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Thursday’s posts look at sociolinguistics, pragmatics or child language acquisition: accents, stereotypes, the hidden language of communication and how children learn to speak.

Have you ever stopped an analysed why a silence became awkward?

There are some obvious ones. Recently someone asked me if I had any adult films. She meant films not aimed at children, but it was suitably awkward turtle.

The Completely Non-Awkward Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Some awkward turtle moments, however, don’t have an obvious origin. They just come out of nowhere.

This could be for a number of reasons. You, or the people/person you’re talking to could have broken one of the unwritten rules of language.

You could be standing too close or too far away without actually realising.

Awkward silences are more likely to occur if you and the other person are from different cultural backgrounds.

In pragmatics, we refer to adjacency pairs: a question is paired with an answer, a statement with an agreement or disagreement, and so on.

Different cultures leave different turn taking gaps, and even though this difference is milliseconds, it makes a difference.

For example, American English turn taking gaps are smaller than British English, and Finish turn taking gaps are longer.

An American and a Finish person talking together might see more awkwardness for no apparent reason – the differences in the turn-taking gaps may seem negligible, but the Finish person would feel interrupted all the time, while the American may feel the need to fill in what they consider awkward silences.

There are other things we don’t consider when we have a conversation. When talking to someone of the same cultural background, you won’t consciously think about proxemics – how far you stand from the person you’re talking to – considering the relationship you have with them is friends or acquaintances, and you’re not somewhere like a bus or subway when the lack of space changes things.

5-12 metres has been defined as the space for social interaction – but in different cultures this changes. Two people from different cultures could feel, individually, threatened and shunned by the other, simply because they were raised in cultures with different spaces for social interaction.

On top of this, unwittingly, you could insult someone from a different culture by doing something they consider rude which we don’t.

French people gesture “2” using a sign which we would consider swearing. I used to teach English to French children, and no matter how good their spoken English was, this was something they failed to grasp. I guess I look silly when I ask for 2 beers and gesture with a peace sign.

Haptics is the study of touch.

When I visited Nepal I learned that the head is considered holy, so it’s rude to touch it. If you do, you can apologise by touching their arm and then your own head. Similarly, in Thailand, it’s rude to show the bottom of your feet.

When I was in Morocco, it was considered rude to hand something to someone with your left hand. This is because their culture traditionally uses their left hand when they’re at the loo, and lack of water means… well, you get the gist.

So there’s some reasons you might have awkward moments with people from different cultures. If you’re from similar backgrounds, I’m afraid you have no excuse!