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Milieu and Mimicry

You know the way everyone’s starting to sound the same? It’s weird, right?

Here at Mapped we’ve noticed a tonal shift, if not seismic, at least tremorous.

The way we speak online tends to blur together – on Twitter, on Facebook, in the blog posts we write and comments we leave – into a unified ‘online’ tone of voice (LOL).

And we – that is, the two of us – are the first to admit to that shift in our own writing, especially when we write to each other.

If the way we wrote were like a jazz riff (and it clearly is), it would sound like Bibbity-boo-bop. BOP. A longer sentence, followed by a curt, short phrase.

We think this is all down to the #hashtag.

The purpose of the hashtag – to connect one idea to many others through a word or phrase – has spawned a communicative offshoot and become a comic rhythm, a way of visualising the punchline. Remember how people writing about Hollywood used to talk about ‘beats’, annoyingly? That’s what the hashtag is.

you could not find two people more open-minded to different kinds of chips and salsas then me and dad right now. #malibu

— Mindy Kaling (@mindykaling) July 1, 2012

I just want to get hammered and go watch the fireworks #priorities

— Darien Fehring (@Dfehrs) July 3, 2012

We (that’s us at Mapped, again, forgive the hive mind personification) didn’t start out speaking this way. Randall is from New Orleans (with varied roots) and Elizabeth is from Nova Scotia (born in Ireland), so we naturally bonded over our shared Cajun/Acadian non-heritage.

We met at work in Dublin and became friends, and did the thing of sharing catchphrases, ways of speaking, weaving them into a shorthand vernacular.

A shared interest in writing perhaps made the communication shift more rapid, but the way we wrote in longform remained unique, individual. Spoken language changed first, but given how much of our lives we live online, that soon seamlessly merged into a shared online tone. Since we couldn’t mimic tones of voice, we mimicked punctuation.

With nuanced differences, of course. We will still fight over stray semicolons.

The genesis of the online tone of voice

So where does the online tone of voice come from – the one shared by friends but also seemingly by everyone on Twitter? And how did it happen?

There are clues to this at the scene of the crime.

We all mirror the people we’re talking to – picking up accents, phrases, and the tendency to end our sentences like this?

It’s part of our adaptability as humans – we do it to form social groups by responding to the tone with which we’re presented. “What’s up?” elicits a different response than “I take it you’re well”.

In the same way, the way social media prompts us to engage sets our tone online.

“What’s on your mind” is asking something different than “What’s happening” – the first is far more personal, and therefore we tend to write more personally on Facebook*.

The tone has been set. And then we also take our cue from those with whom we are connected, and those connected to us take their cue in turn, and eventually it’s a snake eating its tail.

The offline tone of voice

This tone of voice, this echo chamber, repeats itself in cities and communities around the world. History begets cultural attitudes begets turns of phrase.

We asked Mapped friend Martha Rotter, a Dublin expat from the States, how she found the shift in language after moving to Ireland, and whether she’d adopted any Irish turns of phrase.

“Just after X-ing” – [As in, “I’m just after leaving” instead of “I’ve just left”] – it took me a long time to get the hang of that one. I still can’t use it myself, it sounds so weird to me.

Also “Yer man” and “Yer wan” threw me for a while, now in my head I silently replace them with “that guy” or “that woman”

The sound of cities: close up

The spread of tone has borders: a city has its own online voice. It’s called language convergence. Elizabeth noticed it when she first moved to London.

I am still figuring out England (and probably will be so in a hundred years), but it seems to me that the London tone is obsessed with being cool – particularly young, urban, and cool. Even now that it is no longer part of their legitimate tourism campaign (we remember you, Tony Blair and the Spice Girls).

I was reading a literary blog awhile ago that kept saying ‘Respect’ – without apparent irony or humour – as a commendation for things that are good. Coming from Dublin – where you’d be jeered at for co-opting urban slang like that – it made me guffaw, a little. But maybe I’m just too square. Is that what the kids say these days?

Sidewalk (footpath) conversations

We can’t really blame London for bringing the street into its online tone, though – that’s where language convergence begins. Linguists have realised that in order to study language effectively, they need to study humans and what brings us in contact with each other – disciplines like anthropology, sociology and psychology (a paper called Linguistic Anthropology gives a great summary of this).

Conversation creates language. Anecdotally, you can tell a lot from a city by what you overhear. Those anecdotes become a mirror for its culture, or at least its stereotype.

Here are two scenes Randall observed in two very different cities. They each lasted no more than 5 seconds, but mirror local cliches we’re all familiar with:

On New York:

The stereotype goes like this: some guy shouting “I’m driving he-ah!” or “hey blondie!” out his car window. But this is the New York of fiction; fortunately, the real thing is far more interesting. Once someone said to my friend as he passed by us on the street: “Do you like Marilyn Manson?” When she said no, he shouted “Well he likes you!”

On Toronto:

I passed by two people fighting in the street in downtown Toronto. I was struck by it, not only because neither of them uttered a profanity, but because they were using “I” statements. They were like, “when you do this, I feel that”. Only Canadians would use conflict resolution techniques in every day life.

Language as collective sound

So, what happens when we zoom out from a city? When we look at language as a collective? When we analyze the hum? Randall started thinking about this on a recent trip to Japan:

One of the sounds that I started noticing a couple of days into my trip was something like “zeye-mas”. People would say it as I left restaurants and shops, and, it was always jumbled together with many other syllables, Later, we bought a phrase book and found out that it means ‘please’ – basically a polite suffix you can add to anything you’re saying. Politeness is rife in Japan, and it rings through the city.

Later I started to think about how I myself was speaking. One day I was in a restaurant and I wanted something that wasn’t on the menu. In English I would have said, “Would it be OK if I could just have the . . .?” – a lot of words to indicate attitude more than the subject itself. But here, I just said “Bread” in Japanese (then smiled).

What can we glean from all those words in between the words – those words Randall couldn’t say in Japanese? The hum of a city must reveal something about the thousands or millions of people speaking them.

With that in mind, it’s time to Guess That City!