Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Book Review: The Last Word on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense

(Blogjob tags: early studies of sensory preferenceeffective communicationGAVSD seriesGentle Art of Verbal Self-DefensepsycholinguisticsSuzette Haden Elginverbal abuseverbal attack patterns in Englishverbal self-defenseVirginia Satir and the Satir Modes.)

Title: The Last Word On the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense 
(But the title, as shown, is a typo. The Last Word is a book about making presentations so persuasive they don't arouse arguments; it was book three in a series of, depending on which types of books you count, more than twenty.)
Author: Suzette Haden Elgin
Date: 1987
Publisher: Prentice Hall
ISBN: 978-0135240670
Length: 245 pages
Quote: "Anything you feed will grow."
This is the review of The Last Word, specifically, as distinct from its many companion books. Each book in this series contains a brief explanation of the sneaky "verbal attack patterns" in English, what makes them hurtful, and how to respond to them without using more of them. The first book, The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defensehad analyzed that topic in most detail.
Because English uses "contrastive stress," the way we utter a sentence makes it possible to say almost anything in English in a matter-of-fact way, a goodhearted way, or a hateful way. People who've not studied GAVSD often misleadingly describe the difference as "tone of voice"; actually the quality of your speaking voice has nothing to do with it...although various features of our speaking voices may turn some people off, too, and The Last Word contains a detailed discussion of how to identify and change those.
Here's an example of current interest: "Contrastive stress" is what makes it possible, not exclusively for Southerners, to make terms of respect sound like insults and make terms of hatespeech sound like friendly inside jokes--in one particular situation, not another. Recently people who seem otherwise sane, including James L. Snyder and Mike Huckabee, have described the, er um, Communist-style effort to substitute the vulgar-bordering-on-obscene word "honey" for the traditional "Ma'am" in such a way that readers could imagine that the use of these words has flipflopped. It hasn't, in my part of the world.
In theory it's possible to say "I hate you" in a way that clearly means "I love you," but in practice that doesn't change the normal meaning of those words. Even Southerners who were too old and genteel to know that "honey" embeds the stings of both sexual and ethnic insults--and very few of them are still alive--always seemed to use it, the way old-time slaves had started using it, as a subtle term of rebuke to a family member. I have never heard "honey" successfully used to express goodwill in a live conversation, in any place, no matter how many pop songs have used it as a euphemism for "bedmate." I have heard the B-word and the N-word used that way--but not often, not in the Southern States, and not in conversations that included older people.
If you are concerned that calling anyone, of any age, "Sir" or "Ma'am" will make that person feel old or make you sound as if you're trying to sound older (which is possible), the polite alternative is not to call people who are already present. "Calling" the other person in a two-person conversation adds an extra dollop of emotion that's usually best avoided. In a two-party business conversation, the emotion is probably hostility. (Other emotions expressed by "calling," like "Oh, Absalom, my son!", are unmistakable.) The Last Word explains how to identify, and reduce, the hostility.
The Last Word also reviews material presented in volumes one and two about what too many church ladies mislearned, in the 1980's--how a "soft, gentle," or "Placater Mode" sentence can be nastier than a "loud, angry," or "Blamer Mode" version, and a quick effort to salvage a conversation by switching from one emotional "mode" to another can be more alarming to some people than either of those. 
Then there's an early summary of the concept of "sensory modes" in communication. This then-new concept has been studied in more depth and precision, and some misperceptions have been corrected since 1987, but The Last Word provides some basics.
That begins what Elgin considered the best part of GAVSD--the part where you move beyond dodging quarrels into using the same principles, in a benign way, to present information so persuasively that people who don't want the fight won't even argue with it. She explains the classic Rule of Three for our era, discusses the role of nonverbal communication in persuasive speaking, and explains why, if someone were to find a cheap, simple, reliable cure for cancer tomorrow, it would still take many years for people to accept it.
The short answer to that question is cognitive dissonance...which is also why, valuable though GAVSD is, it won't solve all the communication problems in anyone's life. Only most of them. (For example, no matter how persuasive my writing may be or become, some local lurkers still display cognitive dissonance related to the prophet-in-his-own-country effect, or "You can't be a full-grown adult who has anything worthwhile to say, even after age fifty, because you were once a child!" Elgin commented on that, too.)
I think it was the subtle admission that GAVSD is not the only thing everyone needs to solve all communication problems that convinced me that The Last Word was more than your usual self-help book. And it is.
Now, about buying these books...for a long time the ethical way to buy any of Elgin's books, except the early short novels, was directly from her. Now, of course, anybody can resell them. Some Amazon Associates are demanding collector prices already; some are offering copies for pennies plus outrageous shipping charges. I have as much right to sell these books as other people do, so, yes, if you want to support this blog, you can buy'em here. Currently, either The Last Word or GAVSD for Business Success will cost $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment. That means, if you want both books together, you'd send $15 to either of the addresses at the very bottom of the screen.