Oct 222009

Many thanks to Sabrina and Chris for their lovely observations of how we say goodbye. They have reminded me of something curious. We have an expression in British English which doesn’t seem to exist in ‘merican: ‘saying our goodbyes’ (plural).

Mime waving bye bye by Hanumann.

In ‘merican it would be ‘saying goodbye’ and of course we can say that in BrE too. But saying our goodbyes  is an apt description of the long drawn out process I’d expect in BrE when we’re bidding farewell. We tend to fidget around a bit and mutter things like ‘Is that the time?’, ‘Really should be going…’ ‘Well, anyway…’  So we teeter on the brink for ages and then, just when we’re on the point of getting out the door, someone will say something that means going back to the beginning and starting over again. And as Sabrina points out, from an American point of view, it seems like we don’t have handy phrases like, ‘It’s been nice talking to you’ and ‘Catch you later’.

So farewells can be a protracted process in the UK, but I think it can happen a bit in ‘merican too – just not on the same scale. In fact a US sociolinguist, Nessa Wolfson, commented on it sometime back and when she was describing her very cool theory called ‘The Bulge’. She noticed that the speech behavior of middle class Americans varies depending on whether they are talking to people they are intimate with or strangers, or whether they are talking to one of the people in the middle ground. So a brief  ‘Give me a call’ or ‘Bye’ could be all we need to accomplish a parting from our best friend or the person who has just served us something in a shop. But the process takes longer with people we know a bit but not a lot. Here’s Nessa (and her article can be found here):

I call this theory the bulge, because of the way frequencies of certain types of speech behavior plot out on a diagram, with the two extreme showing very similar patterns as opposed to the middle section, which displays a characteristic bulge…we find again and again that the two extremes of social distance – minimum and maximum – seem to call forth very similar behavior, while relationships which are more toward the center show marked differences

So we behave in similar ways with people who are intimates and strangers – which prompts the question: what do they have in common? Well Nessa reckons it’s that it’s to do with the certainty and stability of the relationships. We know how things stand and what’s expected in our relationships with close friends and family members in much the same way as we do with strangers. It’s where things are changeable that we start saying things like, ‘We really must get together again soon’, or ‘Well, we really must be making a move… early start… err…’ . It’s because things are open to negotiation. As Nessa puts it:

The lengthy negotiations over future meeting time reassure both participants that even though they may not designate a definite time when they will see one another again, they both value the relationship enough to want it to continue.

So anyway folks… Er, must press on… Things to do… Hope it’s not too long before we… er…/ It’s been nice talking to you and catch you later.

 Posted by at 5:30 pm

  11 Responses to “Saying our goodbyes and the bulge”

  1. Interesting – this must be why we have so many ‘fillers’ – yeah, nice one, alright, yep, great, excellent, just the job, splendid, anyway good to see you take care all the best cheers thanks you too ta yep cheerio bye.

  2. Great to meet you Nate, and thanks so much for chipping in.
    Yeah, fillers can do a heck of a lot to maintain and build relationships and I wish they were easier to teach. They look so short and simple, but their usage can be err, well, you know, like, sort of tricky. So anyway…

  3. Wow, I never really thought through this until now – but yes, sometimes goodbyes are a quick peck on the cheek… -I’ll see next week anyway… other times a “right I’d better get off then…” because you’ll see them later than day… other times the fillers happen because you hate to be parting, wish you weren’t and you’re filling in the space so you won’t cry… and then at other times you do stand around looking at anything but the other person (especially if you can’t wait to get out of there) filling that “space” with random tidbits of noise.

    Very interesting post – how do we teach that to students!


  4. Great post, Vicki. As someone who lives in an extended US/Canadian/UK family, I agree that US English has better sign-off patterns in spoken language, in person or on the phone. I’m not sure that this makes Americans better at closing off contact, though. Listening to my American wife unsuccessfully trying to close out a conversation with one of her verbose cousins has proved this to me over the years. 😉

    Meanwhile, some Brits I know, particularly actors and teachers, have a marvellously positive way of ending conversations, with a brisk “Right! That’s it! I’m off!” Somehow they manage to avoid giving offence. “My goodness, is that the time???” is another successful gambit, simultaneously giving the recipient the feeling that the conversation was so interesting that time has flown by.

    I’d love to write more but have to be somewhere else toot sweet. Lovely to talk! Let’s do lunch! Mwah! Mwah!

  5. Or there’s “I mustn’t keep you”, which I tell my students always means “You mustn’t keep me” and is understood as such- so use with care!

  6. Love these contributions – thank you all!
    Hi Ken. Yeah, Americans can sound good at partings at a first glance, but when you dig a little deeper it’s not so clear cut.
    Kareene – how do we teach this stuff to our students? Hmmm, that’s a very good question.
    My hunch is by devoting more attention to relationships and imparting more of the wisdom that’s lying around in the intercultural research on politeness, speech acts and conversational analysis.
    Rethinking how we teach ‘functional language’ seems like a glaring necessity in that.
    Why’s that? Well as you’ve pointed out Alex, people don’t say what they mean.

  7. Hmm…

    socio-cultural stuff is fascinating, and of particular use to ESOL students living in English-speaking environments.

    However, I always worry when people start talking about ‘how do we teach students about this stuff’ when they don’t work in an English speaking environment.

    Whilst it’s fun to read or hear about these habits, it isn’t necessary for, say, a German adult to try to imitate them, for the usual reasons. Given that 80% of exchanges in English don’t involve native English speakers, who, if anyone, is the German adult going to speak English to? A Norwegian? If so, both the German and the Norwegian will use their own social strategies in the discourse.

    This is my usual grumble about the otherwise fascinating subject of social cultural competence.

    Keep up the good work, y’all!

  8. ELF (English as a Lingua Franca)research has had mixed responses. Something I haven’t mentioned in this blog is that I’m a strong supporter of research into ELF. I’ve spoken about before it at conferences and it wasn’t an intentional omission, but somehow it hasn’t come up here before. (Ken, many thanks for raising this).
    I don’t know who visits this blog, but I think most readers might come from professional English language teaching where students need to operate with colleagues in an international work place. So I’ve kinda taken it for granted that folks will think (like me) that we should learn more about how English is used on an international basis.
    And I can see that this could be presumptuous, but if we make that leap, the rest follows logically. If students want to get stuff done, lingusitic accuracy is valuable but things like influence, people skills and trust matter just as much, if not more. Relationships are key, so how we teach the sociolinguistic stuff becomes really important.
    I think we’ve got a good deal of speech act and conversational analysis research to guide us now and our approach to functional language is particularly due for an overhaul. I hope to post more on this elsewhere.

  9. Hi Vic;

    I liked the article very much; but I like this guy who is my colleagu actully; and the last work conversation we had; end up him saying ” So, goodbye then”; I like him very very much and I feel like he does the same but never spoke openly about it. is it a sign that he like me too but he didn’t know what else he can spoke about or it is just an excepretion where is usually used..

    Thanks for your advise. NA

  10. Wow Nana, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked for relationship advice like this before.

    Without more context, it’s hard to know how your colleague feels, but it sounds like a perfectly friendly farewell to me. I thought I’d run it by my husband to get a male take on it. He thinks he must be a lucky guy and you’re in with a chance. Fingers crossed!

 Leave a Reply