How to Talk

© Mark Turner 2010

“Well!” the young man said.
“Well!” she said.
“Well, here we are,” he said.
“Here we are,” she said. “Aren’t we?”
“I should say we were,” he said. “Eeyop. Here we are.”
“Well!” she said.
“Well!” he said.
    —“Here we are,” Dorothy Parker

People utter phrases, but that’s a long way from talking. Being expected to talk in a coherent style weighs heavily on many people.

Talk is a challenge because it seems to get away from us—the subject, the purpose, the audience, the language . . . . Concepts become abstract, jumping from domain to domain, unpredictably vaulting up and down. Cast and scene change. Relationships shift. Motives transform, bumping and rolling over one another. It can be like trying to get through a confused sea. It can be exhausting out there.

By contrast, consider the following scene, which is very much on home turf for the human mind, like standing on the stable shore, happy in the sunshine. Some people, all next to one another, are attending to something in their local environment. They all know they are all attending to it, and know, too, that they are engaged with one other by attending to it. They typically talk and gesture about what they are attending to. They give signs to each other about their mutual engagement. Cognitive scientists call this a scene of “joint attention.”

The most basic kind of joint attention is “classic joint attention.” In classic joint attention, there are just two people—just you and one other person—, paying attention to something that is directly perceptible. It’s right there. In classic joint attention, the motive is truth, the purpose is presentation, the scene is informal, language is adequate to serve the purpose, speaker and hearer are competent, and the hearer will recognize what the speaker is drawing attention to once the speaker points it out.

Here’s the relaxing, at-home part: you never feel that things are getting away from you when you are pointing out something directly perceptible to somebody next to you. You say, “That blackbird in the hedge by the tree has red markings on its wings.” You are built for this. You feel at home doing it because the scene of classic joint attention is intelligible by itself. You expect your companion to be able to perceive what you are presenting once it is pointed out.

To talk, the trick is to blend a distributed, complicated mental network, one that often ranges far from home, with an at-home scene—like classic joint attention. Then the away-from-home network has an at-home anchor. If you make the blend, and speak from this blend, then the talk becomes intelligible, consistent, coherent, and familiar, even though you are in fact dealing with a diffuse, complex, away-from-home network of ideas and relationships.

In the scene of classic joint attention, there is something directly perceptible. This may conflict radically with the network of ideas you actually want to talk about, but the human mind—unique in the world—is masterful at blending things that don’t actually go together. In the actual network, the subject may be completely imperceptible. But in the blend, we treat the subject stylistically as if it is something directly perceptible. The result is that we can talk about anything at all as if it is directly perceptible: someone’s disappointment or sense of the absurd, a city’s magnificence or a country’s intransigence, a neighborhood’s poverty or a wine’s superiority—all are treated from the blend stylistically as if they were directly perceptible.

In your mental network of ideas and thought supporting your talk, the audience may be large and psychologically disposed in a variety of ways. By contrast, in classic joint attention, we are speaking to one other person collusively. So in the blend, we treat the audience like a competent individual who colludes with us to recognize what we are pointing out. In the actual network, the purpose can be anything, or multiple, and conflicting. But in classic joint attention, the purpose is clear and simple: the purpose is presentation. So in the blend, purposes in the network are compressed to presentation. This lets us talk from the blend as if the purpose of the talk is presentation. In the actual network, the motive can be anything—desire, fear, greed, self-defense. But in classic joint attention, the motive is truth—the reason the speaker is speaking is to point out to someone, collusively, something worth recognizing. In the blend, we can speak as if the motive is truth.

Blending gives us a coherent, stable, intelligible, familiar platform for the network.

The blend does not replace, and is not at all meant to replace, the network. The scene of classic joint attention does not substitute for the network of ideas one actually wants to talk about. No one is deluded about the existence of the network, its complexity, or its variety. The speaker is not confused, or pretending to be in a scene of classic joint attention. Rather, the blend of at-home classic joint attention with an away-from-home, sprawling network creates an anchoring, at-home platform for the network, something comfortable, intelligible, consistent, coherent.

Where the network is diffuse, the blend has a stable and familiar cast, scene, motive, and purpose. Whatever the realities and difficulties of language in the network, in the blend language is treated stylistically as if it is adequate to the purpose of presentation. In the blend, the speaker is competent, knowledgeable, and confident; the hearer is competent; there is symmetry between speaker and hearer; the speaker does not want anything from the hearer but is simply presenting something worth presenting; the speaker speaks for himself or herself rather than a group; the occasion is informal; the speaker is not straining but is in full command of the language. The speaker does not draw attention away from the subject by displacing it with the speaker’s own concerns or the labor of thought and language. On the contrary, all the labor is hidden. The speaker does not seek praise for having been able to make such a presentation. On the contrary, the talk is a perfect, undistorting window on the subject of the presentation, and the speaker takes the stand that this is a natural way to talk, because in real classic joint attention, it is.

In the actual diffuse network of the communication, the speaker and audience may not be in a symmetric relationship; the speaker may be speaking for a group; the audience may be hostile; the purpose may be to persuade someone—to get them to vote a certain way or do something for the speaker—; the speaker may want something from the audience—a job, a grade, a promotion, an approval; the motive might be greed, vanity, remorse, love. By blending this difficult network with the scene of classic joint attention, we can give the network a manageable anchor, and speak from the blend.

There are only two steps to learning to talk this way: (1) think of a scene of classic joint attention; (2) blend it with whatever mental network of thoughts and relationships you confront and speak from the blend. These two steps will get you through any difficulty.

The result is an ability to talk that is naturally suited to something like a field guide: “The waves are breaking farther south, forming an outside set." In this case, the guide is actually presenting something that is directly perceptible, in a scene of actual classic joint attention.

But now imagine that two people are interviewing you for a job. This is a scene of talking so complex, unfamiliar, and difficult to navigate that many people find it paralyzing. It is far from home. For some people, the scene induces an alien and terrible anxiety with which they wrestle, and the wrestling is obvious to the interviewers. But there is another way to do it, using the power of blending. Mentally, you can blend this diffuse and difficult real scene with a scene of classic joint attention, and then, in the blend, you are actually just presenting something to someone, collusively. You are pointing out what you expect them to recognize once you point out where they ought to look. There is no anxiety in the blend. You are presenting yourself—just the way you would present the blackbird. When asked, “So, what did you do in college?” you answer, “I divided my time between molecular genetics and surfing.”