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Faculty author Anna Trester on the unarticulated norms of self-presentation online

March 13th, 2013

Guest blog post from Dr. Anna Trester, a sociolinguist who has recently published a volume she co-edited with Dr. Deborah Tannen.  Dr. Trester’s Georgetown blog is here.

I received my copy of Discourse 2.0 (the book I co-edited with Deborah Tannen) yesterday, just in time for me to bring a copy to the Intercultural Management Institute (IMI) up at American University tomorrow, a conference for “interculturalists,” people from all over the world involved in intercultural research, teaching, and training.

Last year at IMI, my co-author Laura West and I gave a workshop out of the collaborative work that we have been doing on Facebook (Chapter 8 in the book).  This work came out of conversations about our respective expectations and assumptions about how language works on this site, which we came to realize were shaped by our relative ages at the time that we began using it.  Laura started to use Facebook during college, when closely surrounded by a group of friends who were all figuring it out as they went along together.  Thus for her, socialization into Facebook was supremely social.  Being slightly older that her, I started using Facebook when I was in my late 20’s, on my first job, having to be slightly more furtive about my engagement with the site (largely on my lunch break) and largely alone when I was on it. Navigating my first real job, I was wary of Facebook sucking up too much of my time, and perceived everything from the very first request to join the site as a demand on my time (or as we analyze it a threat to my negative face).

Recognizing this as a kind of cross-cultural communication, we analyzed each other’s (current) reactions to back-and-forth interactions collected from Facebook as well as some jokes about Facebook to uncover more such held unarticulated norms.  In the Discourse 2.0 book, my co-editor Deborah Tannen’s chapter (Chapter 6) similarly engages questions of age, and also gender, in expectations about how to use social media.  Focusing primarily on social interaction mediated by texting, she identifies the use of linguistic features like capitalization, emphatic punctuation, repetition, and speed of reply as aspects of conversational style, which can lead to miscommunication and mutual misjudgment in interaction.   Social media as cross-cultural communication is but one theme of the book, but an important aspect of our data-driven, bottom-up approach, which seeks to understand what people actually DO using social media, and how language can MEAN.

This year at IMI (aka tomorrow), I am going to be presenting an extension of this work, an exploration of expectations about self-presentation and use of LinkedIn, the so-called “world’s largest professional network.”   Often, when people begin with LinkedIn, the first thing that they must do is recognize and challenge the expectations that they bring with them to social interaction on the site, including and perhaps especially, expectations brought from Facebook. Given that these are unarticulated norms, speakers don’t realize that they have them, simply assuming that everyone understands and uses the site the same way that they do, however, your perceptions of what is expected on this platform will of course shape how you use it to interact it, how you understand those who interact with you, and how they in turn understand you.  All of these things will shape how you are understood, in this case, professionally.

This interest in professional self-presentation is a piece of a larger project that I am currently engaged in looking at career exploration through a linguistic lens.  Job searching is ultimately a series of texts and interactions, each of which with its own genre conventions and expectations.  A linguist’s eye is invaluable in navigating these highly textual genres. Through increased awareness of how language, and especially narrative, works in these contexts, I aim to help job seekers better tell stories that connect with their audiences.

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