How to Enter a New Discourse
Considering James Gee and Amy Cuddy as a way to join a group
Discourses are an Identity Kit
Imagine chatting with your friends about your common interests. Now imagine discussing work with your boss. Your behavior is probably very different in these two encounters. James Gee, the author of “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction”, calls these social roles “Discourses.” In Gee’s words, Discourses are made of “saying-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations” (7). According to Gee, a primary Discourse is your first Discourse which is obtained through socializing with your family. A secondary Discourse is any other Discourse you obtain after your Primary Discourse. In “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction”, Gee describes how one might obtain a secondary Discourse. “Your body language shapes who you are”, a TED Talk by Amy Cuddy, claims that by changing your posture, you can become a more confident person.
By considering both of these texts, one can gain an understanding of how one obtains a secondary Discourse. I agree with Gee that it is important to consider all aspects of the Discourse, but I disagree with his thought that you’re either in a Discourse or you not. I disagree with Cuddy that “faking it” is the way to join a social role, rather I agree with Gee that “apprenticeship” is a better method.
Consider all Parts of the Discourse
When entering a Discourse, one must consider all components of the Discourse. Ignoring any aspect of the Discourse — “saying, doing, being, valuing, believing” (Gee 7) — will result in seeming like you don’t belong in a Discourse. Gee gives us a clear example of this:
“if I enter my neighborhood bar and say to my tattooed drinking buddy, as I sit down, “May I have a match please?” (5).
Here Gee is ignoring the “saying” aspect of the Discourse. His grammar and dialect are not an issue, assuming he’s British, but the way he says it is wrong. Gee is being too formal for this situation. When with a friend it is typical to be less formal especially if the friend is a “drinking buddy” in a bar. The “doing” component is a large part of Cuddy’s TED Talk.
Cuddy stresses the importance of nonverbal communication: “we make sweeping judgments and inferences from body language. And those judgments can predict really meaningful life outcomes like who we hire or promote” (2:04). Cuddy shows that the “doing” component is very important to Discourse. Before people can judge you for your words, they judge you from your body language. Performers, for instance, must be conscious of their body language. If they are trying to portray confidence with their voice but they hunch over and hold their arms, they will not be remembered as confident.
Just as the “saying” and “doing” components are important, all aspects of a Discourse are vital to the Discourse. Before one has mastered a Discourse, they must consciously consider each of these aspects to portray it properly. It may seem like you are faking if you consciously portraying all these components, but it is important to remember that faking alone does not make you part of a Discourse.
Rather than faking, apprenticeship is a better way to join a Discourse. In her TED Talk, Cuddy claims that you can “fake it till you become it” (19:14). Cuddy focuses on the self confidence one gains from faking, but she fails to realize the social repercussions of relying solely on faking. “Faking it” to be in a Discourse alone will lead to forming a superficial version of the Discourse that will easily be noticed by any member. Instead, one must expose themselves to members and practice to join the Discourse. By faking being in a Discourse, you cannot possess all the skills it takes to be in it. Gee asserts, “failing to fully display an identity is tantamount to announcing you don’t have that identity, that at best you’re a pretender or a beginner” (10). Gee shows that faking it will be noticed and will result in being labeled as a nonmember. If people realize that you are faking, they can become suspicious of you and refuses to allow you to participate in the Discourse.
One cannot simply fake being in a Discourse. But there is a way to enter a Discourse. As Gee states, “Discourses are not mastered by overt instruction… but by enculturation (“apprenticeship”) into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse” (7). By taking on an “apprenticeship” a person can gain skills necessary to be in the Discourse by observing the mentor and practicing those skills in context. This is different from faking being in a Discourse because the faker would have to take information from outside of the Discourse which is typically stereotyped. One can join a Discourse through apprenticeship, but it’s hard to say when one is in a Discourse.
Gee says that you are either in a Discourse or not; however, this is not the case. People can be partially in a Discourse. Strangely, Gee notes, “true acquisition [of a Discourse] (which is always full fluency) will rarely if ever happen” (13). If both of Gee’s statements are correct, then nobody is in a Discourse. It makes more sense if true acquisition is impossible and people can be partially in a Discourse. If being partially in a Discourse were impossible, then Gee wouldn’t have said, “‘Mushfake Discourse” means partial acquisition coupled with meta-knowledge and strategies to ‘make do’” (13). The phrase “partial acquisition” implies that one can be partially in a Discourse. Being only partially in a Discourse rather than 100% in a Discourse makes sense. Nobody can possibly learn all the particulars of being in a given Discourse and Nobody can possibly conform to the values and beliefs of a Discourse. Also, Discourses are constantly evolving. People are always gaining new knowledge and adapting to our changing civilization. Because of this changing knowledge, even if someone was somehow 100% in a Discourse one day, another day they would have to learn new things to retain their fluency. Thus, partial acquisition of a Discourse is more realistic than full acquisition.
When joining a Discourse you must consider several things. First, you must recognize the “saying, doing, being, valuing, and believing” combination. Second, you must take on an apprenticeship rather than trying to fake your way into the Discourse. Faking alone will only result in distancing yourself from members of the Discourse. Finally, you must remember that joining a Discourse does not mean gaining full fluency. To become a member, you only need to be partially fluent. It is also important to note that Discourses are continuously changing. You too must continue to evolve or you’ll risk being ostracized.