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Über die Motive des menschlichen Handelns (‘On the Motives of Human Behavior’)

As regular readers of this blog may have noticed, sometimes a post includes material in languages other than English, and this particularity even extends to titles. When it comes to German, occasionally your humble blogger resorts to it because of his long-held belief that––as he (half-jokingly) used to tell his students––the (philosophical) truth can only be expressed in German.

Human beings behave in a number of ways, many of which involve the use of language. Speech, for example, is typically accompanied by gesticulation with the hands and shoulders (and other parts of the body). As a whole, these phenomena form the object of study called PARALINGUISTICS. But paralinguistic behavior may extend to events where speech is answered by gesture and non-speech more generally. Here is a fresh example.

A man in his seventies (let’s call him Monsieur Pamplemousse, for the nonce) walks into the laundry room of his apartment building to wash some clothes and greets a young woman, unknown to him and the only other person present, with his customary “Good morning.” The woman smiles but does not answer. This strikes M. Pamplemousse as rude. However, the woman’s motive(s) for not answering are unclear. Perhaps she is unused to speaking to strangers, even to the routine extent of answering an utterly automatic greeting. Perhaps she thinks (or has been taught to think) that any linguistic act, even something as innocent as a morning greeting, is not to be answered when coming from a strange man because it may be a (hidden) overture to something less innocent.

By contrast, when M. Pamplemousse returns to retrieve his laundry from the dryer, the only other occupant of the room is a young man (wearing the de rigueur baseball cap characteristic nowadays of all persons of his age group), also a stranger, whom he likewise greets with the customary “Good morning.” This time his greeting is reciprocated (albeit sotto voce).

M. Pamplemousse’s sole evaluation of the young woman’s non-response is that it violates his code of manners. But on reflection, he can understand the range of possible motives of the woman’s behavior. Moreover, even such an unremarkable event, particularly in the context of contemporary American urban life and its mores, can provide food for thought about broader issues of language and culture, witness the present post.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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