give thanks.
So how do we give thanks in the US on Thanksgiving day? And what for?
You can buy a Thanksgiving card of course. Greeting card companies don’t miss a chance to sell a card for every holiday. But it’s not very common to send what Charles Schulz callsturkey cards. I’m with Snoopy in thinking I’ve never received one
Search “Thanksgiving” and you’ll find, alongside the recipes for turkey and candied yams, plenty of articles with suggestions for how to give thanks, especially how to give thanks to God. Magazine articles and blog posts offer ideas for hosts to encourage giving thanks when the family gathers around the Thanksgiving table.
From the number of articles offering advice, you’d think we have trouble giving thanks on Thanksgiving. We do, of course. The holiday’s name may tell us to give thanks, but the usual holiday’s practices tell us to gather with family and friends, eat huge quantities of food, and watch football.
Makes me thankful just thinking about it
We don't seem to have trouble giving thanks on other days of the year. In fact, in the US we say thank you all the time.
From the number of articles offering advice, you’d think we have trouble giving thanks on Thanksgiving. We do, of course. . . But we don't seem to have trouble giving thanks on other days of the year. In fact, in the US we say thank you all the time.
In English we have lots of ways of saying thank you. The websiteMy English Teacher offers 112 phrases for saying thank you, though most are just variations on thank you, I appreciate it, thanks so much.
In an article in the Atlantic, Deepak Singh shows how common it is in America to say thank you, in great contrast to his upbringing in India.
I have been living in the United States for more than a decade, and I now say thank you about 50 times a day. Most of the time, I do it without thinking. I say thank you to the bus driver who takes me from point A to point B along with 20 other people. He usually can’t even hear me. I say thank you to the cashier at the coffee shop. I say thank you to the stranger who holds the door open for me at a restaurant. I say thank you to my wife and my 5-year-old daughter several times a day for various things: turning the volume of the television down or up, flicking the light switch on or off, asking me if I want to eat something or do something with them.” --Deepak Singh
That certainly sounds familiar to me. On a recent day, I thanked the nice guy who held the door open for me, my partner for pouring me a cup of coffee, the student who picked up the pen I dropped, and the receptionist on the phone who made an appointment for me. I thank people all day long.
But our American style of thanking people all day long is not the same as giving thanks.
Singh contrast American’s habit of thanking everyone for everything with the Hindu practice of reserving thanks for huge favors. In the Hindi culture, Singh writes, gratitude is unspoken and, when it is spoken, is offered with sincerity and a desire “to return the favor.”
“Saying dhanyavaad, or ‘thank you’ in Hindi, would almost be sarcastic. It seems inadequate.”
My last three weeks spent in a shoulder sling have made me aware again of the difference between routine thank you’s and giving thanks. I’ve given thanks for my partner who has not only poured me a cup of coffee but made every meal, refilled my ice pack, driven me anywhere I needed to go, and offered sympathy whenever I looked pitiful. I suppose I should even give thanks for his help strapping me into the torture sling. I’ve given thanks for my friends and students who’ve not only picked up my dropped pen but brought me frozen casseroles, conducted class without me, stopped by my office on the way to class to offer to carry things for me, and regularly expressed concern and asked how I’m doing—even when they’re feeling pressed by their own papers due soon.
I haven’t needed Thanksgiving to remind me to give thanks this year.
But I also value the everyday thank you’s that Singh seems to dismiss as trivial and insincere. My thanks are genuine to the door holder, the appointment maker, the coffee pourer, the pen picker upper. And I feel appreciated when someone thanks me for the small things we do for each other throughout a day.
Sure, it’s nice to pay special attention to the people in our lives who make our lives richer. But maybe it’s hard to give thanks on Thanksgiving day to these people closest to us because we are thanking them simply for being. “I’m grateful that you’re in my life.” “I’m thankful to have such a supportive partner.” “Thank you for being a friend.”
With that last line triggering the music from the TV show Friends to play annoyingly in my head, let's counter the sappiness by adding in the ways thank you’s are not always so genuine.
Singh offers one example, ”Initially I was surprised when people thanked me for visiting their house when they were the ones who’d invited me, but then I learned that, ‘Thank you for coming to my home’ actually meant, ‘It’s time for you to get out of my house.’”
Sarcastic thank you’s are pretty common.
“Thanks for holding the door open,” I might have hollered at the able-bodied guy at the next doorway who dropped the door closed in my face
“Gee, thanks,” when told a colleague suggested your name for one more committee assignment
“Thanks for taking my side,” said to your silent partner after a heated exchange about politics with the family gathered around the Thanksgiving table
Sometimes the real action behind apparently giving thanks is more subtle. One favorite of mine at the moment is the humble brag, seen more than occasionally on Twitter or Facebook. Humble braggers find lots of ways to announce their achievements while pretending to be humble. Check out @humblebrag on Twitter for wonderful examples.
One way to humblebrag is to seem to be thanking someone:
“Thank you to all the students who wrote such nice things on their evaluations. You help keep me going.”
“Thanks to all the colleagues who wrote support letters for my big award. I wouldn’t have received it without you”
“Big shout out to Susie, our wonderful travel agent, who planned such an incredible two week trip through Italy”
Search #humblebrag and “thanks” on twitter and you can scroll down hundreds of tweets both thanking people for something great and acknowledging its other action with #humblebrag
But Thanksgiving arrives this week, and the holiday name itself demands we give genuine thanks. Whether a card to a friend or a turn saying thanks to family and friends around the table, it doesn’t hurt us to give thanks. It might make us happier. And it will definitely help us celebrate Thanksgiving as the name tells us to.
Still, I want to appreciate, too, the small thanks that I give and receive every day. Sure, they’re different from the big thanks given to family and friends for making my life better. But the daily thank you’s to family, friends, and acquaintances help create that intimacy we later give thanks for. Same with the thanks we give to strangers who act kindly—those thank you's acknowledge our community, our watching out for one another, and a willingness to hold the door open for anyone.
That’s worth giving thanks for.
What do you say to your friends who are grieving after a loss?
Last October, Bruce Feiler wrote a helpful guide to offering condolences. His column in the New York Times "The Art of Condolence" gave good advice on what to write in a condolence note, a genre many people may not know how to write. Maybe younger people especially, since Feiler reports a Hallmark statistic that 90% of the sympathy cards bought annually are bought by people older than 40. But all of us struggle to know what to say in the face of terrible loss.
Feiler discussed seven key bits of advice--
Feiler was explaining how to write a proper condolence note, and I recommend his column when you need to write a note of condolence after a death.
But his advice applies to offering condolences in person, too, when friends have experienced a major loss. And I’d like to consider his points with that context in mind.
One of the best bits of advice I ever got for expressing sympathy came from Blake Robbins. The actor and director was filming The Sublime and Beautiful, a difficult, powerful film about people’s reactions after tragedy—in this case a family’s children being killed by a drunk driver.
Blake told the story of his own experience with a family member’s death and shared a line he uses in one scene in the film, when the children’s father meets his best friend for the first time since the funeral. After the platitudes and false comforts and outright untruths that so many people have fumbled through, the friend’s single statement is remarkably powerful and comforting. Sitting across the table from the silently grieving father, his friend says
I don’t know what to say”
I've since seen the same response suggested by others for dealing with a friend who is dying and for other moments of great grief.
So powerful a statement because so bluntly true. Perhaps comforting because it expresses shared human despair in the face of major loss.
It's okay to say ” I don’t know what to say”
Being positive in the face of terrible events isn’t easy, of course. But remembering something good from before can remind us that we had something wonderful and valued. It hurts so much because what we lost was so good. So telling a specific story can remind all the mourners of the positive effects this person’s life had on many people, what she did for us or how she brought us together.
I find this one tough because I want to express empathy for those who are also grieving. But Feiler recommends not giving any indication that you know what the other person is going through, and he explains it in a way that I get. As Feiler says, simply
“Everyone experiences grief differently.”
I might be feeling despair while the person I’m comforting is feeling angry. You might be wanting to lash out at someone, while I’m finding it helpful to throw myself into a cause. Another might even be feeling relief after a long battle.
So share your sadness, but don’t presume it’s the same emotion others are feeling.
And don't judge.
Death is death, and using euphemisms doesn’t change that. Calling what happened anything other than what it is minimizes the loss. The worst D is denial. So acknowledge the truth of what happened, the reality of the loss. Which goes along with the next advice for offering condolences
Tell it like it is. Be straight about how awful is. Acknowledge that it sucks. There is no happy face to put on grief, so don’t try to paint one on
If your real friends are experiencing real grief, it’s not enough to hit the like button or a sad or angry emoji. If not giving the personal, written condolence that Feiler recommends, at least go beyond hitting the easy buttons Feiler mimics
“Sorry about Mom. Sad face, sad face, crying face, heart, heart, unicorn.” --Bruce Feiler, "The Art of Condolence"
Make a point of saying something the first time you see the mourner. When you see another in pain, offer your condolences—name the loss, share your positive memories, admit that you don’t know what to say. Comfort your friends in ways that real friends can.
The grief doesn’t end the day after the loss. People continue to hurt long after, especially those most directly affected. And expressions of sympathy are always welcome.
Condolences don’t have to take the form of just words either, whether in writing or in person. Condolences can take the form of actions that will help those who’ve suffered the loss. As Feiler suggests, when words come hard,
Take action in a way that supports the grieving, and continue to take action. Do something to help. Take a load off of others. Offer sustenance. Month later the pain will still be felt, so stay in touch, keep reaching out, don't forget, and keep doing something.
In the end, we comfort each other and offer condolences because that’s what friends do for friends. And hearing from each other after we suffer a great loss shows us we’re not alone. We still have a community surrounding us. The community can still support us.
With the death last Monday of Leonard Cohen, I want to let that great songwriter have the last word. I chose not the perhaps expected and too-often-covered song “Hallelujah,” beautiful as it is. Not the also appropriate and lyrical song “Anthem.”
Instead from Cohen’s last album You Want It Darker, I’ll point to the need we have for each other in moments of darkness--I hope you'll listen carefully to the lyrics in the recording of Leonard Cohen “If I Didn’t Have Your Love”
If you read my placeholder blog last week, you know that I had shoulder surgery less than two weeks ago to fix a tear in my rotator cuff. The surgery went fine, and I'm continuing the long, fun process of healing (strapped into a shoulder sling for six weeks, so these blog posts will be dictated for the near future–please forgive slips of formatting and speech-to-text recognition. Oh, might as well ask you to forgive slips of the brain while I'm at it).
This experience offered no shortage of blog topics, including my favorite genre of the moment, the get-well card.
One thing I’m most struck by in this entire medical project is how it seem like two different experiences--the one I had with the people, and the one I had with the forms.
Almost all of the people I had contact with were friendly, warm, just plain nice. I kept commenting on how nice everyone was. But why did that deserve a comment? Why was that so surprising? After all, these people are helping me during a painful time. Why wouldn't they be warm and supportive?
Of course, one response has to involve the whole current medical system in the US, with increasing bureaucracy and often overworked professionals. But I want to bring that general systemic issue down to one place where it becomes so visible–the patient medical history form.
You’re all familiar with this form, I’m sure, even if you’ve never paid attention to it. Before you ever see a doctor or nurse, you fill out pages worth of information.
The patient medical history form was my first contact with the specialist's office that led to my surgery, after making an initial appointment. Although the one I filled out isn’t publicly available, all the patient medical history forms are variants on the same thing.
Fill out many pages of detailed facts about
The list of diseases and conditions you have to check off can run for pages. Certainly dozens are listed, from asthma to tuberculosis. Doctors offices now commonly send you the form to complete online or ask you to arrive at your first appointment 15 minutes early just to fill out the form.
So what’s the first relationship you establish with the doctor and the staff? You are a combination of medical facts and information, diseases and medicines, genetic predispositions, and past behavior. The Johns Hopkins form I showed above may be a bit unusual in that it asks for your present symptoms, but even then it wants the facts and only the facts, ma’am.
And don’t forget that in the US the next contact with the office will be handing over your insurance cards and filling out and signing insurance forms.
No wonder it’s a surprise when the people turn out to be warm, supportive, and nice. By the time you see them, you've forgotten human beings are part of the picture. You’ve been reduced to medical facts, a body rather than a person with feelings, emotions, and even pain. Any human contact now has to fit into the relationship the patient medical history form has already established. And it matters which relationship gets established first.
No wonder I felt such a sharp contrast between the relationships established by the people I dealt with and the relationship established by the forms I dealt with.
In some ways, of course, this depersonalization is nothing new to anyone who has paid attention to today’s increasing bureaucracy of our medical system.
In a review essay written for the Atlantic, entitled "Doctors tell all – and it's bad," Meghan O'Rourke discusses her own experiences with and several books written by doctors about the flaws in our medical system. She points to the lack of attention to human patients, among other things.
“Ours is a technologically proficient but emotionally deficient and inconsistent medical system…”
And in some ways, of course, the patient medical history form makes perfect rhetorical sense. The doctor and staff get the information they need in the most efficient way possible. But that form could make sense in other ways and could establish different relationships.
Imagine if it asked
Those questions could makes sense on an introductory form, too, and they would establish a very different relationship before the people meet each other face-to-face.
I first noticed the gaps in the patient medical history form when I was working with my colleagues, Anis Bawarsh and Mary Jo Reiff, on our textbook Scenes of Writing, and we critiqued this genre for ignoring the patient's feelings. Perhaps it's because I was in pain myself that I noticed this time the conflict between what the documents were doing and what the people were doing.
In the end for me, I suppose, the warmth of the people won out. But wouldn't it be nice if being nice and warm and supportive came first and the medical facts fit themselves into that established human relationship?
So I end with my current favorite genre, addressed to the current US medical system