Conversations in Indian homes: Talking to everyone in general, no one in particular, and everything in-between

On Kadak Chai today, our post relates to conversations in Indian homes. This one’s Kadak (strong) since some of the extracts May be a bit difficult to grasp. Anyway, we hope that the messages get through and we look forward to your comments.

Like anywhere else in the world, conversations in Indian homes are loaded with cultural content. Our dialogues are formed by the collective understanding of conversational conventions, meaning and social practices into which children are inducted at a very early age. Ever since the early years of my interest in children’s development, the content of talk between children and adults (but also among children and among adults in the presence of children) was a fascinating field, to the extent that I decided to work in this area for my doctoral study. More specifically, I investigated mothers’ talk to children as their speech was being formed, between 6 and 18 months of age. I also published my findings in “Listening to culture: Constructing reality through everyday talk” by Sage Publishers in 2004. Although the study was focussed on ‘mothers’, I recorded all conversations in the home during the period of my observation. This has been the foundation of my subsequent research, and with Mothers’ Day around the corner, we thought it would be nice to write about how central mothers are to the lives of children, and because of this importance, many different practices are in place to ensure that ‘mothering’ is not exclusively the biological mother’s responsibility. As I have written elsewhere, a mother’s place is believed to be so central to a child, that there are always others around to fill in.

The work initiated before my thesis persists and I am always keenly tuned to dialogue about the care of children: live, recorded or dramatised. So when I recently came across this article in the newspaper, it triggered a whole range of memories about field-work days, the preparation of a publication based on the research, as well as an article I had once written for a collection of essays using the Dialogical Self Theory of Hubert Hermans by Hermans.

Voices inside the mind

Although it may sound arcane to the lay reader, the theory simply proposes that our sense of self is like a conversation, built through internal and external voices (positions) that develop through our experiences with other people. Basically, the assumption is that our sense of self is constructed around our interactions with the people around us, rather than an individual project of life-long self-enquiry alone. He elaborates that for every important relationship in our lives (external position), we create an internal position. These external and internal positions create dialogues inside our minds about who we are, like a ‘polyphonic’ or multi-voiced reconstruction from which we make sense. This complex, confusing and sometimes contradictory collection is the substance of our self rather than a singular, unchanging, coherent one, Hermans argues. As a clinical psychologist, Hermans has, of course, a far more elaborated explanation for these dynamics, but for the purpose of this article, this elementary explanation will suffice.

Growing up with many voices

Let us first draw attention to an article by Nandini Patwardhan. Writing about the relationships she grew up with, Nandini describes the domestic multi-generational dynamics thus:
‘One day our mother overheard this conversation and called us aside. “Whenever Aji asks about preparing something for you, you should just say yes. Usually she asks you when she feels like eating that snack.” We nodded yes, and returned to our play. And from that day onwards, we answered in the affirmative regardless of which snack Aji offered to make for us……….I appreciate the emotional intelligence of my mother who understood her mother and found a way to support her without drawing attention to it.
Who was mothering whom? Was Aji mothering her daughter and her daughter’s daughters? Was my mother mothering her mother? Or were the granddaughters mothering their grandmother?
I think it was all of the above.’  (Reference below)

The purposeful guidance of children through conversation

This purposeful (but subtle) guidance of children towards being positively predisposed towards an older person in the family is a very significant strategy for family harmony. Lest we run away with the belief that all joint families are havens of positivity, let me hastily add that the same strategy can be used to also distance, shun or hurt someone. Close relationships are double-edged. In the instance of Aji, Nandini’s mother’s advice to accept a snack as something that was done for her (Aji), rather than Nandini who was being offered the snack, is a peculiar dynamics that I haven’t experienced elsewhere in my work. This obliquity in talk is encountered repeatedly in Indian homes, and children are trained for it from an early age. Rather than being true to an internally consistent sense of self, the growing person is encouraged to behave differently with different people depending on their position in the child (and parents’) life. Socialisation is based on the fact that conduct has to be modulated to adapt to person, place and time/task. This is a fundamental departure from the text-book definition of self and identity that can be found in standard psychology text-books, since consistency and uniformity is a basic feature of a mature person, whereas the outcome of well-socialised individual in a socially dense culture is quite contradictory, you are considered to be mature and grown-up once you learn the nuances of socially appropriate conduct and people are evaluated on their capacity to effectively and efficiently negotiate the constellation of relationships they live among. Patricia Uberoi once famously remarked something like: In Indian families, we learn to have ‘close’ relationships with people with whom we are not always ‘close’, thereby making multi-voicedness an instrument for success in relationships. In the above instance, Aji would perhaps consider a direct consumption of a snack by and for herself too self-indulgent, and needed an extra reason for preparing the dish, and a grand-daughter would be the perfect recipient for such a snack, from which she would happily have some herself. Somehow, one other person also wanted something can legitimize its making. This dynamics resonates with so many instances that I have witnessed and written about. There is a clear tendency to avoid any direct expression of desire. This is not hard to understand within a culture where ‘otherness’ and social harmony is greatly valued, and individual indulgence is seen as subversive to the group in most instances.

At some point in the writing of this piece, I was reminded of Alice in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll where he wrote, through the words of Humpty Dumpty in conversation with Alice, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Alice, of course, debates his arrogance. The word-play in Carroll’s writing is stunning, and this is one example of how literary sources can provide the much required commentary on psychological texts. Hermans himself uses a range of examples from literature to support his theory.

I reached back into my files (and folders) for the publication I had worked on, where a list of patterns were compiled from different sources. Here it is for this week’s Masala Chai. Thank you for visiting, and wishing all mothers, other’s mothers, other mothers and mother’s others a very happy mothers’ day!

  1. Strategic silence. In situations of doubt, silence is an effective strategy. Whenever a person is in an awkward social situation or a personal demand is made that she may find formidable, it is quite all right not to say anything, and to look to another person for a fitting response. This is a common experience for researchers in the field who find that respondents just turn away in silence during an interview when they are unable or unwilling to grasp the situation.
  2. Social ventriloquism. In a hierarchical setting, due consideration has to be paid to the social arrangement. One of the strategies I encountered in families was talking on behalf of another person. In such situations, the pronoun ‘we’ may be used to hint at a personal involvement in the remark. For instance, if a woman does not wish to join the others for a visit, she might say to (and on behalf of) her child, ‘Say that we have a headache. And would rather stay home.’ In Hindi pronouns, there is an interesting possibility that the equivalent of the first-person plural ‘we’ can also be applied to the person herself. Person reference vocabulary in Indian languages provides the substance for several critical opportunities for saving face and not directly addressing the other, strategies that are perhaps essential for maintaining individual agency in a dense social setting. These intricacies are mostly hidden from the light of academic analysis primarily because they are so hard to grasp and investigate, and also because we have mostly been guided by the study of problems emerging from cultures with better developed industries of psychological research. Such a language exchange would be completely missed by a person who has not been socialized as a native, and would seem so commonplace to an insider that it is likely, in either instance, to receive little academic attention.
  3. Indirect address, speaking to A what is intended for B. If something disagreeable or playful needs to be said, another person closer to one’s own social status can be utilized to make a point, with the intention that the message is carried to the intended party, who may be within hearing distance. In this manner, the message is communicated without compromising the status of the other person. An example of this would be that if someone whom you cannot address directly is talking loudly, a child in the vicinity (who may be talking) may be told to keep his voice down. Children are very popular targets for this sort of manipulation with relationships, since such a remark would be quite common to make anyway.
  4. Position shift. This is a pervasive technique used by adults while addressing ‘other’ people in the environment in the presence of children. One of the most common instances of the strategy is to address others by using the kin term from the perspective of the child. So a mother may say to a child, when she wants the child to come in, ‘Father is calling you.’ In this case a significant other (father) takes the position of I, and this can be seen as a sign of the strong interconnectedness of the different positions.
  5. Speaking on behalf of others. As a complement to the earlier mentioned phenomenon of strategic silence, it is very common for people to speak on behalf of each other, knowing well that it is a strategy to be used in case of doubt. For people from a culture in which it is unusual to do this, conversations with Indians can be quite deceptive, as indicated by the following example. A foreign researcher visiting our institute went along with us to visit a nearby village. He asked a daughter-in-law from one of the families: ‘How many children do you have?’ When the question was translated for her, she covered her face with a veil and looked away, and her mother-in-law answered for her. The visitor concluded that to Indian women it was not clear how many kids they had!
  6. Using kin terminology as a default person deixis system for other people. Unknown people are usually taken into the fold of family terminology. Thus, there is a conscious application of kin terms to make people feel included in a person’s life. For instance, close friends of the mother can be addressed as Masi (‘mother’s sister’ in Hindi) to give them a special place in a child’s life (also see Rich 2010).
  7. Lower frequency of first-person references in conversation. Adults tend to make proportionately fewer references to themselves in conversations with children. The adult usually drops the subject in a sentence. For instance, a question like ‘Can Mummy open this for you?’ may be spoken as ‘Can open this for you?’ or even more simply, ‘Open?’ In my research, I have found a substantially low level of self-referencing among mothers in conversation with their children notwithstanding the fact that ‘person talk’ was the most dominant feature of conversations with children (Chaudhary 2004). Person talk here refers to those utterances in which people were the topic of conversation as opposed to events, objects or ideas. Of course this could be construed as negation of the self, or simply as giving priority to the child and to others in the environment.
  8. Encouragement of context-driven multivoicedness. This sounds like quite a mouthful, but it is quite simple to understand once you’ve read an example. It simple means that we are socialised to “behave differently in different social circumstances rather than always being ourselves”. From a very young age, children are socialized to act with consideration for the circumstances, mostly the company in which they are. Socialization practices are eagerly focused on how children behave in front of whom. Thus, there will be playful indulgence in the company of the mother and other women, whereas the same adult (the mother) may make a harsh reproach for intimacy by the child in the presence of an outsider (Kakar 1981). Another example can be found in the encouragement of children by both the family and the school to differentiate ways of speaking at home and at school. The active separation of ‘formal school talk’ and ‘informal speech at home’ is a task the child has to master, although it is important to note that all talk at home is not the same. Children will gradually learn that they have to ‘speak’ differently in the presence of different people, even within the intimacy of the home. They will be reprimanded for too much familiarity or formality, depending upon the audience of any action. Regarding differences between home and school, children are often given different ‘names’ for home and school so that a clear distinction is encouraged between the two domains. The presence of numerous dialects and languages in Indian communities has been a rather confounding matter for educational policy for language teaching, and one of the important features of school discourse is that children are expected to subordinate the use of the familiar dialect or language of the home to the formal medium of instruction, which may be a regional or national language, depending on the location. According to Mohanty (1994), this often leads to the development of different strategies at school, sometimes resulting in a serious ‘gap’ in children’s language and cultural development.
  9. Open positioning of the self towards others. Another feature of spoken language in Hindi, particularly, is the tendency in conversation to mark the end of a statement with a question. For instance, Indians commonly say something like: ‘This ball is red, no?’ ‘Sit, no?’ or ‘Sit, yes?’ (both of the preceding imply the same intention). In this instance, the negative (or positive) ending with a question is utilized to enhance the request and turn it into persuasion. As Desai (2010) remarks: Isn’t it a typical Indianism to end questions in a negative? ‘Right, no?’ ‘Hai na’ (Isn’t it)? In our everyday language, we use the negative ending to a question all the time in an unconscious way. As a mannerism of language that we employ routinely, it is useful in pointing towards an underlying cultural characteristic. The negative in the question prevents an opinion or a suggestion from being an assertion. It includes the person being spoken to, allowing for his or her input. In some ways, the person is unconsciously apologising for having an individual opinion and is appeasing the other person by attaching a note of self-doubt at the end. The doubt is dangled for the purposes of etiquette, and gives the speaker an escape route if the listener were to disagree. The dangling negative inquisitor … is a sign of a culture uncomfortable with prickly individualism and helped turn individual inquiry into collective assent. (Desai 2010: 115).
  10. Conversations are more like ‘multilogues’ than dialogues. The Wiktionary defines ‘multilogues’ as many-to-many conversations typically using collaborative tools of social networking websites. I am using this term here to display one type of conversation in Indian homes that tends to take place when many people are together. In my study of adult discourse with children, while analysing who was speaking and who was being spoken to, I found the presence of several utterances which were being addressed to ‘everyone in general and no one in particular’ (Chaudhary 2004). Additionally, while such conversations were taking place, there was a sort of recursion to phrases that people tagged from each other, emphasizing and amplifying critical elements in discussion. Similar descriptions are found in Rich’s (2010) account of her stay with her host family, an extended unit of an undetermined number of members during her study of Hindi in Udaipur, India. She reports one such conversation (2010: 36) in which we find the multilogue, especially where Jain 1 addressed his statement to ‘the kitchen at large’: Over dinner, they’d ask questions simultaneously or in round robin:
    • Jain 1: How much did you pay for the radio?
    • Me: Five hundred rupees? No, I think it was six.
    • Jain 1 (to the kitchen at large): She is telling us she paid five hundred rupees for the radio.
    • Jain 2 to Jain 1: Five hundred?
    • Jain 1: Yes. She is telling us five hundred.
    • Jain 3 to Jain 1: Five hundred? I think she is telling us six.
    • Jain 4: Yes. Six.
    • Jain 5: She is saying six. No. Maybe she is saying five hundred and sixty rupees?
    • Me: I think that’s what I paid, six.
    • Jain 5: Yes. She is saying six.
    • Jain 1: SIX HUNDRED RUPEES? She paid too much!
    • Jain 2, 3, 4, 5: Yes, yes, yes! She paid too much.

Additional comments:

Reshu: I had several thoughts after reading the essay that may be related to conversational patterns. I also feel that with new mothers or may be new mothers in urban areas, the use of ‘mummy’ is common, like – “mumma aap ke liye khana bana de, mumma pehna de, mumma sula de and so on …..” (instead of the first person pronoun, mothers and fathers use their kin term when they speak to children) and the same with fathers – papa kar de, papa baal bana de…… it is in regards to 7th point. I also have a very nice example of indirect references – my aunt – in – law, always says to my daughter, ‘chalak ki bacchi’ Tu bohot ‘chalak ki bacchi’ hai… (Child of a clever [parent]……you are a….repeat) because she finds her answers very intelligent and also she loves us a lot and is loved back that she can say whatever she likes, so one day somebody asked her – ‘chalak ki bacchi’ to theek hai par in me se chalak kon hai? Papa ya mummy? (Who is the clever one when you say this, the child’s mother or father?). To this she always says “samajhne wale jo samajhtey hai, mujhe batane ki zaroorat nahi hai” Those who need to understand will understand, I don’t need to spell it out.

Also, I also like the element of – ‘tone’ of a language and Haryanvi is so dramatic, only native speaking people can understand that this language is full of love and ‘direct’, often assumed to be harsh and even abusive, yet these are moments of profound affection, I believe.

From the outside, we tend to judge language use with children based on our own familiarity. For example, although I am trained in Child Development, I found myself evaluating adults in Indonesia too polite. When my Indonesian friend was reprimanding her daughter, I felt that her tone was so gentle, that how would the child ever understand that her mother was angry…..but she (the daughter) did, unlike me. On her side, my friend was quite appalled by the way we would “yell” at her. These differences are fascinating!

Further readings:

Nandini Patwardhan’s article:

Chaudhary, N. (2012). Negotiating with autonomy and relatedness: dialogical processes in everyday lives of Indians. Chapter 9 (pp. 189 – 184). In H. M. J. Hermans, & T. Gieser (Eds.), Handbook of Dialogical Self Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hermans, H. J. M. (2002). The dialogical self as a society of mind: Introduction. Theory and Psychology, 12(2), 147-160.

Chaudhary, N. (2004). Listening to culture: Constructing reality from everyday talk. Sage: New Delhi.

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