There are certain specific language practices at play when getting a haircut, and my inability to learn that language–combined with a totally reasonable fear of scissors near my neck–has kept me from ever comfortably communicating at a barber shop.
Think about how communication is done at a barber shop. To highlight the specific language practices of this community, I will offer up examples of my many personal failures. When I am plopped down the in vinyl chair at any budget hair cutter, I immediately fall back on the same script I have used since I was a tiny, moppy-headed child. I ask for it to be “proportionately shorter” or for it “to look the same, only less.” This type of rather vague language is not helpful in a barber shop, and it is not the language barber uses when they translate back to me what they think I meant. They say things like “do you want it short in the back?” or while pointing to the ludicrous and wild back of my head “How about a few inches off here,” “do you want me to use scissors or can I pull out the buzzers.” Never the buzzers.
The language barbers use is specific, tailored to the professions, and meant to communicate easily and effectively ideas about what they know they can do for a less-than-initiated customer. Barbers, in this case, are a discourse community, “a group of individuals bound by a common interest who communicate through approved channels and whose discourse is regulated.” There are right ways to communicate to a barber–specificity about what needs to be cut and how much–and wrong ways–vague, giving little feedback, anything I have done while getting a haircut. A discourse community is a group that is united by their specific ways of using language and communicating in general. When a barber sees I am not a member of their discourse community, that I am not familiar with their language practices, they do two things. First, a light in the back of their eye dies as my kind must be pretty familiar by now. Next, they point me at a mirror and hold a finger horizontally over some part of my head and say “how about up to here?” Usually, I’ll say that sounds great and looks like it would definitely be “proportionately shorter.”
The exasperated finger to my head is worth noting. Communicating in a discourse community is not limited to words and speech. They are communicating practices and the values that come with them. The barber knows they need to be able to let their customer know what they can do for them–a value shared in the community–but the customer is garbage with hair terminology, so they use hand gestures, signals, once even a catalogue, a myriad of different communicative methods to get their message across. Discourse communities are not just people with a related interest and vocabulary, they also are united in what they need to communicate and how they will do it.
Blogging is about as different from cutting hair as two things could be. There are often few scissors involved in writing, and I’ve never had to sweep the floor after a post. When I teach my composition students about blogging, one of the first things I try to communicate is its difference from other kinds of writing. Sure, it may use research like academic papers, and it may use big titles and subheadings like a news article, but it is certainly neither of those. Brian Street described two different kinds of literacy: autonomous and ideological. Autonomous literacy is separate from context; a text is generated or interpreted by the author who is not influenced by the social setting around them. Ideological literacy is contextual; it argues that literacy is defined by the context and discourse community a person is literate in (Street). Under an ideological model, a person may have literacy as a teacher but not as a barber. Blogging requires an ideological model of literacy. Knowing the language practices to use in blogging is dependant on the type of blog and the author’s intention in writing it. A travel blog will look very different from a cooking blog which will look very different from a blog about current events. Each genre has its own expectations that come built in, and the audience will not appreciate it if the conventions of the discourse are violated.
Who is the Audience?
Blogging and cutting hair are different for many reasons, and one of the most noticeable ways they diverge is in audience. It would be strange if a barber could give me a haircut over the internet just like it would feel odd to read a blog post to a live audience. Alice Marwick and Danah Boyd discussed the nature of the blogger’s audience in “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.” One interesting point Marwick and Boyd arrive at is that Twitter–called a microblogging platform–demonstrates an interesting relationship between author and audience: “Like many writers, bloggers write for a ‘cognitively constructed’ audience, an imagined group of readers who may not actually read the blog.” This imaginary audience only really exists in the blogger’s mind and in their choices about the text. The text itself may show who the author wanted to be the audience, but that does not necessarily mean that is who the audience ended up being. Marwick and Boyd continue in saying “What emerges here is not that these individuals lack an audience, but that they are uncomfortable labeling interlocutors and witnesses as an ‘audience.’” Bloggers are hesitant to admit that the audience they write to is not the audience they write for.
What this means in teaching blogging is that audience awareness is a development. There is a process in which the author first has an audience they intend to write for, but then I am encouraging my students to begin writing for who their audience becomes. Something that’s important to point out to students is that they’ve already done some form of blogging if they have other forms of social media. Twitter is a microblog because it lends itself to tiny text updates. Facebook similarly lends itself to the idea of blogging, but the audience for that is much clearer and easier to control. Even Snapchat could be seen as a visual blog of sorts. For example, the blurry, dark pictures of my cat I inflict on my friends could be seen as a visual series of blog posts documenting my descent in madness.
The Audience’s Expectations
I gave my students two blogs to look at as examples for a unit I’m doing now on genre analysis. These blogs are here and here. A fun discussion I like to have with my students after they’ve read through these two blogs–or comparable examples–is to ask them what role they think the audience plays in writing a text. I always expect to get a few eager hands who say it doesn’t have any role at all, but each group has gotten partially to the answer I wanted quickly: my students decided the audience has a role, but they couldn’t clarify what exactly. I like to ask a follow-up question: “what am I most neurotic about when I comment on your papers?” Your results may vary, but I get responses–eager ones this time–offering insight into how picky I am about comma splices and how I write “why” on everything. Then I ask them if they write differently in my class because of those little bits of totally forgivable, practical neurosis. That’s about when the details on how an audience influences a text clicks. James Porter writes on intertextuality and how the audience’s expectations of a text actually have a role in defining what the text can be. Intertextuality is, at its most basic, the relationship between texts. Porter tells us that “The most mundane manifestation of intertextuality is explicit citation, but intertextuality animates all discourse and goes beyond mere citation.” A direct demonstration of intertextuality is the citation, one text pulling ideas directly from another, but there are many other ways for intertextuality to manifest. Porter also suggests that texts are written through the repurposing and modification of language and ideas already in circulation in the discourse community. Rather than an author being the source of everything they write, they are more of a conduit for the ideas, values, and language practices of the community they are writing in.
If we return to the barber shop, we can get a clearer look at what all this means. Imagine a barber shop with more customers than me. Now imagine one customer who looks like they’re a professional receiver of haircuts. I do not know what this person would look like. Maybe they’d have short hair, maybe a mustache, who can tell. The important thing is that this person is a pro. Before my barber asks me what haircut I want, and before I ineptly answer, another barber asks the professional the same question. They say they want half inch back and sides. Hearing this professional at work, when my barber comes around, I say I also want half inch back and sides. The barber proceeds to shave almost all of my hair off. This is citation, directly pulling in an idea from another author. It is limited but functional.
Now imagine that, upon hearing the professional, I instead realized barbers like measurements or at least approximations of what you want your hair to look like. Knowing that, I could say I wanted quarter inch sides and back nothing done to the top. Suddenly, I am given a mohawk because I knew exactly how to ask for it. Rather than taking directly the idea of another author, I understand how they communicate and use that.
Imagine, instead of simply citing the measurements they wanted, the professional said they wanted a “wavy crop sidesweep undercut with a 4 foot fade” and then proceeded to discuss at length the history and significance of their haircut. The barber would know what they were talking about. I, however, would not. I would still try to imitate the professional though, and I’d probably end up asking for something totally different in my unpracticed attempt to imitate a master. Porter suggests that a teacher’s goal in helping students learn to write is not to give them a master to imitate. How could they learn from the work of a master if they haven’t even begun to enter into the community the master works in. Instead, students should be helped to immerse themselves in the discourse because “They do not know what can be presupposed, are not conscious of the distinctive intertextuality of the community, may be only superficially acquainted with explicit conventions.” How could I hope to get the master’s haircut when I’d never even managed to ask for my own properly?
The authors of the two blogs I gave to my students as samples both effectively do something I wanted my students to pick up on. They did pick it up, but they didn’t necessarily notice they did. Here is a little passage from one sample written by a blogger called NomadicMatt: “I was pretty stupid not looking up flights enough beforehand and waiting until the last minute, but even “booking smart” doesn’t mean you’ll find a deal. Here’s a chart for December and January (these are a little cheaper since they are not last-minute and it’s low season)” Most of my students picked up on the casual language and informal tone; even the introduction of a useful source is done in an offhand manner. I asked my class why they thought this author was so casual and friendly in their writing. One student said it made them seem nicer. Another said they found the author’s tone off-putting. I asked them to think about it more and talk it over in small groups, and then I walked to each group and asked them about how they talked to their friends. After a moment, each group concluded that the author was presenting himself as a friend to the audience, almost a travel buddy, to make it feel like their travel experiences were shared with the audience rather than told.
NomadicMatt was a great example to introduce my students to the concept of “situated identities,” a concept posited by James Gee. Social identities are the different performances of ourselves that we do in different settings. I am not the same person with my students as I am with my friends, and I do not write the same for my personal blog as I do for this one. It helped my students to see an example of how identity is performed on a blog before they began to consider how they would do it themselves. Gee also defined another useful term in teaching introductory blog writing: “social languages,” or “different styles of language that we use to enact and recognize different identities in different settings.” We use different ways of communicating to show how we are presenting our identity in different places. The social language of some travel writing is informal and friendly to help the audience recognize that the author wants to be perceived as a friend.
In any writing, a message is communicated and there is a demonstration of the communicator, or as Gee puts it “An oral or written ‘utterance’ has meaning, then, only if and when it communicates a who and a what.” In her post “Burnouts and New Beginnings – Searching myself in Cinque Terre, Italy,” Lisbeth, another travel blogger, writes “I believe places can change us, so it was worth giving it a try. And it’s OK. Because I’ve definitely said goodbye to that old me, and I know it’s a good start.” In this passage, the author demonstrates who she is through her language–informal, collective pronouns to show she wants to be seen as a peer to the audience–and what she is saying–that travel can change a person and she has experienced it. Gee argues that “If you put language, action, interaction, values, beliefs, symbols, objects, tools, and places together in such a way that others recognize you as a particular type of who (identity) and engaged in a particular type of what (activity) here and now, then you have pulled off a Discourse,” and with her identity performed and her message communicated, Lisbeth effectively communicates in her discourse community. In teaching students to understand and use their understanding of situated identity and social language, I encourage giving concrete examples and giving a chance to imitate. This is something they’ve done before without ever realizing it.
Though barbers are not bloggers, understanding how discourse communities function is essential in teaching students to begin blogging. If they understand the community they are writing in, and if they understand how they want to their identity to be perceived, and if they understand how their audience can both influence their writing and change over time, then they should do well.
“BURNOUTS AND NEW BEGINNINGS – Searching Myself in Cinque Terre, Italy.” Lili’s Travel Plans – Travel Blog, 31 Aug. 2016, www.lilistravelplans.com/cinque-terre-italy/.
“Discourses and Social Languages.” An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method, by James Paul. Gee, Routledge, 2014, p. 11 – 39.
“The ‘Ideological’ Model.” Literacy in Theory and Practice, by Brain V. Street, Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1999, pp. 95–125.
Marwick, Alice, and Danah Boyd. “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.” Sage Journals, 7 July 2010, journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1461444810365313.
NomadicMatt, et al. “How to Travel Around Madagascar.” Nomadic Matt’s Travel Site, 20 Nov. 2017, http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/how-to-travel-around-madagascar/.
Porter, James E. “Intertextuality and the Discourse Community.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 5, no. 1, 1986, pp. 34–47.