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5.1. Bootstrapping your way to good behaviour


In a way, learning to behave in your new community is like lifting yourself by your own bootstraps. The bull needs to follow the rules of the china shop community, but can only learn the rules by first being a part of the community! Poor china shop!

Think about what it means to participate in a community. It means that, to a reasonable extent, you operate according to the unwritten contract that defines membership in that community. You and others in your community share many values and assumptions. For example, you may all share assumptions about which side of the road people will drive on. Someone who follows different assumptions regarding where to drive cannot be considered to be a smoothly functioning participant in the community. There are countless assumptions of less obvious sorts which are shared, usually at a subconscious level, by members of the community. These assumptions form the rules of the game for participation in the social life of the community. The language of the community is a special case of these shared rules. Not only are there rules related to how to form different types of phrases and sentences; there are rules about how and when to use particular types of sentences. In my current community, for example, I can make a statement such as “I'll visit you on Tuesday evening.” In some communities such a blunt prediction of the future may be a violation of the rules, especially if I am talking about the distant future, as in, “Next year, I will build a new house.”

How do you learn the thousands of rules of the game which make you a participant in the new community? That is where your bootstraps come in. You can only learn the rules through extensive participation. But to participate you are supposed to follow the rules. Fortunately, in most cases, this isn't as difficult as it sounds. When you started participating in your first culture as a baby, no one expected you to behave like an adult from the outset. Early on you learned to get by with some bare bones, like “please” and “thank-you”. You'd probably be surprised at how little you actually say “please” and “thank-you” now. In place of “thank-you” as we noted earlier, you have numerous expressions of gratitude: “You shouldn't have!”; “How nice of you!”; etc. The use of these different politeness formulas is finely tuned to factors such as who you are talking to, their status in relation to yours, the nature of the act of kindness, and so on.

The rules of social interaction, like the rules of grammar, go far beyond what you or anyone else can hope to consciously analyze and understand. For the most part you will simply absorb the rules through extensive participation in the community. To the extent that you can make conscious discoveries of the rules, you will benefit from doing so. The same applies to reading (with a measure of caution) about the rules, especially in the works of anthropologists, sociolinguists and intercultural communication experts. That may help you to get your initial bare bones, and then some. Learning several formulas for making polite requests, for example, will help you to demonstrate to people that you really do intend to be a properly behaved participant in community life.

But like a new child, you won't start out acting like an adult member of the community. You'll start out acting like a foreign weirdo. A basic rule of culture learning is that you will never be present in a new culture as a normal person unless you are first willing to be present as a weirdo. Weirdness is the only path to normalcy. But you do want to minimize the damage. Minimizing the damage was part of the reason you started learning in the sheltered context of private language sessions with your LRP. You have now developed some communication skills. People can now talk to you with some hope of being understood, at least if they work at it. In addition you know various ways to signal that you do indeed intend to be friendly and polite. But you have a long way to go to reach the point where you seldom or never act weird.

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Go to SIL home page This page is an extract from the LinguaLinks Library, Version 3.5, published on CD-ROM by SIL International, 1999. [Ordering information.]

Page content last modified: 31 July 1998

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