11. There is a Jewish conversational style.

It is widely accepted that different ethnic groups have distinctive and meaningful patterns of conversational style that are known – almost intuitively – to their members. Jews are no exception.  The patterns of conversation that are found among most Jews, especially those of Eastern European origin, differ in significant ways from patterns of conversation found among most non-Jews in America.

For example: experienced from the “outside,” non-Jewish listeners often notice that Jewish speakers tend to interrupt the flow of a conversation and therefore, judge them as being rude. In that same conversation – but experienced from the “inside” - those same Jewish speakers perceive that they are engaged and are actively and respectfully participating. Georgetown University Professor Deborah Tannen, an internationally acclaimed expert in linguistics, calls this normative Jewish behavior “high-involvement” and “cooperative overlapping.” She affirms - what Jewish speakers basically know intuitively - that talking as another person continues to talk is one way that Jews show interest and appreciation.

Also typical of Jewish conversational style are: a faster rate of speech, faster turn-taking among speakers, abrupt shifts of topics, persistence in reintroducing a topic if others do not immediately notice it, unhesitating introduction of new topics, and a preference for personal topics.34  Tannen further affirms that the very sounds of Jewish-style talk, including: pitch shifts, volume changes, and voice quality and accent exaggerations signal empathy and concern even as they reinforce a shared ethnic (and sometimes, a regional) background. In conversation, Jews find all of these conversational modalities unremarkable. Tannen notes that “You show you’re a good person by demonstrating enthusiastic participation in the conversation.  You offer talk as a gift.”35

Jews also tend to tell stories in their conversations, often in rounds. Instead of stating the point of a story directly, Jews often dramatize it through another story while focusing upon the emotional experience of that story. Those whose backgrounds promote different ways of conversing may not “get the point” of these story-telling rounds that sometimes seem not to have a plot.  They also may find the expression -and implied expectation - of personal revelation unnerving and intrusive.

Unfortunately, the very characteristics that promote good communication within one group can create a “style disconnect” within mixed groups. For example, the same “high-involvement” and “cooperative overlapping” that are so welcome and positively interpreted within Jewish groups often put-off those who are used to more restrained and less expressive ways of speaking. According to Tannen, “overlap is used cooperatively … as a way of showing enthusiasm and interest, but it is interpreted by [outsiders] as just the opposite: evidence of lack of attention."36 On the other side of the coin, some ethnic or regional groups value pauses and silence as evidence of respect while Jews tend to interpret these conversational modalities as evidence of lack of rapport and/or interest.

Beyond this, people often make erroneous judgments about the personality of individuals who express themselves according to their normative ethnic (and regional) conversational styles. Tannen points out that negative stereotypes of “pushy New York Jews” may owe considerably more to clashing linguistic patterns than to character flaws. She explains that in her research, she “found out that New York Jews have ways of talking that often have one effect (a good one) when used with one another and another effect (not so good) when used with others.  Of course, some New Yorkers who are not of East European Jewish background talk this way, and so do people who are neither from New York nor Jewish. But there are many who do - enough to account for the negative stereotype.”37

© 2004 , Bonita E Taylor & David J. Zucker

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