Fame, fiction, Communism, Minnie Mouse: Some thoughts on what got me hooked on linguistics and psychology
As someone spending most of my time thinking about how to improve personal conversation in the 21st century (and beyond?), I like to reflect on how much of this passionate interest of mine was informed by early experiences more relating to public discourse.
After all, we as individuals are all nodes in a bigger system: the era of language we inhabit, and on which we all exert some influence, and willingly or unconsciously change it a little.
I wanted to write a post looking at some early events in my life that first made me realise the power and complexity of how language is used, publicly and then privately. To revisit the past and outline what gave me certainty that we all take part in shaping the future of language, and thus, the future itself.
Children (The Rules)
A key linguistic experience of my childhood spent in late-Communist Eastern Europe, in the second half of the ‘80s in Budapest, was that grownups were afraid of children.
As I was a child back then, this meant: me.
If totalitarian regimes greatly restrict public language, pushing people toward coded language but making codes problematic by taking away the shared platforms where they could be unambiguously decoded, then a fraying totalitarian regime where people are bolder with their codes but still lacking the platforms for decoding is doubly problematic.
(Think of a situation where any attempt at alignment, at “clearing up", could constitute an act of transgression in itself, threatening with high costs all participants.)
So while doublespeak and expected complicity were becoming commonplace in the city of my childhood, people were still rightly worried that 1) their codes may be misconstrued, 2) any innocent remark would be interpreted as a code by someone wishing them harm.
Today, you teach your children not to swear or use offensive language in public, but these instructions were simply too complicated when and where I was growing up to be successfully passed on to someone very young. Mostly because adults had no clear idea what was safe to say either.
This led to absurd — comedic yet deadly serious — situations where I (or any child) could go in my Minnie Mouse costume to a party at my kindergarten, say the wrong thing, and ruin Mom’s career.
(Note this was in a place where not long ago an expression suggesting the “wrong” affiliations could stop you and all of your family members from ever attending university, let alone getting a spot on public television — and my parents worked for public television.)
In such a world all children were considered a liability, and the aura of linguistic innocence was but a dreamt-about luxury.
I remember that tension between adults and children very well. The unnatural helplessness arising from the lack of clear rules — the lack of chances given, the lack of any charity of interpretation...
Language is a shared space that we enter with the hope of being understood — with a hope of control over the outcome we will achieve with our words. An unwholesome public language simply suspends any such possible hope — the trust — of intentional clarity.
Many years later, as an adult living in London and working on language technology, I felt this tension once again.
It was late 2016. I was sitting in a downtown pub getting drinks with a noted American academic. Our conversation spanned many topics — personal, political, theoretical — and all through the two or so hours I was sensitive to an added layer to our language, something that wasn’t supposed to be there.
I’m a very straightforward speaker — if there was one takeaway from my childhood experiences for me it was that stating truths as clearly as fairness and civility allow is always a welcome goal— so I was voicing my non-scandalous opinions quite freely, to a friend, in a free country. Yet as I was walking home across Tavistock Square, I found myself pensive, trying to decipher what was that strange underlying layer to our conversation just now.
It took me some streets to walk down to realise that my friend… was afraid of me.
Me! Little, 50 kg Anna. Wow… That was new! Or rather: familiar.
I suddenly saw this person clearly. A person coming from a world, in 2016, with no clear rules of speech, again. Quite simply, he was suspicious of me, the liability, and unsure whether we could possibly show charity of interpretation — clarity, mutual understanding — to one another.
I stopped in amazement in the middle of the street. I understood that again a problematised public discourse had entered private conversation, that of normal people, friends, and undid the trust on which we could build open cooperation. I knew at once that while my work focuses on the individual, the node, I should never lose sight of the wider system, and should continue to aim to provide private solutions that can contribute to the repairing of public language too.
There is simply no way not to think about this in broader terms. We all need these solutions, and we’ll all benefit from having found them.
Fiction (The Layers)
When I was growing up, my parents worked very successfully in late-Communist public television. Imagine only one TV station that an entire country has to watch. There was a lot of power, a lot of fame — and a whole lot of pressure to go with it.
During this time, every week, some 30 people would come to our home, sat around the living room, and participated in the creation of a popular fiction TV series. The fiction created over coffee was then shipped off to become part of the lives of 10 million people — with stories and characters they all felt a familiarity with; fictional family members.
I was of course very conscious this was all imaginary. I knew my real parents who messed about the house enveloped in their very human lives. The only thing more-than-human about them was whatever any child would project on their parents, assuming their omniscience about toothpaste, elephants, remote controls, and their magical ability to make hot chocolate at tall kitchen counters.
When I was a child we couldn’t really leave the house without someone coming up to us in the street and talking to my parents about their creation — their fiction. While this may be common for people in the public eye, my experiences had a strange afterglow: my mother used to play a well-known character in this TV series and while she has her own name, which is in my ID, and most of all, hers, people kept addressing her by the name of her character.
I remember standing there next to our Trabant — the first autonomous vehicle in the sense that it did just whatever it wanted, and if you had an accident you had to take out its door and glue it back together on the dining table — eating my purple ice-cream, watching adults who were supposed to have been more knowledgeable about the world than I was, and who for some unfathomable reason seemed to think my mother was a fictional character.
I started looking at the collaboration sessions in our TV room as something more complex. A new language, a new reality was being constructed there, with the Parliament building visible through our windows in the background. A language that then built into normal people’s normal perception of reality, changing it into something entirely new.
Ever since then when people talk about shared political hallucinations, propaganda language, the “tremendous” and the “alternative facts”, I am aware that there are rooms where these narratives are being built, but also that these are written by humans just like you and me. I firmly think the gap between the narrator and the audience is much more narrow than we presume. We all take part in creating and accepting such linguistic realities, and in fact due to technology we have increasing choice in how we shape these worlds.
Fame (The Truth)
As far as I can remember, I always wanted to be… well not a gangster, but someone with a solid understanding of drama. While my parents only worked in theatre long before I was born and then much later when I was older, as a child I was fascinated with Shakespeare and musicals, wrote my first play at the age of seven, and adapted and translated pieces into my elementary school notebooks having to look up words like “harlot” and “scythe”, and what on Earth they can possibly mean.
(While I did prance around in whichever actress’s heels or ballerina’s pointes I could lay my hands on, I was usually to be found around books, exhibiting resurfacing genes of earlier generations in my family where everybody was a pedagogue and had no patience for the frivolities of ballet. So drama seemed like a good, nerdy, compromise I could get away with. It also had a system to untangle or build, which kept me up on late-Communist nights under the bedside lamp with hungry curiosity.)
It took me a while to understand that beyond my fascination with words this entire drama phase in my life came from something peculiar I kept observing in my everyday life.
Few people will tell you honestly about the paranoia of famous people. (When it comes to the paranoia of famous people in a totalitarian regime, think in exponents.) All those people approaching our family with comments, requests — in the street, in the restaurant, at a parents-teachers meeting — had, according to my parents, some hidden agenda. “Everybody wants something from us,” seemed to be the mantra. Don’t believe them. Look under the surface.
So I looked. And while I believe this distrust wasn’t always merited, I started listening to language more carefully, more analytically. Looking for incongruence, incentives, possible motives. It made me conscious not only of the human drama where interests clash, but that they clash in language. That language is the means and that people use it for achieving goals. Looking back, I wonder if in such a fuzzy linguistic environment as those years imposed on everyone maybe trying to solicit favours from celebrities was in fact a relatively clean — albeit shrouded — affair. After all, the worst that could happen was that your query was dismissed. No lasting harm, really.
Good drama always starts with shrouded agendas that become clear via language. It’s not really about a petty rivalry of clans in Verona — it’s about whether young people can create a future, new humans, a new hope. It’s not really about Martha wanting a new lover on campus — but the redemption of a married couple who thought there would be no peace possible for the last stage of their lives.
Allowing for language to be clear, understood and risk-free, I learnt, is of indispensable necessity for both the happiness and fulfillment — the productivity, health and relatability —of the individual, and the wider system in which they, we, all play our parts. Cooperation with self, with another, with everyone is established through and sustained with language.
I remain a believer in this clarity. Of sharing. Of building spaces for sharing. I use my old memories to keep me on the right track.