Sunday, February 5, 2012

How Language is connected to Power?


According to Kiesling, "Power isn't pre-existing, but established" (Kiesling, S.F., 1997, Power and the Language of Men). I agree with his statement in some sense. In democratic societies, we all believe that without distinction any kind of belongingness, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political, or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status, everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms. However, inequality and unfairness can be often found depending on the dynamics of power in many areas of real life situations. I would like to focus on the relationship between power and language usage to support Kiesling's statement.

Kiesling claimed that power is not something that pre-exists in a certain setting, but established and practiced by using language to influence other people. In other words, Kielsling has delved into the details of language-in-use, or discourse, looking at the kinds of words people use, their tone, the flavor of vocabulary, their pacing, and much more rather than make vague statement about power (Kiesling, 1997).  As a matter of fact, Kiesling's main concern is not power itself or its diverse types, but the relationship between language and power. Let me give an example about how power has influence on language usage, and how certain language styles are connected to roles.

On August 6,1997, Korean air flight 801 crashed on approach to Antonio B., Won Pat International Airport, Guam (Korean Air Flight 801). Of the 254 people on board, 223 people including 209 passengers and 14 crew members (3 flight crew and 11 cabin crew) were killed at the crash site. Many of passengers were vacationers and honeymooners flying to Guam. According to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigation report, there were many causes of the tragic accident. However, the ineffective communicaiton among three flight crews at crisis was found as one of reasons by a communication expert (Malcolm Gladwell on Aviation Safety and Security)


It was resulted from the different usage of Korean language based on power, authority and seniority. For instance, a person in the lower position cannot directly criticize a person in the higher position and also has to follow the orders of one's superieors. Due to the ambiguous and indirect reply from a co-pilot, the caption could not make a right decision right away and differnt way of speaking in Korean language based on the position hindered the flow of communication at the emergency situation. Actually after that tragic accident, the Korean Airline prevented all the crews from speaking in Korean during flight in order to communicate freely regardless of the position. It is because the strong relationship between power and language usage can be much more found in Korean and English.

As far as the power of authority figures is concerned, "Milgram's experiment of Obedience" also demonstrates us the influence of hierarchical power. Having reduced power is associated with attentiveness to authority, constraint on freedom, and inhabitation of speech (Behavioral Study of Obedience). This clearly showed itself that low power individuals are aware of their lowly status and have a tough time standing up in the face of an authority figure. Therefore, this may cloud some people's thoughts and make the wrong decision even in spite of obvious misjudgement.

Furthermore, it tells how the influence of the authority figure can lead a person to make a misjudgment or engage in destructive behaviors even though he or she knows it is not right.
Actually, a high context culture such as the Korean society prefers to use high-context messages in which most of the meaning is either implied by the physical setting or presumed to be part of the individual’s internalized beliefs, values, and norms, very little is provided in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message. In contrast, a low context culture such as the American society prefers to use low-context messages, in which the majority of the information is vested in the explicit code. (Lustig & Koester, Intercultural Competence, 1999, p107)

This case shows us that how power shaped discourse (language usage) and is reshaped by discourse based on the cultural difference. This phenomenon can be more often found in such a high context society like Korea.

Later on, I would like to talk more about how the relationship between power and language habits can be affected by the cultural difference.

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