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Constructing Mundane Culture: “Plain Talk”*

Abstract: On the basis of an intuition that in every group there is a particular ‘atmosphere’ or ambience, academic studies treat culture as a concrete phenomenon. But there are still lively arguments about what constitutes the ambience, what should be included under the heading of ‘culture,’ how to determine its boundaries, and how to differentiate one culture from another. After sketching some of the claims, I will point out that culture is best thought of as no more, but also no less, than an on-going construction of the mundane by ordinary people. From an analysis of a corpus of ‘plain talk’, with tools derived from Personal Construct Theory, I will draw some conclusions about how Hebrew-speakers in Israel are creating shared understandings in an evolving culture of everyday life.

The general hypothesis of this study is the notion that the stuff of everyday life is talk – carrying on conversations at varying levels of casualness or formality. I assume, moreover, that routine talk is the groundwork of the on-going ordering and re-ordering of culture. Clearly, these weighty matters invite analysis of how that construction is going on. In what follows, my goal is twofold: (1) to point out how ordinary conversations reflect a sociocultural context; (2) to trace indications of psychological processes. In order to do this, I will present in brief some current views of culture that substantiate the importance of “plain talk.” Then, after outlining the principles of Personal Construct Theory (PCT), I will describe a corpus of ordinary conversations in terms of how a sociocultural context is indicated and how the talk discloses psychological processes.

Defining Culture

In a classic 400-page compilation of concepts and definitions of culture, Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) found that it was possible to group definitions of culture in six broad categories: descriptive, historical, normative, psychological, genetic, and structural.

Descriptive definitions attempt to enumerate the content of culture. Among these is the classic definition of Tylor, who, in 1871 (p. 81), talked about “culture, or civilization …. [as] that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Historical definitions emphasize a shared social heritage or tradition. Typical is Parsons’ assertion (p. 92) that “Culture … consists in those patterns relative to behavior and the products of human action which may be inherited, that is, passed on from generation to generation independently of the biological genes.” Rules and ways of behaving are the focus of normative definitions. Kluckhohn (p. 98), for example, summarizes culture as “the distinctive way of life of a group of people, their complete ‘design for living.'”

Still other definitions are psychological, relying on how processes such as ‘adjustment’, ‘learning’, and ‘development’ are contrived by a group. Thus, Dawson (p. 105) talks about culture as a “particular ‘adjustment’ of man to his natural surroundings and his economic needs.” Benedict (p. 112) insists that culture “is the sociological term for ‘learned’ behavior, behavior which in man is not given at birth, which … must be learned anew from grown people by each new generation.” There are also genetic definitions focusing on culture as product, ideas, or symbols. Referring to culture as an artifact, for example, Willey (p. 125) calls culture “that part of the environment which man has himself created and to which he must adjust himself.” In structural definitions there is a shift in emphasis. In the view of Coutu (p. 119), for example, “culture is to a population aggregate what personality is to the individual; and the ethos is … the core of most probable behaviors.”

From all of the above, the conclusion would seem to be that culture is a construct for what is enduring and unchanging in social life. Theoreticians and researchers who have studied culture in the second half of the 20th century do not accept this view. Bauman (1973) for example, concludes that culture has to be dealt with as a mode of practice that mediates between the universalisms of what it means to be human and the particulars of every group’s environment. In his perception, culture is action infused with theory. There is an unbreakable link between culture and individuals because personal identity is compressed culture. Still, Bauman recognizes that the creative potential of human beings is expressed in an ability to shape and break – even to break out of – cultural patterns. As a result, culture is a dynamic creation, the locus of on-going change, innovation, and, hopefully, improvement, in people’s lives.

This potential is realized over time in experienced events. But experience can be conveyed only when it is communicated in denotative form (de Certeau). Although it is possible, as de Certeau states, to represent experience in color, in music, or in film, exchanges of words are the leading exhibitive form of mediation. A conversation sets up a contract with an other, and this pact is a provisional addition to existing networks of located relationships. Talk is, therefore, both a cardinal modality of representation and a momentous event. It also actualizes cultural change because of the many ways in which people compile representations and the many ways in which they interpret each type of representation by building on relational networks already in place. Talk is also a force for change, because what is produced in talk is the further materialization of networks’ potential as grasped in particular locations.

According to de Certeau, moreover, when things are said, language is appropriated and re-appropriated by tellers/talkers, and listeners. When gaps emerge between representation and interpretation the temporal moment is fixed in all its tensions. People in conversations are engaged in production on two levels. In a conversation they share a construction of how one contracts to form talk. The initiator conveys her construction of the patterned action; the response is the vehicle for the Other’s construal of the construction, and so on. But there is also the construction of substance in the content. Talk is a pattern of action facilitated by “publicly available meanings” (Swidler, 283).

All of the above suggests that through the analysis of natural everyday conversations, ‘plain talk,’ it is possible to learn about how mundane culture is constructed. Describing verbal interchanges in terms of Personal Construct Theory (PCT) will, furthermore, disclose how the active practice of talk is indeed “infused with theory.” In the next section, I will sketch some of the basic ideas of PCT.

Personal Construct Psychology: Basic Principles1

Kelly’s Fundamental Postulate (“A person’s processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he [sic] anticipates events.” (Kelly, 561) asserts that the key to a viable psychology is the study of living human beings. Life is a state of anticipation and that includes thinking, feeling, being motivated, adjusting, and learning. For the psychologist-researcher, there is, therefore, no point in studying each of the processes separately. To the end of theorizing anticipation, Kelly articulates corollaries that explicate the mechanisms.

A human entity is a thinking-feeling being who constantly interprets the world experienced encounters. The person construes new situations as replications of particular events by deploying an organized system of bipolar (verbal and non-verbal) concepts, termed ‘constructs’. Actions are attuned to accord with the (construed) anticipations. Because every person anticipates likely outcomes (hypothesizes) and shapes her actions (interventions) to effect the hypothesized outcomes, it makes sense to think of “man” as a “scientist.” Hence, a measure of competence is “man the scientist’s” capacity for constructing alternative working hypotheses, finding different modes of construal when actions are invalidated. If the action does not fulfill the anticipation, it is incumbent on every person to devise alternative interpretations of the situation that will be identified as the next replication. Validation of a person’s construction of experience demonstrates the cogency of the theory (construal) that underlay the action.

From the corollaries, we learn that commonality is “employ[ing] a construction of experience which is similar to that employed [by others]”. Furthermore, people who “construe one another’s construction processes,” can “play a role” in a social process that involves both of them (sociality corollary). These corollaries point out how personal constructs interweave to frame a shared culture through efforts at sociality. “Plain talk” is an on-going mundane effort at sociality in the Kellyian sense. Analysis of commonalities in terms of Personal Construct Theory will highlight the theorization of ordinary actions that govern the emergence of culture through a coordinated preoccupation with anticipation, construction, sociality, and validations of commonalities.

This interpretation connects PCT with Bauman’s (1995) conjectures about culture and identity. In analyzing some ‘plain talk,’ I am trying to alert you to a social space where culture is being made to take form. I will ask you to look upon this as a preliminary venture in which Kelly’s theory can help us discover how people who are just talking are in fact creating, shaping, and exhibiting everyday culture.2

The Research

I will be referring to 24 conversations recorded by a male student at a university in the north of Israel. He recorded conversations in a milieu that is broadly that of a significant group in Israel – students of education. Although he does not represent the majority of the student body either in gender (ca. 70% women) or in age, there is reason to assume that his cultural experiences are typical of many of the students in the Faculty of Education.3 J. is among the students in their 40’s, married, a commuter, and working full time in education. He collected conversations in a variety of places, with diverse participants, in different situations.

The analysis will refer to the materials on several levels. After looking at structures linked to the macro-context: publicly available settings, relationships, and topics; it will be possible to explore them in some detail. We will see how anticipations govern the talk, and the kinds of experiences and replications that are taken up. Elements – subjects raised and the attached verbalized constructs will provide evidence of corollary specifics such as individuality, sociality, fragmentation, and the broaching of alternatives. The discussion will draw these together as a disclosure of culture in the practices of plain talk. First, let us get a bird’s eye view of the 24 conversations.

Links With The Macro-Context: The macro-context can be seen in terms of the setting of the conversation as well as in the available relationships and in the topics that are the core of the talk exchanged.

Settings: People do ‘plain talk’ everywhere. Of the conversations in this set, eight were recorded in public places, among them the university – corridors and cafeterias, a neighborhood bank, a supermarket, a pharmacy at a clinic, a teachers’ room at a school, and a travel agency. Seven conversations were recorded in different people’s homes. In addition, there are conversations that were carried on in vehicles: cars and trains. ‘Plain talk’ is carried out at any time of day – morning, noon, or night. Conversations between colleagues and clients were noted during working hours. At the university talk was noted in the late morning; on trains in the afternoon; and conversations taken down in homes were also conducted in the evening.

Relationships: From the recorded exchanges, we learn that ‘plain talk’ is carried on in all types of relationships. One can cite a gradient from chance single meetings to long-term intimacy. There is talk when two people meet ad hoc for the first, and, it may very well be, for the last time. Then there is the talk of acquaintances that whose habits of scheduling happen to coincide. And there is talk because acquaintances recognize that they have similar life styles. Neighbors’ talk assumes rights based on geographical proximity. Talk among colleagues depends on proximity, but is a step up to common interests. And then there is talk that occurs among friends – an arc of friendship from the formal to the close – culminating in talk among intimates, including family.

Topics: There is a fairly broad consensus on topics that are worthwhile. “Plain talk” may be devoted to personal topics, but not exclusively. The macro-context influences the perception of what constitutes the personal and it is often the source of topics derived from the collective agenda publicized by the media. Issues related to politics, to the essence of popular culture, to the social division of labor, and to the significance of education are frequently raised in plain talk. It is interesting to see the kinds of relationships in which different concerns are validated.

Upon examination, it turns out that the foci of ordinary conversations are associated with a perception of the partners’ relationship. Some topics are restricted to the closest circles. Long-time friends console one another during mourning. Concern with the successes and failures of one’s own children at school, is a topic raised in conversations with close friends and relatives. At work, there is a judicious mixture of the personal and the professional. Colleagues talk about professional competencies, but also puzzle out the problematics of events, such as the impact on the family of a new baby born to somebody on the staff. Paradoxically perhaps, the less intimate the relationship the wider (more ‘macro’) the topics. Casual acquaintances talk about the battles between the Israeli army and the Hizballah guerillas in the “Security Zone of South Lebanon” while munching sandwiches in the University cafeteria (see Example 7). Waiting on line at the bank is an opportunity to analyze public displays of political biases (Example 1).

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Example 1:

20.11.97 10:30 a.m.

Two men, waiting on line at the bank.

A: Did you watch that program on TV?

B: Which one?

A: Nu, that one with the Israeli actors …

B: Oh, you mean the Israeli Oscar?

A: Yeah, did you hear how they talked there? Assi Dayan is off his rocker.

B: I didn’t see it. The daughter and the wife watched it. I heard that he cursed the Prime Minister.

A: Yes, he said that he should go to hell and he said it more than once; when he got a second Oscar, he repeated it.

B: Well, look it’s well known that he’s a leftist.

A: Yes, but to talk that way on television!

B: And how did the audience react?

A: They applauded!

B: Well, everybody has his own political opinions. It’s my turn, bye!

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Elucidation of norms: As the above conversation shows, clarifying norms – public and private is a central task in plain talk. Among the norms dealt with are the culturally acceptable treatment of time. Time as a resource and as a moral criterion comes up in several different guises. Acquaintances (at the supermarket), colleagues (in the teachers’ room), neighbors (near the building where they live), as well as friends (hostess and guest) and a husband and wife (at home) all worry about time. There are matters connected with practices: efficiency, distribution of time, concerns with the social division of labor according to age and according to gender. Women who apparently have no relationship apart from sharing an enforced wait share their worry about how hard and long the husband works and how hard it is for him to care for a sick child (the temporal division of labor in the family). A moral dilemma is presented by the notion of how to time eating out, as well as by the well-known “danger” of eating too much in restaurants. In Example 2a, two friends justify to one another the fact that they are having lunch with a group in a restaurant on a day that is not a public holiday.

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Example 2a:

22.11.97 14.10

Two women friends: S. and Sh. meet in a crowded restaurant.

Sh: How are things?

S.: We didn’t notice you. Are you ‘after’ or ‘before’?

Sh: We just finished. The whole family is here. Z. had a birthday and he invited all of us for lunch.

S: That’s great! We are simply celebrating the fact that I feel like indulging myself and not preparing anything at home.

…..[continued in Example 2b]

Sh: We’re just leaving. I’m full. I ate so much.

S: Nobody can see that.

Sh: Anyway, hearty appetite to you. Keep in touch, See you!

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This conversation includes a section on a gift. In the anthropological literature a great deal of attention is given to the logic of gifts among non-literate peoples (see, for example, Malinowski). In the conversations of our collection, we discover that gifts are a source of concern, interest, and salient value for people in the students’ milieu. There are considerations that determine what they are, who gives them, when they are given, their appropriateness in the immediate context. Rules have to be clarified and re-clarified in light of replicated experiences.

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Example 2b:

Sh: Look at the bracelet that I got as a present from Granny, for my birthday this week.

S: Congratulations, really beautiful, Which Granny? Yossie’s mother?

Sh: No, my father’s wife. What do you think of it?

S: Absolutely exquisite. Be renewed and enjoy it! [a conventional blessing]

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The fact that “my father’s wife” has given me an extraordinary gift for my birthday is more than just a confirmation of norms of gift-giving. This is concrete evidence of an idyllic family relationship as well.

Psychological processes: Norm clarification in plain talk, diverse as it is, often borders on a session of counseling. In almost every conversation, somebody is worried and is not sure about something, and the second party is appealed to with varying degrees of intensity for a solution. The exchange often ends with the decisive statement on how to solve ‘it’ – whatever that ‘it’ is.4 This culturally available format confirms the usefulness of applying PCT as a tool of analysis.

Let’s look at some details of the talk in terms of Personal Construct Theory. I will relate to anticipations and experiences; the search for alternatives, as well as to elements and constructs, constructions, replications, individuality, commonality, sociality, and hints of fragmentation. [See Note 1 for how these terms figure in the theory.]

Anticipation

Anticipation ‘channelizes’ (Kelly, 561) psychological processes – thought and feelings (see Kalekin-Fishman) and it is a concrete presence in ‘plain talk.’ In each conversation, the reference to what is anticipated sheds light on how far into the future the anticipation is anchored, and on how intense it is. The following example shows how central anticipation is to action and morality, as well as to self-awareness (jocular in this case).

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Example 3:

16.12.97 15.50

Two students, husband and wife, at a table in the university cafeteria.

H: I hope she won’t give birth on Thursday, because on Thursday I have classes at the University and I don’t want to miss any.

W: We’ll hope that won’t happen. But if it does, we have no choice, we’ll have to visit her.

H: And to Jerusalem! It will really be hard. What do you think of going with your parents?

W: No chance. I’m not going there alone. You’re my husband and you have to come with me.

H: But if it won’t work out for me because of my studies?

W: There’s no such thing. If you want it to work out, it will work out. They are family and we have to go.

H: You’re right, we must, but sometimes, conditions make it impracticable.

W: Right, it will be a little hard, but as I said before, we must. Actually, why are we arguing? You’ll see that in the end she won’t give birth on Thursday. I hope she’ll give birth on Friday, and then there’s no problem.

H: Even better if she gives birth on Saturday.

W: Saturday!! Do they do a Brith [circumcision of a son on the eighth day after birth] on Saturday?

H: As far as I know, it’s possible. Why not?

W: We really are going too far – planning the delivery according to our convenience. O. is suffering, wants to have given birth already, and we’re planning for her to have the baby at our convenience.

H: Wow! My class begins at 16.00. We’ll meet at 19.15 near the notice board where they post the marks.

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In general, the student role involves a dominant scheme of anticipation with concentric circles of anticipations. Students anticipate completing administrative arrangements in a matter of moments. They anticipate classes from week to week, and their behaviors are rigged insofar as possible to ensure the anticipated achievement of a university degree at the end of a cycle of years. In this conversation, it turns out that there are significant tensions between what is anticipated in family living – a central concern in the framework of Jewish culture and the pressures of making the most of a university education – perceived to be the key to economic and social success.

Queuing is a situation in which persons anticipate a resolution in several minutes. Like the talk at the bank (Example 1), a conversation at the supermarket is terminated when one of the participants moves to a line that is shorter and promises to bring the waiting to an end a few minutes earlier (Example 4). But that resolution is only part of the temporal concerns that enter into the exchange. Talk about running a home relates to an understanding that ‘everyone knows’ what a suitable, well-run, and beautiful home is. The interlocutors anticipate hours for the daily work of it, weeks for restocking equipment and refurbishing, and years of effort in keeping the family going.

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Example 4:

10.12.97 17.10

Two women shoppers are in line for the cashier at the supermarket.

A: Another week gone by. We meet here every Wednesday.

B: Yes, it goes by quickly. I wonder what younger people say. For me, time passes too quickly. Comes Sunday, and then suddenly it’s Wednesday.

A.: Do you work?

B: Of course! Otherwise I wouldn’t get here to shop so late. And you?

A: The same. I don’t mind shopping, but you have to arrange the stuff at home.

B: And after that you have to cook!

A: Right and that is hard. Actually, I like the cooking part. But [it takes so long] to get to it.

…..

B: The line isn’t moving. How many children do you have?

A: Two, a daughter who’s a soldier and a son in the ninth Grade.

B: Do they help you?

A: The soldier isn’t at home and my son doesn’t help. He makes more work for me.

B: And your husband?

A: He works many more hours per day than I do, comes home late. It’s hard for me to demand it of him, but he really tries to help when he can.

B: I have a similar story, except that my [kids] are younger and certainly don’t help.

A: I’m going on to a different line. It’s shorter over there.

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In many cases, talk about children devolves on a disturbing problem. In a conversation about a six-year-old, for example, his mother complains: “He is very good in his studies, but he sometimes causes a row in class!” In talking about a dieting teenager, the mother that this time it will be possible to avoid failure. But whether a parent is discussing illness, misbehavior, or a daughter’s dieting, there is a two-fold anticipation. First of all, a resolution of the problem is anticipated – hoped for very soon. Secondly, there is also a realization that a truly satisfactory resolution will come through at best in the farther, maybe even the far, future.

A startling example is found in a conversation between two sisters-in-law about the child of one of them. The unsaid word ‘rape’ seems to hang like a dark cloud over the short interchange about a self-assertive child. The mother describes her son’s current behavior at school. But her explanation shows that there is a long-term worry. Are these actions an omen of how he will behave when he grows up? Her interlocutor heightens the misgivings (Example 5).

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Example 5:

3.12.97 8.00

On a train from Haifa to Tel Aviv, in a car full of passengers, two mothers are talking.

A: Shahar has been very naughty recently.

B: What do you mean?

A: Don’t misunderstand me, he’s not a bad boy. On the contrary! He loves to bestow a lot of warmth. He tells me that he gives kisses to all the girls in the class.

B: What class is he in?

A: First Grade

B: What does that mean: he gives kisses? Do the girls let him?

A: So he says. I do try to explain to him that that is not the way to express feelings. He has to know the limits. You see, in our house, we give him and his sister a lot of warmth. We kiss them all the time, hug them, love them, and it may very well be that he thinks that that is what is supposed to happen in class.

B: Maybe, but you have to explain to him that school is a different situation. At some stage, if he goes on in this way, it could be misinterpreted.

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Experiences

The possibility of opening an ordinary conversation ad hoc derives from a perception that there is wide consensus on what experiences are memorable, can be recounted, and are worth talking about. Experiences related to children communicate anxiety about behavior in school, about a capacity for scholastic achievement, about eating habits, or about illness. It appears, however, that there is no question about goals, nor is there a question about the right of the social environment to demand their realization. The appeals for counsel derive from doubts about how to achieve what is necessary or what is understood to be desirable. The problem for many parents is, in sum, how to produce and shape children that will be admired by the people around them. Reasoning focuses on the boundaries between discipline and independence, between parents’ indulgence and children’s self-reliance, and on what experiences should be replicated.

Talk about the family often develops around how to ensure technical efficiency, or in Weber’s terms, to be secure in its ‘procedural rationality.’ Family outings illustrate these experiential concerns. Among others, there are explicit and implicit consultations about the gendered division of labor (see Example 4). In a lighter vein, it turns out that men have exclusive rights to conduct outings at home, in Israel. From a conversation between two teachers, we learn that men (should ‘naturally and spontaneously’) know unusual places, know how to get there, and what to do once the family has arrived. Women, on the other hand, apparently have the right to decide on outings abroad, even though they do not presume to have special knowledge (Example 6).

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Example 6:

12.12.97 10.15

Two women are waiting their turn in a travel agency.

A: Hi! What are you doing here?

B: Booking a flight to London for Chanukah. [in December]

A: For whom?

B: For me and my husband.

A: Does he know about this?

B: No, I’m surprising him.

A: Good for you! I’m here to find out some of the possibilities, too. H. suggested that I come to check up on things. ….. When do you intend to tell him about the surprise?

B: A week before the trip. Next week.

A: Does he like surprises? Don’t you think that he’ll by angry because you didn’t let him in on it. After all, it is a trip abroad!

B: It’ll be fine …..

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Both women are responsible for getting information and for the booking. The fact that B. is using these rights to spring a surprise tells about how she is using these rights to re-assert the centrality of family life, or at any rate of the husband-wife relationship, as a counter to her husband’s dominating work ethic.

Elements

The elements construed in the conversations we are analyzing are persons, objects, and situations – some concrete, some abstract. Everyone and everything is grist for the mill of ‘plain talk.’ Among the persons are lecturers in the university, children in school, the doctors, nurses, and pharmacists at a clinic, daughters and sons, siblings, husbands and wives, parents, and soldiers. Among the objects are food and meals, gifts, tickets, cars, buses. For the most part, however, talk centers on situations. These include concrete situations, such as: making plans, waiting on line, going out to eat, commuting and taking trips, homework, unruliness. Many conversations, moreover, spill over into representations of abstract situations. Among them are: illness as a generalized situation, work as a human condition, the marriage contract, death, and the intricacies of parent-child relationships on all levels.

Constructs

Construing is not necessarily dependent on language, and it is highly likely that children have constructs even before they find words (Kelly). In talk, however, constructs are verbalized to describe construals of conditions, relations, or manner.

In this corpus, twenty-six (55%) of the forty-seven relational constructs are constructions of action. Among them are verbalizations for constructs such as “giving me freedom” versus “interfering,” “taking care of …” versus “leaving [him] alone,” “going with R.” versus “R. going alone,” “helping” versus “making extra work,” “complaining” versus “suffering in silence,” and so on. One relational construct takes on at least two kinds of meaning. There is a construct “alone” versus “with family” and “alone (with family)” versus “with boy friend” or “with husband.” Almost half of the constructs report on ‘manner.’ Among them are verbal expressions of affective constructs such as “insulted – accepting,” “loving – uninterested,” “disappointed – happy.” Verbalizations of constructs of political conditions are almost mechanical in the context of Israeli daily life. and reflect an internalization of the cliches of the media, clearly inspired by the political establishment. In Example 1, ‘A’ denounces the actor who was disrespectful to the Prime Minister as Leftist. The opposite pole proffered by ‘B’ describes “Everyone” and “his own” opinions. In the interchange about a soldier who was killed (Example 7), the interlocutors talk about the impossibility of ‘trusting’ (the Hizballah) because of their ‘bad faith.’ They also provide a construct of ‘mutual understanding’ versus ‘threats’. Peace and war are significantly coupled in statements that peace is likely to be ‘dangerous’ while war is understood to be ‘necessary.’

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Example 7:

1:50 p.m. Two male students during lunchtime at the university cafeteria.

A: Another soldier killed in Lebanon. I always think of what this means to their families.

B: This is endless. The situation is intolerable; maybe we just have to get out.

A: How can you say that? What will happen to the people who live in the north?

B: We can sign treaties to ensure their security.

……………..

A: I don’t believe in any understandings with them; they are not human beings.

B: If that is the case, we have to say that there’s no hope for peace and we are looking for war.

A: If there’s no choice, war may be necessary. We should never give in to those Arabs. They are dangerous and want to kill us.

B: Your attitude is extremist. Think of what is happening now. There are the beginnings of an agreement.

A: What kind of agreement? They keep threatening us with a renewed uprising (Intifada). They are dangerous, I tell you!

B: I’m glad that not everybody thinks the way you do ……

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In the next section, examples will show how corollaries to the fundamental postulate are substantiated in the conversations.

Construction corollary:

In each conversation, there is, as the construction corollary states, explicit reference to what, in the construals of the participants, is being replicated. In the discussion of the telecast, for example, there is a reliance on how Prime Ministers have been spoken of in the past. When a student complains about a lecturer, her companion calls her to task on the basis of past lectures that she had praised. In talk about children, there is implicit and explicit reference to behaviors that are acceptable in well-known school situations, and to the need to discover causal explanations for non-standard action. A meal in a restaurant is compared explicitly with meals at home, and with the usual birthday party. Commuting is a pattern that is always “unnerving” and this time is no different. A mother of small children is encouraged by a friend to study for a degree “now” because it was a good thing “in my experience.” A teacher at school is counseled to be “consistent,” so that her disciplining will succeed; this is what worked in the past for the counseling colleague. As noted above (Example 4a), talk about shopping discloses a construal of that activity as a complex chain of replicated behaviors, a set of practices that include finding time, making lists, standing on line, unpacking at home, organizing the food in the cupboards, cooking, and … washing the dishes. All family events are, in fact, construed as replicated and replicable.

Talk about dieting and hopes for success recalls other diets and repeated failures (Example 8).

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Example 8: 22.11.97 19.15

Two women neighbors, S. and M. (Rosie’s mother) at the entrance to an apartment building

S: Hi! What’s new? Were you in the group with Rosie?

M: Yes, and you won’t believe it, she lost half a kilogram this week too.

S: That’s wonderful, you see what a [great] daughter you have.

M: Yes, she is very persistent. I thought that this Saturday, because of the big party, she wouldn’t lose any weight. But she did.

S: Is it noticeable on her already?

M: Yes, all the swelling has gone away. People are already asking her if she has lost weight. That makes her very happy.

S: Keep encouraging her, that does her good.

M: Of course! I don’t stop, I hope that this time it will succeed and there will be long term results.

S: Good night! M: Good night!

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This exchange discloses that dieting can be construed in two alternative ways. Past failures do not, apparently, preclude the realization of success. This is in tune with Kelly’s insistence on the philosophical stand and the therapeutic value of seeking alternative constructions of situations.

Search for alternatives

In ‘plain talk,’ interlocutors speak a language that is rife with unquestioned meanings – the world of the taken for granted. The situation of the conversation and the situation that provides the content are not questioned. The central elements are shared, as are verbalizations of the constructs. Suggestions for possible alternative constructions are embedded, therefore, in the web of shared construals. Everybody knows that diets may or may not succeed. In relating to a child new in school, there are acceptable behavioral nuances and the question is which are essential to construing somebody as a ‘good’ pupil. In refurbishing a house, “you know that I like new household equipment,” is the opening gambit for a discussion about how to choose a stove – according to color, or, alternatively, according to some unspecified technical consideration. In relating to a trip abroad, the interlocutor is implicitly asked to agree that surprising a workaholic husband with a shared holiday is the right thing to do even though there is an obvious alternative – allowing him to have a voice.

In short, the constructions of these conversations exhibit agreements on facts and devolve on a search for the boundaries of action one can live with in relation to each theme. Within those limits, alternative possibilities within the range of convenience of the talkers’ construct systems, are either specified or implied.

Commonality corollary

The work of suiting topics to place, and the wide range of meanings taken for granted by the talkers confirm that there is an assumption of commonality, which works even for ad hoc acquaintances. In this collection of conversations, we discover that the assumption of commonality determines what are identified as facts, and what norms have to be decreed in specific situations. Similarly, there is commonality in the criteria of classification, for categorizing intelligence and entertainment, ritual behaviors and profane routines. From the appeals for guidance, the interlocutor in the role of counselor often provides information about the range of alternatives that are available for determining the limits of obedience, of obligations, of commitment.

Commonality is also disclosed in the things not said. Only rarely are people called upon to do ‘repairs’ to their initiating constructions of an issue, and even more rare is having to explain oneself (Goffman; Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson). Among these conversations, there is one instance. When the response to a mother, who proclaims that her son is mischievous, is a consoling insistence that he will learn how to act in school; she has to repair the construal. “No, I meant, he doesn’t listen to me! He does whatever he feels like doing at home.” In other cases, people respond with statements that are not directly appropriate, and they get by with this (see Example 1). Responses are deliberately phrased to avoid overt discord. Such avoidance responses are readily to hand and also held in common. In most instances the parties beware of ‘choosing’ the alternative that best extends their personal system as the choice corollary states. Instead, they appeal for help to choose what in the eyes of ‘the other guy’ is the ‘correct’ alternative (the desirable norm). We can see that in daily conversational encounters, the choice corollary is less important than the quest for adequate commonality. In most instances the parties beware of ‘choosing’ the alternative that best extends their personal system as the choice corollary states. Instead, they appeal for help to choose what in the eyes of ‘the other guy’ is the ‘correct’ alternative (the desirable norm). We can see that in daily conversational encounters, the choice corollary is less important than the quest for adequate commonality. Exceptions, as we shall see, are conversations in which talkers insist on their individuality.

Individuality Corollary

Differences among the interlocutors are traced in the division of labor that takes form in the course of the conversation. One of the participants proposes the topic. The ‘other’ takes the horns of the explicit or implicit dilemma and suggests a denouement. Few interlocutors, however, emphasize their uniqueness. Where individuality is stressed, as, for example, in the conversation between the girl soldier and a woman acquaintance, it is clear that they are not construing the reality of the army in common terms. The soldier exercised restraint.

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Example 9:

A soldier on leave and an acquaintance at a crowded street fair in the early evening.

Older woman: Hello, soldier girl, how are you?

Younger woman: O.K., I’ve just come back and I decided to make the rounds of the fair with some (girl) friends.

OW: So, where are your friends?

YW: They went to an aerobics class, and I was left alone.

OW: That’s all well and good, but aren’t you afraid that you’ll be charged [by the military police] because of the way you look? In uniform, with the blouse hanging loose outside your slacks, and you’re wearing clogs. As I remember it, this kind of dress can bring on a court-martial.

YW: I’m on my way home to change into civvies. I was in a hurry to see the fair.

OW: It’s great, isn’t it? Just like Independence Day. So many people! Say, what do you do in the army?

YW: I’m an instructor of (men) soldiers.

OW: Reservists?

YW: No, soldiers in the regular army, I teach them how to handle weapons.

OW: Wow, you are a success! You actually are a commander of (men) soldiers!

YW: I’m not really an officer, just an instructor.

OW: Do you feel competent in your job?

YW: Yes, I’ve got the hang of it, and I do get along, but the job is not really a senior post.

OW: The big thing is that you are in command of men; that’s what’s important.

YW: I’m going, bye!

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In this chance encounter, the two women begin from what each thinks should be shared knowledge about army customs. Yet, in a few minutes, individuality is highlighted because they are not of the same cohort. The younger woman cuts the effort at interaction short and leaves abruptly.

Sociality and Fragmentation

Whereas PCT implies that sociality is a goal attained only with great effort, ‘plain talk’ shows how wide-ranging are the possibilities for accurate “construal of the construction processes of another.” It turns out that ordinary conversations are convincing evidence of a mundane process in which at least two people are involved and “play roles”. Participants’ construals are apparently infused with assumptions of commonality, and sociality is demonstrated in the acting out that constitutes the talk. Here, too, however, there is a paradox. Strangely enough, in conversations of intimates, we find evidence of mutual misconstructions, a blatant play on fragmentation, as if there is an inability to maintain sociality. Here is a striking example:

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Example 10a:

Husband and wife at home at noon, with one other member of the extended family.

W: Everybody took notice of my birthday except my dear husband.

H: You’re lying. Didn’t I invite you to dinner?

W: Yes, but you could think [that’s so great] …. At work every one of the women gets flowers sent to her by her husband, and I don’t.

H: Again you’re not telling the whole truth. You asked me explicitly not to send flowers to you at work.

W: That’s true, because it’s become a routine there. All the husbands do it. But why didn’t you send me flowers at home?

H: Whatever I do is not good enough for you. I used to send you flowers and you didn’t appreciate it.

W: That’s not so. You know that when I was coming back from work [today], I was eager to get home. I was sure that I would find flowers. There were none in the living room so I went up to the bedroom, hoping to find some there. But nothing! And that made me very sad.

H: Why are you making such a fuss? ….

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By contrasting conversations carried on by people who are at different levels of ties, we seem to have come upon evidence of the fragmentation corollary at play in a shared situation. Kelly views the successive employment of “a variety of construction sub-systems which are inferentially incompatible with each other” as a failure of the self, even if it is not an inevitable indicator of mental illness. Here the conversation is shattered by incompatible construals of the past. The conversation about the birthday present and the flowers displays incompatible constructions, misunderstandings that seem to be deliberately chosen in order to accent individuality. It is possible to describe this deliberate mismatch as part of the struggle to hold on to individuality in a relationship that is construed as being of maximum mutual commitment. As they argue each of the partners slips into personal fragmentation.

Having pointed out evidence of anticipation, dichotomization, replications, individuality, commonality, sociality, and suspicion of fragmentation; I would like to point out one more aspect of plain talk. The conversation begun above is an example of a thread that runs through the entire corpus. Each detailed analysis of the interchanges leads to insight into stories that lead us back to a deeper understanding of the emerging culture.

His/Her/Our Stories

Although the conversations presented here are each very short – no more than a page in length – all of them relate to events that have significance for people’s lives, thickly plotted stories that encompass past and present, and anticipate both the immediate future and the future beyond.

The meeting of the girl soldier with a neighbor at the street fair quoted in Example 9 is a conversation full of information about Israel. We not only hear a story of how women see the army, but also get a summary of peculiarities of perceptions of gender and feminism in the country. The same woman (who, apparently was at one time a soldier – “as I remember it”) who had no opportunity to be a “commander” of men, sees the job of instructor as an extraordinary achievement. But she is not trying actively to change things. She takes military rules of dress with the utmost seriousness. The younger woman, on the other hand, assesses her place with what might be judged to be exaggerated ‘cool.’ Although hers is a job that signals some advance for women soldiers, she knows the actual status of her post and refuses to be swept along with the older woman’s enthusiasm. Her perspective derives from taking her contemporaries, the male soldiers, as her reference group. She also pushes ahead for greater liberation, making the most of rules that allow her to wear civilian dress when she’s on leave. In assuming that no military policeman will be wandering around the street fair in her hometown just at dusk to catch her out, she is construing the situation realistically and making a bid for a construction of empowerment.

Patterns of family life are storied in ordinary talk. Take this conversation between two men where one has come to console his friend, who is in mourning (Example 11).

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Example 11:

Two friends, one in mourning, at the house of the mourner, 6:00 on a March evening, during the seven days of ritual mourning.

Y: I share in your sorrow. That’s life. How did it happen? Did she suffer much towards the end?

S. (mourner) Very much. All the systems stopped functioning one after another.

Y: What does that mean?

S.: That’s what the doctors told us. But she didn’t complain. She suffered in silence.

Y: Was she conscious?

S. Yes, until the moment of her death.

Y: How old was she?

S: 86. The person who will suffer now is my father. He himself has had several heart attacks and he is very ill. But for the last several years he devoted himself to her care. He cooked, cleaned, and took charge of everything at home.

Y: Now he will feel an emptiness and that will be bad for him. He will be lonely and want attention. It may very well be that if until now he could function, his condition will become worse from now on, because he won’t have anybody to do things for. How many brothers are you?

S: Four, and we all are taking care of him. We won’t leave him alone. He told us that toward the end, Mom began to talk about things and events that happened to her in the distant past. She was remembering her childhood, and he claims that that’s how he knew that her end was near.

Y: Interesting, the wisdom of the old.

S: What about London, are you going during the Passover holiday?

Y: So, what do you think?

S: That’s it, everything is going wrong. … But all together it is possible. I intend to stay in mourning for one month, and that’s it.

Y: I see that people are coming, so [I’ll be going]. May you know no more sorrow.

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This short conversation turns into a heady account of a family saga. In the friends’ interchange, we learn about the relationship between the widowed father and the wife he cared for during her illness; of the dead woman’s ability to “suffer patiently;” of the concern of the four sons for their father’s well-being; and of the possibility that this son will take a holiday with friends as planned after what is considered a decent period of mourning. One page – and material for a novel that cuts across two generations with a backward look and an anticipation of a future that is altogether bleak for the older generation and re-opens with hope for the younger one.

Let us now look again at the story of the husband and wife who quarrel about what is suitable attention on birthdays continues (Example 10b).

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Example 10b: (continuation – at home in the presence of a member of the extended family)

…….

W: (to the third party) Do you see what he thinks is showing consideration? That’s the way he is!

H: Why did you start on this topic? (to the third person) Suddenly she wants to go to America with a girl friend!

W: Right! My friend is taking a two-week trip to visit her family and she suggested that I join her.

H: If you go abroad, you’ll go with me! I think that she has a bad influence on you. Here! (extending his hand with a bill in it) Buy yourself a gift.

W: Don’t you understand that that’s not the same thing. A wife likes consideration. She loves to get a birthday gift from her husband! E. got a beautiful bunch of flowers from her husband, and with the flowers there was a little box with a gold ring.

H: You’re talking about her and her gifts again.

W: I won’t take notice of your birthday either!

H: Do me a favor and don’t buy me anything. That won’t upset me in the least.

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The couple’s story is complicated indeed. The talk discloses polar differences in their construals of the meaning of marriage. While the wife recounts deprivation, the husband invalidates her construction. With his pedestrian interpretation of ‘giving a birthday present’ he violates his wife’s Hollywoodian imagery. He perceives their relationship as a rational contract and insists on exclusive rights to her companionship. The same-sex friendship is a consolation to the wife, but in the eyes of the husband it is a threat to the family unit. Talking at cross-purposes, they move from system to incompatible system of constructs.

Discussion

‘Plain talk’ provides strong evidence for the prevalence of the theorized insights that govern the making of culture (cf. Holland and Quinn). We can hear them in the elements discussed and in the constructs that echo and re-echo a fund of perceptions, ideas, and beliefs. The emergent culture in this corpus of mundane conversations stems from conventions of “sociation” (Simmel) against a backdrop of macro-structures. Interlocutors begin with those conventions which initially restrain what is to be thought of and what can be talked about.

Partners, however, use their talk to create a community of their own. They are, for the length of the conversation, in a state of liminality (Dar; Turner), ‘strolling’ side by side in a world that they are fashioning, a world whose parameters their talk is fixing anew, if only temporarily. Domains of public concern smooth the way to mutuality and prepare for relationships at different levels of intimacy each with a mass of acceptable norms, socially approved duties, sanctions, preferences.

In order to work these things out, people locate their conversations in events, on whose replications it is possible for partners in talk to rely on. In plain talk, they take moral responsibility for their interpretations and supply representations of current consequence, precedents for anticipated events in other places where the now will be experienced differently. Once we apprehend details, we can understand the many faceted realization of identity, the verbalized performance of culture as emergence and compression (Bauman 1995).

The words of ‘plain talk,’ born of individuality, expressed through commonalities in taken for granted realms of sociality, combine to encapsulate long stories. These ordinary conversations, usually about issues that require resolution, implicitly exemplify arguments about the nature of the long-term underpinnings of community (Billig). The stories framed are thus the stuff of history (Lyotard). Plain talk presents and re-presents chains of events – stories that constitute the history “from below.” This is the vibrant history that has deserted the battlefield and escaped from the dust of academia, into the bailiwick of culture compressed in every-person’s identity and shaped by every-person’s practices.

Thus, plain talk signals a domain of empowerment. Through it, people have the power to designate, the power to ask, and the power to decide. The ‘counselors’ in these conversations construe macro-norms and seek to convey them; but, because of the surface triviality of the situation, persons in trouble have voice. Counsel can be accepted or rejected; reflected upon alternatives in play can be perpetuated or alternatives can be construed. The material of plain talk, the language of anticipation with roots in the deep past; plain talk with its many-leveled stories, is most people’s way of evading domination. Beginning with the seemingly trivial aim of chitchat, people involved in ‘plain talk’ are at one and the same time claiming the democratic right to tell his-, her- and our-stories. In the telling they are shaping and reshaping culture, that very human craft which, as Arvizu says, gives meaning to people’s lives by being symbolically represented through language and interaction. Echoing Bauman, he insists that culture is a verb rather than a noun, ‘plain talk,’ fortuitous interaction, is a superb part of the active processing of self in culture and culture in self. It is the quintessential verbing of verbs.

Notes

* I wish to thank two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. back

1 Following is a short formulation of Personal Construct Theory (Kelly, 561-562):

Fundamental postulate: A person’ processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipates events.

Construction corollary: This anticipation of events occurs through construing their replications.

Dichotomy corollary: We develop a construction system, which is composed of a finite number of dichotomous constructs.

Range corollary: A construct is convenient for the anticipation of a finite range of events only.

Choice corollary: A person chooses for himself that alternative in a dichotomized construct through which he anticipates the greater possibility for extension and definition of his system.

Organization corollary: A person’s constructs are organized into a construction system embracing ordinal relationships between constructs.

Experience corollary: A person’s construction system varies as he successively construes the replications of events.

Modulation corollary: The variation in a person’s construction system is limited by the permeability of the constructs within whose range of convenience the variants lie.

Fragmentation corollary: A person may successively employ a variety of construction sub-systems which are inferentially incompatible with each other.

Individuality corollary: Persons differ from each other in their construction of events.

Commonality corollary: To the extent that one person employs a construction of experience which is similar to that employed by another, his psychological processes are similar to those of the other person.

Sociality corollary: To the extent that one person construes the construction processes of another, he may play a role in a social process involving the other person. back

2 A question that arises is that of how race, class, and gender mold culture. In the framework of the type of data with which I am dealing here, some of the differences come through in conversations in different languages: Arabic, Russian, Amharic, as well as in Hebrew. These are issues that will be dealt with in future papers. back

3 Of the 1,600 students in the faculty, all of them are over the age of twenty; 80% of them commute; 75% are married and about 85% work at a job that is connected with formal or informal education. back

4 From this perspective, PCT is apt as a technique of meta-analysis of the counseling that goes on in the conversation, as well as a tool for exploring the culture “compressed” in the interlocutors’ identities. back

Works Cited

Arvizu, S. F. “Building Bridges for the Future: Anthropological contributions to diversity and classroom practices.” Cultural diversity in schools: From rhetoric to practice. Eds. R. A. DeVillar, C. J. Faltis and J. P. Cummins. Albany: SUNY Press, 1994. 75-97. back

Bauman, Z. Culture as Praxis. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973. back

Bauman, Z. Life in fragments: Essays in postmodern morality. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995. back

Billig, M. Ideology and opinions. London, Newbury Park, New Delhi: Sage, 1991. back

Dar, Y. “Encounter and community.” Tel Aviv: Congress of the International Institute of Sociology, 1999 (July). back

de Certeau, M. “Inventing the quotidian.” (Hebrew) Theory and Critique 10 (1998): 15-24. back

Goffman, Erving. “Response cries.” Language 54 (1978): 787-815. back

Holland, D. and N. Quinn, eds. Cultural Models in Language and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. back

Kalekin-Fishman, D. “Experimentation and meaning: Time, emotion, and the community of selves.” From experimentation into meaning. Eds. D. Savage and J. Fischer. Reading, UK: EPCA, 1998. back

Kelly, G. A. The psychology of personal constructs, vols. I and II. New York: W. W. Norton, 1955. back

Kroeber, A. and C. Kluckhohn. Culture. New York: Anchor Books, 1952. back

Lyotard, J. F. The inhuman. Trans. Bennington, G. and R. Bowlby. London: Polity Press, 1991. back

Malinowski, B. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1961. back

Sacks, H., E. A. Schegloff, and G. Jefferson. “A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation.” Language 50 (1974): 696-735. back

Simmel, G. “Sociability: as the autonomous form of sociation.” Trans. Wolff, K. H. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Ed. K. H. Wolff. New York: The Free Press, 1964/1950. back

Swidler, A. “Culture in action: Symbols and strategies.” American Sociological Review 51 (1986): 273-286. back

Turner, V. The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. Chicago: Aldine, 1969. back

Weber, M. From Max Weber. Trans. Gerth, H. and C. W. Mills. London: Routledge, 1970. back

Author: Devorah Kalekin-Fishman says about herself:

There once was a woman named Devorah
Not a sinner from S’dom or Gomorrah.
Yet she makes no amends
For it’s research, she pretends,
To be doing when she eavesdrops galore-ah.
In his Invitation to Sociology, Berger assures us that the sociologist is somebody who has no compunctions about peering through keyholes of bedroom doors. Personally, I think listening in is more fun.

Point of departure: Faculty of Education, University of Haifa, Israel
Interests: Sociology – of knowledge, of culture, of education … of people!
Publications: Three edited books, a book in the writing (on education and ideology), and some seventy-odd published papers
Hobbies: Like Shaw’s Mr. Higgins, my work is my hobby. But I also surf the net and play the piano.
Home: Nice!

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