I took a work-study job at Berkeley last year transcribing for a project in the Institute of Human development. I received recordings of classroom interaction with kids in the 10-12 range and transcribed everything into a readable format for a couple of PhDs and wanna be PhDs.
It wasn’t a difficult job. It was usually interesting and different every time, and I liked that. It paid better than I’ve ever been paid before, and the expectations were kind and reasonable, and I liked that, too. I found that transcription is something that I’m quite good at and could do again in the future, if I wished. All good things.
The best thing about this job, however, has been what I’ve learned about the way people talk. I suppose I can’t say all people; this is rigidly controlled and scheduled interaction between teachers and students in Oakland talking about a limited number of subjects. However, I noticed a few things about these interactions that made me notice the same things happening in nearly everyone’s speech.
Here’s what I spotted:
1. Many times, when someone starts a sentence they have no plan on where they’re going and no idea how it’s going to end.
2. Similarly, people stop mid-sentence to interrupt themselves with parenthetical utterances that often have nothing to do with the eventual aim of the speaker. I’ll give you an example.
“Today we’re going to (and you guys have never done this before) try a game based on a debating technique (and I know we’ve had debates, but this kind is different) that involves two teams on either side of the room facing each other (well, not facing each other, more like a sort of a V shape against this wall) and then taking turns.
Granted, a lot of this can be chalked up to the way teachers struggle to convey complex steps and instructions to a room full of half-listening hellions. But I’ve seen people do it constantly since my appointment started. See if this sounds familiar:
“Well, I went to the post office on Tuesday (or maybe it was Wednesday? No, it was Tuesday because I had just been to yoga.) to mail some packages to my sister. (Not the sister in Alaska, the one in L.A.) So I walked in the door and I saw the post machine…”
We interrupt ourselves with details and qualifications and exceptions and corrections that aren’t relevant to the tale we tell, that make us seem scatter-brained and unsure, that keep us from getting to the point.
If we took a few seconds to think, to plan what we’re going to say, to say it as cleanly as possible, how different would that be?