12 November 2007


If only I was still in my intercultural communications class, I would have so much to add to my paper on backchannels. That was the longest paper I ever wrote and very fascinating to research. For those of you who are wondering what backchannels are, they are the things we do to affirm that we are listening to someone. Interestingly enough, they differ between cultures and genders. The most interesting thing I learned while writing that paper was that in general can be best demonstrated by an example:

John: Weightlifting is the best thing ever.
Jane: (Nods.)
John: What do you like better, swimming or running?
Jane: Running.
John: Uh huh.

Do you see the two backchannels? One is nonverbal (the nod), and one is verbal (the "uh huh"). Now, when women give backchannels, they are signalling that they are listening. When Jane nods, John is thinking, "Wow, she is so awesome! She thinks weightlifting is the best thing ever, too!" Jane is thinking, "Weightlifting, blech, but yes, I'm still listening." Now when John responds with his "Uh huh" (which could easily be replaced with a nod), he means, "I think running is better, too."

In short, men's backchannels have agreement in them, while women's don't necessarily show agreement, they just show that they're listening (or sometimes that they're not listening but they're ready for the guy to keep blabbing and vice versa). Isn't that interesting?

While I was writing that paper, I had tons of fun playing with backchannels. Here are some examples:

Mom: I think we should finish that by Saturday. Then we can bring it over to her.
Mom: Michelle?
Michelle: Yeah?
Mom: Did you hear what I said?
Michelle: Yes . . . (smirk on face)

Drive-through: So your order is one kids meal with chocolate milk . . .
Drive-through: Ma'am?
Michelle: Yes?
Drive-through: A kids meal with chocolate milk and a number one with a coke.
Drive-through: . . . Is that . . . all?
Michelle: Yes, thanks. (Ha ha ha.)

Anyway, I'm onto backchannels because I am re-training myself to give backchannels accepted here in Leipzig. I've discovered that the "mmm-hmmm" that I'm used to in America is not used. I feel stupid every time it slips out. Instead, they say just "mmmm" with a tone that resembles the "hmmm" that means, "I didn't hear/understand you" in American backchannels. I'm sure I've confused plenty of Germans.

German: I started to write that paper.
Michelle: Hmmm?
German: It is going to be a hard assignment.
Michelle: What is?
German: The paper.
Michelle: Oh, you started to write it already?
German: Mmmm.

1 comment:

  1. Some random, unknown person: "Weight-lifting is my life."

    Tanya: Yes, I see that.

    Random, unknown person: "I've even taken steroids before, but they weren't illegal and were all natural."

    Tanya: "Really. Is natural better?"

    Awesome Michelle. I don't know if you should reveal such sensitive information to the male population. I'll no longer have an escape ;).