Language Pulsations: Independence and Involvement

“No matter what value we place on involvement and independence, and how we express these values, people, like porcupines, are always balancing conflicting needs for both.”

–Deborah Tannen, That’s Not What I Meant

It’s the dead of winter. A group of hedgehogs, shivering in the cold, approach each other in order to share their heat against the cold weather. However, the closer they come to one another, they hurt each other with their sharp quills and must back off.

The hedgehog’s dilemma, articulated by Schopenhauer, explains a basic dynamic in human interaction and society: the constant negotiation of independence and involvement. We want to be included and involved and in human society we simply cannot avoid being interdependent to a certain degree: in other words, we want and at times need the warmth of the hedgehog huddle. At the same time, we want to avoid having our individual autonomy and freedom of choice “punctured” by the sharps spines of dependency. We want Mom to make us dinner, but we don’t want to do the dishes if we don’t want to.

Schopenhauer and others that came after use his fable to illustrate different psychological or social morals: that those with “inner warmth” can avoid the risk of being harmed or imposed upon by others, that the risk of harm by society is an explanation for introversion, etc. The more mundane fact is that, in daily life, we are all inescapably bound by dependencies that we have to constantly negotiate. (Even the Richard Brandts and rich tycoons of the world on their private islands have to use money and abide by laws, which are social constructions based on interdependence.) We use language as a way to navigate this negotiation, but, because we all have different interpretations of the correct balance of independence and involvement, the negotiation doesn’t always go the way we plan. Have you ever had this interaction?

A: “We’d really love for you to come.”
B: “Okay, I’ll come.”
A: “I mean, it would be great to have you, but you don’t have to if you have other things going on.”
B: “Hey, are you trying to get rid of me?”
A: “No!”

Or this one?

B: “Do you need a ride to campus?”
A: “Well, not if it’s an inconvenience.”
B: “So you don’t need a ride?”
A: “Yes, I do, if it’s not a problem!”

Because in Turkey, these kind of interactions happen to me constantly. Like Speaker A, I am constantly endeavoring to maintain, to as high a degree as possible, the independence of the person I’m interacting with. To me, this is the most polite way to interact, and the alternative is impolite and demanding. Why should I impose upon people’s time and generosity when I have no entitlement to it and when taking care of myself is essentially my own responsibility? In Turkey, where group involvement is more highly valued and indeed taken for granted, this often attitude can be interpreted as disinterest or distance: because I am fostering independence, intimacy is decreased.

What are your assumptions about independence and dependence, and how do they affect your language and behavior?

In the next Language Pulsations, I’ll write about an important sociolinguistic manifestation of independence and involvement: politeness theory.

Photo from Buzzfeed story entitled “Orphaned Hedgehogs Think Hairbrush is Mom.”


2 thoughts on “Language Pulsations: Independence and Involvement

  1. UM November 14, 2012 / 4:30 am

    My assumption about independence is that I need you.


  2. UM November 14, 2012 / 4:32 am

    The tag to hedgehogs seems a bit over specialized. It only leads to this one post.


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