Thursday, November 24, 2011

All Voice Begins with Vibration

I started blogging a few months ago by sharing communication tips and strategies gleaned from workshops and classes I’ve taught over the years. I’m shifting the focus of my blog to discoveries I’m making about the interface of communication and culture.

My Singing Bowl
A few weeks ago I purchased a beautiful gold-colored bowl, 12 inches in diameter, forged of seven metals, and made by artisans in a small village in the Himalayas.  Such bowls are called singing bowls, or sometimes Tibetan bells, because of the amazing sounds they produce when struck. 

My bowl has helped me “tune in” to the essence of sound – a vibration set in motion by a “mover,” and “received” by the “antenna” of our ears and entire body.  Whether I strike my bowl with a wooden implement or roll the striker around the bowl’s circumference, the complexity of sound is beautiful and mesmerizing.  

All voice begins with vibration

Anthropologists and linguists have debated for centuries the interrelationship between the speech patterns developed by cultures, and the natural sounds they heard in their environments and eventually imitated with their voices and musical instruments. What, for example, led the peoples of Tibet and Himalayan India to forge metals from their mountainous homes into bowls that could produce such a range of captivating sound? And how did the bowls themselves alter the pitch, intensity, and range of the speech of those very people who created them?

Physicists explain that the human voice begins as vibratory energy produced by the complex forces of our body’s organs on molecules of air. Such vibrations become spoken voices because of factors unique to each body, as well as to learned factors of pitch, breathing, resonance, articulation, etc. Cultures impose their own “likes” upon speech, so that a particular pitch, cadence, and intonation become favored. Musical instruments and objects come to complement that range of voices dominant in a particular culture.

Each voice is unique

When I coach people on how to speak clearly or present more effectively in meetings, I am aware of some of the cultural or geographical influences that forge familiar patterns of speech (i.e. accent). I also am interested in discovering how a person’s voice projects his or her personality. Each voice contains within those molecules of vibrating air the potential to express itself in an individual way. When we speak of a person having “a voice,” we mean more than simply vibration and accent; we hear the person’s essence in the timbre and intensity of the words conveyed in speech.   

The goal of coaching or training, therefore, is not try to change that vibrating, molecular-level essence of the person’s unique voice. Rather, it is to help the person fully utilize the instruments of sound available in his/her body to form words, express thoughts, and evoke responses that we then call communication.

I give thanks for my bowl

Today, Thanksgiving Day, I will “play” my beautiful bowl, an instrument uniquely different from all the other bowls in the little shop where I bought it. I give thanks for its harmonics originally forged and valued by the cultures of the Himalayas. I give thanks for the lessons it’s teaching me about the human voice. 

Note: A helpful book for those interested in singing bowls is Singing Bowl Handbook: Singing Bowls - Tingshaws - Bell - Dorje


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bears and Bulls

The stock market’s gyrations these last months have led to speculation about whether the market will rally and become a “bullish” market, or else retreat into a “bearish” market.  I got thinking about how American culture, any culture, uses animal metaphors.   Such metaphoric communication is called zoomorphism, the tendency to describe human activities and behaviors in terms of the behavior of animals. When animals are paired and then contrasted in descriptions, we gain insights into what is being described metaphorically.

Bears and bulls

Bears hibernate in the cold months of the year; i.e., they retreat into caves and lairs to sleep. And while a mama bear with her cub can charge a summer hiker who stumbles across one in the mountains, a bear usually runs away when disturbed. 

Bulls, as we know from viewing a rodeo or a bullfight, seem wired to attack.  A “bully” at school is a stronger child who makes fun of or physically attacks weaker children. None of us likes a bully. However, anyone with money invested in the stock market hopes for prices to charge ahead. To that end, Merrill Lynch uses a bull for its logo, and visitors to the Shanghai stock will see five golden bulls at the entrance.

Hawks and Doves

Hawks are predator birds, skilled hunters with keen eyesight. One often sees a hawk perched on a fence post or tree limb, ready to swoop down on an unsuspecting prey. Used metaphorically, hawks are those individuals who advocate an aggressive foreign policy based on strong military power, and who see war as a logical response.
Doves, on the other hand, value peace and try to resolve international conflicts without the threat of force. A dove is a bird with a heavy body, small head, short legs, and long pointed wings.  A dove has a soft “cooing” sound. Some birds in the dove family, like pigeons, are kept as pets. Doves appear in art as peaceful birds in idyllic scenes.

The Tortoise and the Hare

Aesop, an ancient Greek write (620-564 BCE) is said to have written many fables, stories with a moral teaching to them. Many of his stories use animals that speak and have human characteristics.  One of his most famous stories is that of The Tortoise and the Hare.

The story concerns a hare (a rabbit) who challenges a slow-moving tortoise to a race. The hare soon leaves the tortoise behind and, confident of winning, decides to take a nap midway through the course. When he awakes, however, he finds that the tortoise, crawling slowly but steadily, has arrived before him and won the race. Today people might describe a person (or themselves) as a tortoise, a seemingly mild criticism but with a subtle message of a persistent person who wins out in the end.  

Cat and Mouse

“Cat and mouse” is an old English idiom that means an action involving constant pursuit, near captures, and repeated escapes. Sometimes the idiom “cat and mouse game” implies that the contest is never-ending, as in a battle. If you’ve ever observed a cat chase a mouse, you’ll know that often the cat can’t quite capture the mouse, who is weaker but smart. Sometimes a cat appears to "play" with the mouse by releasing it after capture, only to pounce on it later.

In all of the examples above, commonly recognized animal characteristics are used to describe human behavior. At times English language application of zoomorphism is confusing. A person can be described as a “lazy dog.” However he or she can also “work like a dog,” meaning to work hard.  Some animals have such a variety of observed behaviors that their metaphorical usage in English is mixed, and therefore confusing for people of other cultures.

Many of you reading this blog are from non-English cultures.  What are some of the animals that have appeared in idiomatic phrases and descriptions in your language? 

I welcome comments, or questions about other zoomorphic pairs used in English communication. 
Jolinda Osborne