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Interrogatory Inflection*

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 259

Have you ever listened to yourself talk?
 
Everyone has a specific speaking style. Some tend to have long sentences. Others have short sentences. Some make their sentences with inflections that emphasize the beginning of the sentence while others use inflections in other parts of the sentence.
 
Inflection Makes A Difference!
 
All this may not seem that important until one realizes that inflection, intonation, volume and other factors communicate as much--or more--than the words. In fact, these inflections may communicate more than we might ever realize. If such is the case, pastors and other leaders involved in public communication need to be aware of their speaking styles. More importantly, they need to reflect on what effect their speaking styles have.
 
Deborah Tannen in her remarkable book, "Talking From 9 To 5," discusses communication from many different perspectives. Perhaps the most remarkable is her discussion of what she claims are the key differences between male and female speaking styles in the United States.**
 
The key difference, she noted, was that men have a tendency to end their sentences with a downward inflection. This downward inflection seems to be expected and characteristic of masculine communication. It is characterized as direct, decisive, and authoritative.
 
Typical Gender Preferences
 
Many women, on the other hand, tend to have a different way of ending their sentences. Though not characteristic of all women, Tannen noted that women tend to inflect their voices in such a way as to make their sentences end as if they were questions. This is what can be  referred to as "Interrogatory Inflection."
 
Make no mistake. When women (and some men) use interrogatory inflection they are not asking a question. Nor are they indicating any kind of uncertainty. Instead, they are communicating the same--or perhaps stronger--resolve and conviction than their male counterparts who do not use interrogatory inflection.
 
That is what can cause so many problems in male-female communication. Men may underestimate the conviction of the female use of the interrogatory inflection. Using the male frame of reference, men may often mistake the indirectness of the interrogatory inflection as weakness, lack of confidence, and needing to be supported. Make no mistake. It is anything but a sign of weakness.
 
On the other hand, women on the receiving end of male communication may feel intimidated, mowed down, or bulldozed by a male using a more direct, non-interrogatory inflection. Indeed, using her frame of reference, she may consider the male a selfish, insensitive, power-hungry, manipulative dictator who cares nothing for her.
 
Tannen indicated that it's not just males who commonly misinterpret the "typical" female interrogative inflection. Females also commonly misinterpret the characteristic male tendency to avoid the interrogatory inflection except for questions.
 
Interrogatory Inflection Signals...
 
There's more to the interrogatory inflection--or lack of it--than meets the eye. According to Tannen, use of the interrogatory inflection signals deference and respect in communication. It signals an openness to hearing the other's viewpoint. It also signals a sense of mutuality and cordiality even when there is disagreement. It indicates a willingness to listen, reflect, and accept the other in spite of their views.
 
In short, the interrogatory inflection is an invitation to maintain relationship in spite of differences. Notice that the characteristic indirectness of the interrogatory inflection does not indicate a "Wishy-washy-ness" of opinion. Not at all! Indeed, the content of what is spoken can be based on extremely strong convictions.
 
The interrogatory inflection is not an indicator of weakness. It is, for those who use and understand it, a higher level of communicating conviction with a strong focus on maintaining relationships when communicating convictions.
 
Male Communication Style
 
The typical "male" style is direct and non-interrogatory. It does not signal the desire for relationship. It simply states facts simply and directly. It has no non-sense, no hidden meanings. You can take it at face value. It means what it says it means. No more, no less.
 
In fact, this direct, non-interrogatory style is used by television newscasters throughout the "Yankee" English speaking world. They all talk with the Walter Cronkite-ian downward inflection. They use the same direct, non-interrogative inflection he uses when he used to say, "And that's the way it is... Good night." He used it because it communicated strength, power, confidence, truth, reliance and other necessary media virtues.
 
This is true not just of men, but of women news anchors and reporters as well. Next time you watch the news, listen to the women. Like it or not, they talk like men on the job, even though off the job they may revert to their normal interrogatory inflection pattern.
 
The Message Is In The Inflection!
 
As unfair as it may seem, cultures do ascribe and attach certain values to various communication styles. In the United States, for example, some people attach negative values to various regional accents. Indeed, even presidents and other public figures will go to great length to "soften" these unfair, unjust, but nevertheless real stereotypical associations.
 
Perhaps numerous other examples could be found in virtually any culture. Though unfair, sexist, racist, or discriminatory, the reality is that communication in a sinful world can be grossly misinterpreted if individuals are not sensitive to the impact of various inflections.
 
Among the Bokyi people in Nigeria a single word can mean "I love you" or "I hate you." The difference of meaning is in the inflection. The way our communication is spoken can have virtually the same results. Awareness of the nuances of inflection and other aspects of spoken language is increasingly critical in what appear to be increasingly critical ministry settings.
 
Interrogatory Inflection: It's A Powerful Tool!
 
One of the most helpful insights regarding interrogatory inflection is to recognize that it can be a powerful communication tool. Consider those ministry situations in which a strong stand needed to be taken. By communicating without an interrogatory inflection, many (male and female) might characterize the speaker as an insensitive dictator who doesn't care what anyone else thinks.
 
Using the exact same words, however, and ending each sentence with an interrogatory inflection will convey the message needed. But it will also add a strong relational, caringeven "pastoral"quality to the message. Those who characteristically use the interrogative inflection know that it indicates that you care. It indicates that you are listening. It indicates that you are approachable. But, in addition to all these things, it does not compromise conviction, either.
 
Once one discovers what a powerful communication device interrogatory inflection is, one can find many uses for it. The interrogatory inflection is a wonderful tool for preaching. Use it when making those necessary emphatic points. Speak the point boldly, end it with an interrogatory inflection, ...and notice the people's response. They are listening. They are drawn to the message. You have them "in the palm of your hands" because they are invited by the magnetic upturn of the interrogatory inflection.
 
How To Use It
 
Consider using the interrogatory inflection in meetings when differences surface. When stating opinions, try using the interrogatory inflection. Then watch how it tends to stabilize the situation. Notice how it doesn't incite escalation of conflict.
 
The relational component of the interrogatory inflection is powerful. It allows the expression of opinions while helping to keep destructive reactive emotions at bay. That's why its so powerful in counseling sessions and at those times when leaders must apologize for their mistakes, misjudgments, or errors.
 
Interrogatory inflection can also be an important "ounce of prevention" for leaders. Conflicts are so frequently triggered by emotive reactions which incite entire relational systems to defensive behavioral modes.
 
Often the trigger for these conflicts is communication misinterpreted or misconstrued. Direct, non-interrogatory inflection, though it has its appropriate place, can be a major trigger. Managing the ongoing tension which is part of church life can be made dramatically easier by using some basic techniques. One of the most powerful techniques is the use of interrogatory inflection.
 
Try It!
 
The best way to test the effectiveness of interrogatory inflection is to try it. First, practice by yourself or with your family. End every sentence as if it were a question. Then try it in small groups, in staff meetings, in denominational settings, in the pulpit, at congregational meetings, and wherever else "two or three are gathered together."
 
You will be amazed at the difference. And, if you've already been doing it all your life, now you know one of the secrets to your effectiveness as a leader. It is a great skill to build on. Eventually you'll find that interrogatory inflection is virtually your best ministry communication tool other than the Word of God itself.
 
Thomas F. Fischer
 
* The term "interrogatory inflection" is the author's.
 
** Though in her book, "Talking From 9 To 5," Deborah Tannen distinguished predominantly male tendencies from female tendencies relative to the use or non-use of interrogatory inflection, this type of communication is not necessarily gender specific. There may be many examples of males and females with the opposite inflection preference. Thus, Tannen's research was not intended to promote sexism or other artificial gender distinctions. Instead, she simply reported her research in the general terms of observed "male" and "female" tendencies.
 
The Editor

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:24 PM