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Sometimes Getting Along Comes Down To How You Say 'Gravy'

There are a surprising number of stock photos of gravy out there. You know, in the event you need one at some point.
There are a surprising number of stock photos of gravy out there. You know, in the event you need one at some point.

In the hectic days before we went live one year ago (hooray!), we somehow missed the news of the passing, at age 91, of John Gumperz — a hugely influential linguist who contributed reams of research on the ways people from different cultures communicate. Had we been paying attention, we could have highlighted a story from Gumperz's studies that serves as a useful demonstration of why code-switching can be both a potent metaphor and a necessary skill.

It's a story about workplace discrimination. It's a story about missed cultural signals. It's a story about gravy.

Back in the mid-1970s, when Gumperz was in London on leave, he was summoned to Heathrow international airport to help make sense of an odd culture clash. Two groups of employees — new hires in Heathrow's employee cafeteria (mostly women from India and Pakistan) and some of the baggage handlers at the airport — had grown to openly resent each other. The baggage handlers said the new cafeteria workers were rude to them, while the cafeteria workers felt that the baggage handlers were discriminating against them. Neither side could figure out why the other didn't like them.

So Gumperz recorded the cafeteria workers' conversations, and he found a subtle but profound difference in the way the older British cafeteria workers and the newer desi cafeteria workers spoke to their customers. At issue was a dispute about "gravy" — or rather, how that word was said.

"He was able to focus on this one word and the way it was spoken," Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University, told All Things Considered's Robert Siegel last year. "So if the same word — gravy — was said by the British women with a rising intonation — gravy? — that was understood as "Would you like some gravy?" The Indian and Pakistani women said it with a falling intonation — gravy. That came across as, "This is gravy; take it or leave it." (If this makes no sense in text, listen to the audio interview above.)

Neither side was plainly wrong. But even though they were using the same language, they were still talking past each other.

One of Gumperz's major fascinations was the way language situates listeners and speakers in relation to each other. "[His] brilliance was to show just how language and the subtle aspects of language that we might have thought didn't make any difference, made a world of difference," Tannen said.

We were reminded of Gumperz's "gravy" discovery while reading about a recent case of bias in hiring decisions across the pond. Researchers found that even in job interviews for low-skill, low-paying jobs that didn't require much high-level language proficiency — work like packing factory products and stacking shelves — employers were still opting to hire folks born in Britain as opposed to those born elsewhere. But why?

Researchers found that interviewers wanted applicants to tell stories about themselves in their responses. And that was a cultural expectation that the foreign-born applicants just didn't understand, according to Language on the Move's Ingrid Piller:

When they failed to produce an extended response, the interview usually became much more difficult: the interviewers became more controlling of the candidate's talk and turns; there was more negativity and interviewers became less helpful and sympathetic; and the interviewers aligned more with formal participation roles and the interview became more formal and more institutionalized. Such conduct was a response to the candidate's failure to produce the expected kind of discourse, but, crucially, it also served to make the interview much more difficult for them.

The Smithsonian's Rose Eveleth put it another way:

In other words, the applicants failed to play a game with language that British-born people know how to play. Nobody has trained them on how to say that their biggest weakness is working too hard, or told them the importance of humor and anecdote in an interview, something that non-immigrant people are used to.

Cultural codes like these undergird all of our interactions, yet they remain almost impossible to see. They're the air we breathe. But not only are those rules invisible — they change, as do the people to whom those rules might apply. That means we often don't know when we're violating them, and we're often oblivious to the consequences of doing so. Neither the airport workers nor the job interviewers and applicants were aware that there was an entirely different discourse happening beneath their surface-level conversations. And that discourse would have remained invisible if folks like Gumperz didn't spend a lot of time actively thinking about how folks said things like "gravy."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.