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Every breath you take and every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take, I’ll be watching you

The Police: Every breath you take

Yesterday, I was driving to visit an acquaintance, and my daughter was sitting in her car seat in the back. We normally take public transit if it’s just the two of us, so she doesn’t have a lot of experience of being alone in the back seat. This time, however, circumstances favored us taking my mom’s car.

Normally, she really likes it in the car. It hums, the scenery changes, and most of the time there’s someone next to her, keeping her company. This time, though, she was alone in the back, and I don’t know if it was that or some other reason, but she was really unhappy and voiced it very loudly. Since I’m pretty averse to letting my child cry for lengthy periods of time, I pulled over and went to the back seat, tried to calm her down and gave her the pacifier. She settled down for a moment, and just as I was starting the car again, she began to whimper. I started singing a simple lullaby that we’ve been singing to her since she was a few weeks old, and that seemed to calm her down. I ended up singing the song over and over until we arrived at our destination.

Apparently the sound of my voice and the familiar song were strong enough messages to convince her that she was not alone and that I was close by, even when she couldn’t see me. As far as I understand, developmentally she is yet to realize that things exist even when you can’t see them.

“I’ll be right there!”

I’ve been thinking a lot about presence ever since I read an article on a study concerning babies’ stress when they are ignored. The babies in the study were six months old, and in the study, their mothers played with them normally, but “froze” for two minutes at a time every now and then, staying in the baby’s sightline but ignoring the baby and staring at the wall. The babies showed elevated stress hormone levels on the following day, when they were brought back to the research facility, even though there was no ignoring on the second day.

I found out about the study on an online message board, and there was (unsurprisingly) some discussion as to what the practical applications of this study are. Some people thought it more or less chains mothers and infants together and lays a guilt trip on anyone who dares to go to the bathroom with the door closed if their child is left alone for that time. Others saw it as a defense against “just let the baby cry it out, it’ll be all right” type of advice.

Personally, I do think that babies need their mothers close by. If a child voices a distress and it systematically gets no response, it will eventually stop voicing its distress because it’s just no use – no-one will answer anyway. However, a response may well be something along the lines of my car-ride lullaby. If my baby hears my voice, it knows I’m not far away. I haven’t disappeared from the world, even if I am currently invisible.

Furthermore, she knows she is not invisible – I can hear her, I can vocally respond to her cries, I can take eye contact when I get closer and I can pick her up when I see she’s in distress. My presence and interaction with her convince her that she exists.

The online presence

In many ways, the online world reflects this “someone please tell me I’m not invisible!” line of thinking. Establishing a presence online – whether in Facebook, on message boards, in the blogosphere, on Twitter – really requires time, effort and reciprocity. There are a few online contexts where I’ve managed to create a presence, and others where I’m really only a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it face in the crowd.

Creating that presence takes time. Reading (because most of the presence is in text form) what others have contributed, finding interesting tidbits to share, regularly coming back to see what others have added since your last visit. It takes effort. Figuring out your opinions (on more serious matters), grafting your message so it’s easy to read, wording your jokes, timing your responses so you stay on the pulse and don’t comment on ancient topics.

And it takes reciprocity. Commenting on what others have already said, taking it a bit further, reading the responses you get and possibly repeating the whole cycle again. It’s the online equivalent of the eye contact: “Yes, I can see you, there you are, you exist in this world.”

Degrees of presence

For our daughter, I’m probably the number one presence in her life. The head honcho, the one who hardly ever leaves her side. My husband is a close second. After that, there are the grandparents, the godparents, our friends, and so forth in descending order.

It’s interesting to see how the degrees of presence show in her behavior towards us. Since I’m nearly always there, my presence borders on boring. It’s safe, but it’s also something she doesn’t make a big deal about. The few exceptions are the times when she wakes up from her nap, and sees me coming in the room if I was somewhere else. The smile on her face says “Awesome, you were gone and now you’re here!” My husband, on the other hand, seems to get all the giggles. πŸ™‚ He is a safe presence, but not quite as predictable as I.

Then there are the interesting visitors, the ones who ring some kind of a bell but aren’t daily contacts, people like my mom and some of her godparents. There has to be a grace period of her reacquainting herself to these visitors from the safety of my or my husband’s lap, before she is secure enough to cuddle with them.

Online, the degrees or presence became evident on another message board, when there were several cases of sad news in a short while. Since the people in question were “big names”, it seemed that everyone knew what was going on in a heartbeat. Similarly, “big names” leaving or taking a break would be a huge deal in an online community – just because so many people are so used to their presence. It’s safe. You can count on their “it’s okay, honey, I’ll be right there”.

When a small-time presence disappears for any length of time, you hardly notice – until they return, or until someone points out they are gone. I’m fairly confident there were less than a handful of people who wondered why I’d been a lazy blogger, and most of those people were real-world friends. πŸ™‚

A shift of sorts

Since creating an online presence (and a real-life presence, too) takes time and effort, you can realistically have a limited number of really influential presences in different social communities. At the moment, my most influential presence is in the context of my family, but there are other, smaller ones in the background.

I’ve noticed I need the feeling of being a strong presence in social communities. Possibly for the “someone sees me, therefore I must exist” reason. This is probably why I’ve originally liked being a group leader or a teacher – there are more pairs of eyes to strengthen my existence. πŸ™‚ Being a quiet onlooker in the sidelines has not been a suit that fits.

Until now.

I don’t know if it’s the arrival of the baby or something else, but there has been a change in my relationship towards social situations, whether live or online ones. Before, I’ve felt like I need to open my mouth, to contribute, to be a presence in order to “buy” my foothold in the community. Contributing has been the currency of being seen.

Now, I feel like contributing has become the primary force. I want to contribute when someone needs help, thoughts, entertainment or ideas. Or when I have an idea that needs voicing. If someone sees it and benefits from it, wonderful. If they comment, even better. But I don’t feel like my contribution was a failure if it’s met with silence.

Furthermore, I enjoy just observing a situation without feeling the need to contribute. If something comes up, I’ll express it, but I don’t feel like I’ll be thrown out of the room (or off the Internets) simply because I just observe. I love going to a moms-and-babies meetup, sitting at the table, drinking a cup of coffee and just listening. And my worth as an online community member is not determined by my post count. πŸ™‚

As is appropriate, the writing of this blog post was interrupted a few times by the cooing of a napping baby who needed my presence. πŸ™‚

Thank you so much for popping by again! If any thoughts came up (and you feel the need to contribute πŸ˜‰ ), feel free to share in the comments! If not, it’s okay to just sip coffee and observe, and possibly catch your own insightings!

Love,

Sari

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I choose things by how they resonate in my heart.
Rita Coolidge

[I’m having a hard time figuring out how to start this post and not make it a “I haven’t been writing, but see there was this thing…” post. The thing is, though, that’s exactly the kind of post this will turn out, so I’ll just go ahead and start it.]

For a long time, I didn’t feel like blogging. There were a lot of things tangled up, keeping me from logging into my Dashboard and typing something, anything. In the spirit of experiential learning, I’ll try to reflect on that experience to be able to learn something from it and transform my immediate experience into something more theoretical, more general. You’re welcome to join me. πŸ™‚

The Changes

Last August, two things happened. One, I started working full-time. Two, I found out I was expecting a baby. Both of those changes came with an abundance of learning moments and interesting communication incidents. In other words, I had lots of material to ponder.

These changes brought with them other changes, though. I fell off the Shiva Nata wagon due to changes in my daily rhythm as well as pure fatigue. Pregnancy totally kicked my behind when it came to mental and physical resources. I waited too long to cut back on activities that I’d scheduled when I was not pregnant and not working full time. No surprise, then, that I almost burned out during the winter. Blogging and Twitter were among the first casualties when I had to streamline my schedule.

All this could have been a fruitful source of blog posts, though, if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was stuck.

*twang*

The job I was working for the past fall and winter, right up to my maternity leave, had plenty of great features. As far as timing goes, it couldn’t have been more perfect. The hours were great, the colleagues were great, I had responsibility and a pretty free reign to develop my area and improve my skills.

The only problem was I didn’t really resonate with what I was doing. I was relatively good at it, I did get a kick out of succeeding and meeting the goals I was aiming to meet, but it didn’t make my heart sing. And to someone who’s spent the past six years at the university, turning more and more towards really inspiring courses and modules, that was a huge deal.

The fact that I didn’t really resonate with my job meant that I didn’t really talk about it when I was not working. I might think about a case or go through my todo-list in my head, but it really wasn’t something I shared with others. And that really clogged up my mind, which exhausted me even more.

And then there was the fact that a lot of my other projects were causing a lot of stress, guilt and extra work. Being all clogged up from work stuff, I hardly shared my extra-curricular stresses and guilts with anyone, either, and that clogged me up even worse. I’d go through the day feeling all these emotions – stress from work, joy about the pregnancy, worries about my own health, guilt about other projects, longing for a connection with my friends – and not really doing anything with them except boiling them in a pot inside my head. Nothing was resonating, nothing was flowing in or out.

The only emotions I really could talk about were the feelings related to the pregnancy. At some point of the past year, my pregnancy and marriage seemed to be the only two things that were bringing me real joy. (In hindsight, I’m grateful that I managed to keep the resonance with my husband. Then again, that’s one of the reasons I married him. πŸ™‚ )

Resonance and flow

Energetically, I feel that being pregnant is more about containing, nurturing, maintaining and protecting than about constant flow (if that makes any sense). My body was in a “hold, keep, stay still” mode for nine months, which is excellent – a “letting go, setting free” mode might have meant problems with the pregnancy. I don’t know if that had a lot to do with my mental blocks, or if my creative powers were just being spent on growing a new life inside.

I do believe, however, that the resonance factor affected my creativity immensely. I didn’t notice it at the time – I just felt really really tired, and thought it was because of my schedule changes and the pregnancy hormones. The fact that I wasn’t resonating with my life, though, meant that I was spending all this energy holding on, keeping up, and staying on the ball.

Imagine riding a public transit bus that’s packed full, and you have to stand. You’re holding on to a railing, and the bus bounces and jerks as the driver navigates through the traffic. If you hold on tight and stiffen up your entire body to remain upright, you’ll bump into your fellow passengers, dislocate a knee, or fall and hit your head. If, on the other hand, you relax and try to surf the bounces, you’ll be much better off.

This past year, I was the stiff girl. I didn’t resonate with the ride, and my response to the bumps and bounces was to stiffen up some more. All my energy went into staying upright and not falling down. No energy for creativity, for blogging, for sharing. Paradoxically, though, sharing could’ve helped me find the resonance. At least that’s what it is doing right now.

At the moment, I resonate more with my life than I have in a while. My days are filled with taking care of our daughter, reading, doing crafts, taking care of the home and writing my Master’s Thesis. As a result, I’m finding it easier to share my thoughts and feelings on my life, even if they are tiny, mundane ones. The fact that I’m striving towards resonance also means I can adjust to the little bumps and bounces life throws my way, whether positive or negative. Going with the flow, if you will. πŸ™‚

Thank you for joining me on this insighting-catching journey. Have a wonderful day, and keep catching your own insightings!

Love,

Sari

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idiolect
noun
the language or speech pattern of one individual at a particular period of life.
(Merriam Webster Online)

Every once in a while I wake up in the morning and manage to go several hours without speaking to anyone. Then the phone rings: *croack* *ahem* “Hello?”. Or I sound like the love child of Marianne Faithfull and James Earl Jones. I don’t know what my voice will sound like before I actually use it.

That was one of the scary things about blogging as well. What if I start blogging and sound stupid? Or like a snotty know-it-all kid with all the answers? Or like the chick who only whines about her misfortunes and never pays attention to her friends?

I noticed this first when I started commenting on my favorite blogs every now and again. I’d blurt out a comment, hit ‘send’, and then notice how crude it looks next to the other comments written by real bloggers. Internet equivalent of *croack*, except you can’t do the *ahem* to fix it.

Fast forward a few weeks. I’m sitting in class, talking about translating character speech in literary texts. About how you can sketch a personality with specific linguistic devices – word choices, structures, spellings. About how the person should sound like they’re a real human being. And about how the different characters should have unique voices – idiolects – in the text.

And there comes the insighting – *ding!* – I can actually influence and shape my blogging voice!

Who do I want to be?

A person’s idiolect depends on who they are. A fifty-year-old scientist with a habit of extramarital affairs and a thirty-year-old communications consultant and part-time organic tomato farmer will have different idiolects. Even you and your best friend, mother, or spouse will have different idiolects depending on who you spend time with, what you watch on TV (if anything) and what you read.

The question thus arises: Who do I want to be in this world of online communication?

For me, the answer boils down to two decisions: Do I want to be personal or impersonal? and Do I want to be normative or descriptive?

Personal or impersonal

The personal or impersonal aspect is probably easier to grasp. It is for me, anyway. Will my approach be more intimate, as if I was e-mailing my best friend? Heavy use of like, totally, kinda, isn’t (vs. is not), wanna, …, and other informal markers give the text a vibe of a close relationship.

Or do I want to go more scientific, as if I was writing a research report? Infrequent vocabulary items comprising specific meanings prevent vagueness in expression, whereas lengthy and complex sentence structure displays causal relationships without superfluous explanations.

From this text alone, you can probably figure out that I’m aiming at the personal end of the spectrum. If I’m writing about some linguistics or social sciences idea, such as, well, idiolect above, I’ll try to include both terminology and explanation. My goal is that you don’t have to have a BA in psychology to get what I’m talking about, but if you do, your spine won’t curl up in distaste.

Normative or descriptive

The normative or descriptive idea mostly comes to me from grammar, but the pair of concepts is used in several contexts. Normative grammar states how language should be used. It makes clear distinctions between proper language and improper language. “One cannot end a sentence with a preposition” is a classic English normative grammar rule.

Descriptive grammar, on the other hand, describes how language is used by its speakers. It’s not really concerned with language norms as such. It recognise their existence, and then observes how they affect the way actual speakers use the language. Descriptive grammar also avoids value statements about language use; for descriptive grammarians, one language variety is not better or worse than another. They are just different.

In descriptive grammar, the statement “One cannot end a sentence with a preposition” is ludicrous. Of course one can: “Who were you talking to?” is a perfectly understandable sentence that ends with a preposition.The interesting question for a descriptive grammarian is what varieties allow the feature and what condemn it.

In grammar, as in life, finding the balance between normative and descriptive is a difficult process. I find myself ideologically drawn to the descriptive side, but I still flinch whenever someone uses a non-standard grammatical form in my first language, Finnish. The idea of “proper” is deeply rooted in whatever part of my brain deals with language.

In this blog space, though, I want to try out the descriptive side. As in, this is what happened, this is what it caused, this is what I learned in the process. Maybe one or two suggestions of what you might want to do if you’re stuck in the same gunk. Not so much the “can’t do this, shouldn’t do that” mentality.

My Sandbox or my Soapbox?

What to do with my voice, then, in the wonderful world of the Internet?

As far as I’ve noticed, there are two reasons people start blogs.

One, they want a sandbox – a place where they can just be themselves and invite others to just be themselves too. Socially regress to the level of a five-year-old when everyone was a potential friend, especially if they had a pink plastic bucket you could borrow. You could call this an author-centric approach. I plan to call it just that.

Or two, they want a soapbox – whatever it takes to make other people hear their message, pay attention, and act accordingly. Fitter, happier, more productive, they want their readers to do something! If someone pays them in the process, all the better. I’ll call this audience-centric approach, and you can, too.

Most blogs I’ve ever read are a combination of these two functions. As of yet, I cannot tell whether my blog will turn outwards or inwards. Depending on the post, it’ll probably fluctuate between the two extremes.

Either way, I’m totally inviting you to come hang out in the sandbox and borrow the plastic bucket. Even if I do get on a soapbox every now and again. If my introspections spark an insighting, I’d love to hear about it.

So what’s coming up for you about all this?

One last thing. Thank you thank you for reading this post. If you got this far chances are my croaky Internet voice is clearing up. Awesome.

Until we meet again – keep catching those insightings!

Love,

Sari

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“Make your contribution such as is required in the context.”
Cooperative Principle, Herbert Paul Grice

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
Albert Einstein

So I’m a new blogger. Taking my very first babysteps into the world of writing things that, well, someone will read. And I need help.

I could dive into the endless pit of advice that is the Internet blog scene: how to write, how not to write, the ten mistakes and the seven steps

Or I could go back to something I already know after years of studying linguistics. I could take what I already know about communication and apply it to this context. *ding!* Insighting.

The Maxims of Conversation (and Blogging)

Grice’s Cooperation Principle, a pragmatical theory quoted above, could well serve as the backbone of this blog – or any blog, for that matter. The point of the approach is that whenever we communicate, we cooperate with the others to make the conversation understandable.

The Cooperative Principle is based on four maxims that support understandable communication.

1. The maxim of Quality: Try to make your contribution true.

2. The maxim of Quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required, but no more.

3. The maxim of Relevance: Make your contribution relevant.

4. The maxim of Manner: Avoid obscurity and ambiguity, and be brief and orderly

1. Quality: Try to make your contribution true

I enjoy fiction as much as the next guy. That is not what I read blogs for, though, and it’s not the reason I’m writing one, either.

First of all, there is actual value in speaking from experience. Never mind the expert viewpoint – I can only really speak of the things that I have seen, heard, and experienced. Furthermore, I can only really have in-sight into things that I’ve struggled through.

This is also why this post is not titled “here’s how to write a top-ranking blog post”. I can’t teach something I don’t know. I hope I can write that post twelve months from now.

2. Quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required, but no more.

There’s a fine line between sharing and overexposition. When I’m reading a post about an emotional situation between two people, I want to know if they are mother and daughter or husband and wife. I might also want to know if it’s the first time this has happened, or if there’s a history of this kind of behavior. Without this information I might not understand what exactly the writer is trying to say.

If I’m also told they are fighting at a restaurant, or that it’s twelve noon, or that the weather is stormy, I might get impatient. Why are they telling me this? Can’t they get to the point already? Can’t they figure out what’s important here?

(A brief moment where I pause to take my own advice and move on to the next point.)

3. Relevance: Make your contribution relevant.

The broad topic of this blog is learning, communication, and analysing my insightings. This means that whatever I post should have some bearing to those three concepts. The more I do so, the more my readers (hi, the three of you…) can count on me to be relevant.

This is closely linked to the quantity maxim. If I start my blog post by describing what I had for breakfast, it should have an integral connection with an insighting I’m about to reveal. In drama, the parallel phenomenon is Checkov’s Gun: If there’s a gun onstage during the first act, someone should be shot by the third. If it’s just there for no reason, get rid of it.

4. Manner: Avoid obscurity and ambiguity, and be brief and orderly

When I manage to get a hold of an insighting, it has no actual form; it’s just a jumble of concepts whirring around in my head. Nowhere near brief and orderly, it’s very obscure and often ambiguous. My responsibility as a blogger, and also as a teacher, is to organise that jumble into a reader-friendly form. Again, the Internet is brimming with tips on how to do this, so I won’t go into too much detail today – maybe later, when I’ve had more experience on the matter.

The main thing is to organise the idea, whether you end up with a narrative, a how-to, a detective tale or an interview. Independent of the genre, revising and editing are invaluable tools with this maxim.

Violating vs Flouting Maxims

In ordinary conversation, adhering to these maxims causes successful communication, and violating them results in a communication breakdown. Incidentally, a lot of humor in fiction, be it literature or drama, TV or comics, is based on the violation of one or more maxims. Insufficient information, concealing information, speaking in ambiguous terms or flat out lying are at the root of hundreds of pieces of literature. A handy thing to keep in mind if you ever intend to write fiction. πŸ™‚

Flouting maxims, however, is slightly different. When you flout a maxim, you seem to break one, but the other person in the conversation will still be able to understand your implied meaning. This is why it’s sometimes called “inferential mindreading“.

Imagine you’ve been to see a foreign movie. When your friend asks what you thought of the movie, you answer, “Well, the opening credits were nice.” On the surface, it seems you’re breaking the Quantity maxim: you’re not saying anything about the movie itself! Your friend, however, might infer that you didn’t think much of the movie itself, since you only chose to comment on the opening credits.

If you’d said “I feel we should burn down the theater and the remaining copies of the film,” you’d be flouting the Quality and Relevance maxims. Unless you really consider burning down the theater, your friend will most likely infer, again, that you didn’t think much of the movie.

In blogging, I would err to the side of caution when it comes to flouting maxims. Since the verbal content is all there is, a reader may or may not understand the implication correctly. This is why sarcasm – a form of humor often achieved by flouting these maxims – doesn’t really work as well in writing as it does face-to-face.

Even if I could be sure all (three of) my readers are smart and Internet-literate people, the risk of having some bonehead (excuse the un-PC term) misinterpret an exaggerated remark and burn down a theater, for instance, seems like a big one to take. This is why I’ll try and find funny for this blog through other means.

(If you’re reading this in December 2008, welcome to this brand new thing that is Insightings. There’s a lot more coming up. If you’re reading this in 2009 or later, awesome. Welcome, look around, I’m hoping the archives have everything you came here for.)

Until we meet again – keep catching your own insightings and feel free to share them here!

Love,

Sari

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β€œIf you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way.”
Mark Twain

If I had a time machine, I would go back in time to the exact moment Mark Twain came up with that quote. Then to the situation in which the idea occurred to him. I mean, doesn’t that just paint a picture? Whatever happened, I’m pretty sure he had what I call an insighting – seeing or experiencing something that makes your brain go *ding!*.

Ever since I was twelve I wanted to be a teacher. Of what, I had no idea, but the idea of being a teacher appealed to me. Fast forward thirteen years (although at the time it really seemed like sloo-oo-oow forwards), and I’m studying to be an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) and drama teacher. In other words, learning how to help students learn communication in its different forms.

In some way this whole blogging thing stems from the same source as my desire to be a teacher.

I’m fascinated by how things connect and interact, and I love it when someone goes, “Whoah! I never thought of it that way!” I’m hoping to make sense of my insightings so that You, Dear Reader, might have one of those *Whoah!* moments as well.

Some of my insightings are teeny tiny *dings*, like the one about applying a pragmatic theory to writing blog posts. Others are huge *gongs*, like things about coping with mistakes (e.g. crashing Dad’s car) or losing a loved one – the kind of stuff that I’ll still be learning about when I’m ninety.

Today’s insighting has to do with responsibility and setting the standard.

I’m so thankful for every single person who visits and comments, and even before today – the first actual posting day – I’ve had some people over, telling me they are looking forward to hear what I’ve got to say.

As I read my very first comments, two things happened. First, I became superexcited that someone found me and took the time to see what I had to say! Yay!

Then, I suddenly felt serious and responsible. I’m promising to give my reader(s) something, and now I really have to commit to bringing her/him/them something valuable. I know I can do it, it’s not that.

It’s the fact that this is the first time I’m writing from my heart and there is someone out there receiving it. Not a diary entry for my eyes only, not some multidimensional mind map only I can decipher, or an academic essay. Real stuff.

My brain suddenly feels like a mother with children to feed after surviving on a diet of pop corn, beef jerky and peanut butter for the past fifteen years. A whole new layer of responsibility right there.

*Whoah.*

Feel free to comment, give feedback, pose questions or requests in the comments, and keep your eyes peeled for your very own insightings!

Love,

Sari

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