More Intellectual Rigor from Bauerlein

I’m sure everyone will be happy to know that Mark Bauerlein has now migrated to his natural habitat: The Wall Street Journal. And, displaying the sort of intellectual rigor that made him an expert on Gen-Y, he manages to write an entire column on Why Gen-Y Johnny Can’t Read Nonverbal Cues without citing a single study showing that Gen-Y has trouble with non-verbal cues. Indeed, he pulls the oldest freshman composition trick in the book towards the end of the piece, asserting that the fact we don’t know how extensive the “problem” is (or whether it exists) only proves that the problem is more extensive than we imagine:

Nobody knows the extent of the problem. It is too early to assess the effect of digital habits, and the tools change so quickly that research can’t keep up with them. By the time investigators design a study, secure funding, collect results and publish them, the technology has changed and the study is outdated.

I wouldn’t let even a student get away with mush like that.

As for the rest of the piece, I don’t even know where to start. Bauerlein’s view of language here is enormously confused. He mentions the work of Edward T. Hall as if it was buried somewhere and linguistics had forgotten about nonverbal cues. In fact, there is an incredibly vibrant literature around the subject. There has been for decades.

Fine. Jumping over a half century of research is a common tactic for those who wish to inflate their importance. But Bauerlein’s lack of knowledge of the area (and in fact his lack of any coherent theory of communication) shows in his argument. He takes work talking about cross-cultural differences in nonverbal communication:

This is why, Hall explained, U.S. diplomats could enter a foreign country fully competent in the native language and yet still flounder from one miscommunication to another, having failed to decode the manners, gestures and subtle protocols that go along with words. And how could they, for the “silent language” is acquired through acculturation, not schooling. Not only is it unspoken; it is largely unconscious. The meanings that pass through it remain implicit, more felt than understood.

And then seems to use that to argue that Gen-Y lack non-verbal cues:

We live in a culture where young people—outfitted with iPhone and laptop and devoting hours every evening from age 10 onward to messaging of one kind and another—are ever less likely to develop the “silent fluency” that comes from face-to-face interaction. It is a skill that we all must learn, in actual social settings, from people (often older) who are adept in the idiom. As text-centered messaging increases, such occasions diminish. The digital natives improve their adroitness at the keyboard, but when it comes to their capacity to “read” the behavior of others, they are all thumbs.

You see that, right? He’s not even making the dubious (and likely erroneous) claim that Gen-Y is developing a substantially different set of non-verbal cues. Incredibly, he’s making the argument that they are not acquiring non-verbal cues at all! In the history of human evolution they will be the first generation with no understanding of non-verbal cues. They will not be fluent in their native language! What a tragedy!

Of course it’s absolute nonsense.

If you actually follow this out to its absurd conclusion, this means that were the Gen-Y set to go out to the bar and talk to one another, I could read a typed transcript of the conversation, and it would essentially be information complete. There would be no phrases like “Sorry for going on about this” without someone explicitly saying, “I am losing interest in this story.” No one would volunteer to buy the next round after a pause without someone explicitly saying “I’ve bought the last two rounds, and I’d like you to buy this one.” No one would ever say to two obviously enamored people “Well, I guess I’ll leave you two alone” — not without someone verbally evincing love or infatuation first.

In fact, I’m not quite sure how Gen-Y students, under Bauerlein’s analysis, would be able to hook up at all. One can imagine the torment (Is she showing interest or not? Does moving closer mean infatuation or rage? Oh, damn, how I wish I’d had more practice with face to face interaction!).

Movies would also be a puzzle to this generation (“Wait — the character isn’t saying anything, the camera is just zoomed in on their face! Dammit, speak! How will I know what you are thinking!”). If Bauerlein is right, we may have to introduce closed-captions for Gen-Y to help them know if Bruce Willis really *is* happy for his wife or not (Caption for Gen-Yers: [facial expression indicates he does not mean what he is saying here.]).

Of course students have non-verbal language, and of course they are fluent in it. Is it comprised of exactly the same set of cues as adults? Is it different from adults, but within historical norms for generational change? Or is the “generation” the wrong division here, and do nonverbal dialects tend to divide more on regional, economic, and ethnic lines? And should the things that Bauerlein is obsessed with — taking a text message in a conversation, for example — really be seen as central to “learned” non-verbal communication anyway? Or do they more properly fit into a framework like Relevance Theory which allows that cues can be interpreted according to general principles and assumptions, and does not necessarily require that they be transmitted as explicit vocabularies?

Answering those questions would require looking at the wealth of research out there on such things. I haven’t done that, so, unlike Bauerlein, I’ll stop here.

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