Someday I might pull an Aristotle and try to categorize audiences like he does for young, middle-aged, and old men–but with geographical considerations, rather than age. I say this because, as most people know–or have guessed, I suppose–I’m a Jersey girl, born and raised, and I can tell you, without a doubt in my mind, that my “audience” back home is a hell of a lot different from the South-West Ohio “audience” I interact with daily.
Let me back up a bit–in the very beginning of the semester, I taught my students a little bit about linguistic differences in the United States, focusing specifically on discrimination based on regional accents, dialects, etc. While doing a bit of research, I stumbled upon a documentary series by PBS called, “Do You Speak American?” which had plenty of online resources to support it. Two brief essays that, of course, called to me were “Talking New York” and “New York Style” by Deborah Tannen.
(Brief note here: I’m from the New Jersey “Metropolitan Area,” so most of what Tannen observes is very applicable to the audience back home that I know and love.)
One of the points that she makes in both of these essays is that, for people back home, talking is not nearly as civilized as it is out here in Ohio. Whereas here, I find (and Tannen agrees!) that a quiet audience (her word, “listener”) is a damn good one–they’re involved and interested, quiet so as not to disturb your narration, declaration, revelation, etc.–in the NYC area, a quiet audience denotes a disengaged audience. Let me explain: the New York listener is not a passive receiver of information, but rather–to some geographically removed speakers–an aggressive audience that will, to be blunt, simply not shut up:
A New York listener does a lot of talking. And if you like a story, or if you think someone has made a good point, you don’t appreciate it in silence. You show your reaction fast and loud. This creates trouble when New Yorkers talk to non-New Yorkers. In conversations I taped, again and again the Californians and Midwesterners stopped dead in their vocal tracks when a New Yorker tried to encourage them by exclaiming, “What!,” “Wow!,” or “Oh, God!” What was intended as a show of interest and appreciation sounded to the speaker like rude disbelief, or scared him into speechlessness.
(For instance, the moment I stop interrupting my mother on the phone she snaps: “Are you even listening?”)
Obviously, this is a little exaggerated–not all interjections are met with stunned silence out here in the Buckeye State–but I think it speaks to the overall more aggressive nature of audiences back home. We’re always rushing, we’re always–by Midwest standards–a bit rude; we never stop interjecting our unsolicited opinions and other strange sounds into conversations. Friendly flirting and banter is often based on those kinds of unsolicited opinions and subsequent “arguments”–over whether or not you ordered the right pizza, or which team is going to win the Subway Series, for example. (The correct answers to those questions are a Sicilian slice from Angela’s and the Yankees, if anyone asks.)
This kind of rhetorical behavior–intended agression to match my audience’s–is what I switch in and out of, depending on my geographical audience. In Oxford, I’m sweet (ha), I nod along with stories and wait for a subtle inflection to clue me in to my turn to speak. But interactions with folks back home are like beautiful, albeit chaotic, linguistic dances–we’re talking over each other, “one-upping” each other (“Oh, you think you got it bad! Well listen to this…”), pushing back and forth and interjecting in ways I wouldn’t dream of here. The ways in which I–and I’m sure other Jersians living away from home–“revert” right back to my uncivilized ways the moment I cross the border: well, I’d even go so far as to call it a form of identification, based on my limited knowledge of Burke. It’s just what they–we–do, and I’ll be damned if I’ll be the odd one out!
And sure, “NY/NJ rhetoric” is crass, and sure, we’re a tough audience to “identify” with or aim for–but one thing’s for sure: there’ll never be an awkward silence when you’re chatting up a New Yorker.