ON ORAL CULTURE
By Nicolette Bethel, PhD.
Monday, August 9, 2010.
Have you ever been to a funeral, been handed the lovely funeral booklet with the dead person’s photo on the front and the obituary inside, read that obituary to pass the time because you got to the funeral an hour early to ensure you got a seat, and then wondered why you had to sit through the obituary yet again, when some grieving relative or friend read the printed piece verbatim from the booklet?
It drives some people nuts. It’s repetitive, they say; it’s unnecessary. Why read out loud what’s already been printed on the page?
I believe that that habit isn’t something to become irritated about, but something to celebrate. There’s a theory out there that argues that the way in which people communicate has profound effects on their culture. And you see, we Bahamians live in an oral culture. That means that what’s printed often doesn’t become valid until it’s read or performed out loud.
To communicate by speaking, you need at least two people: the speaker and the listener. People who go around talking to themselves are considered crazy, after all; so oral societies tend to place more emphasis on the group more than on the individual in the group. After all, communication can’t take place till you find someone to communicate with.
To communicate in writing, you need only one person. You may think that you need a reader and a writer, but in fact the two can be the same person: people who keep diaries don’t write for anyone but themselves. And so literate societies tend to place more emphasis on the individual than on the group.
When you speak the communication is instant. If the speaker falters, forgets what he was saying, the message is lost. If the listener happens not to be paying attention, the message is lost.
When you write, though, you get the chance to spend time with the words on the page. You can go over them, check them, fix them, play with them till they are just right. When you read, you can stop reading when you become tired or inattentive and pick up where you left off.
So what cultural traits do these trends generate? Well, look at it this way. A writer produces a text that is fixed. The effect on her audience is not immediate. Take this column, for instance. I’m sitting here on a Friday morning writing words that many people won’t see until Monday, and I will go over what I’m writing time and again before I send it out. I need to. If I say one thing at the beginning of the column, and another at the end, I can be sure that people are going to notice, and will stop me in the road and tell me I contradicted myself.
Speakers, on the other hand, have a different task. Their primary goal is to hold their audience’s attention until the end, and what they actually say is not as important as how they say it. It is quite possible to talk for four or five hours, and hold your audience’s attention the whole while, and have a message that could have been delivered “dry” in twenty minutes. Hitler used to do this all the time, and many Bahamians have mastered this skill as well. This is not a bad thing; it is an art, and it is a fundamental one in a society that communicates primarily by speech.
Oral societies consider face-to-face communication to be the most powerful form of contact. Letters are useful things, but they really don’t mean anything until they are followed up with the phone call or (even better) a face-to-face meeting. This is an important thing for bureaucrats and politicians and advertisers to remember; nothing works in The Bahamas like word of mouth.
This commitment to face-to-face discourse affects really basic activities, like what you do when you enter a room with other people in it. In The Bahamas, the polite thing to do is to greet all the other people there—something that many foreigners find extremely difficult to do, having been raised in societies that teach that it is rude to speak to strangers before they speak to you.
Oral societies adapt readily to change. Oral communication is not predictable—you may have to change your speech mid-stream depending on the response you get from your audience. Bahamian society changes very quickly indeed, usually without our realizing it, and Bahamians adapt readily to that change. It may not just be fickleness that allows us to switch our T-shirts when the government changes; it may also be our fundamental orality. It’s a new day, and we live in it.
Oral societies also think about and respond to history differently from literate ones. In the absence of a written history, we tell tales about the past that reflect the context in which they are told. All these tales will have truth in them, but they are also likely to be incomplete; their purpose is to serve the people that they are being told by and to, and not to serve the past. Now while this is true of written histories, there is a difference; writing allows these histories to be gathered together so that a more complete picture may emerge. Because oral societies change so quickly, however, partial stories are often all that exist.
In the fall of 2000, I taught a course that looked at the development of the modern Bahamas from the 1950s to the present. When I began it, most of my students had no concept of the positive role played by the PLP at that time; many, indeed, didn’t even know that the FNM began as a splinter group called the Free PLP. They had grown up under an FNM government that taught them, whether consciously or not, that everything the PLP had done until 1992 was corrupt, destructive and wicked. Then Sir Lynden Pindling died, and a completely different tale emerged. In a week’s time, Sir Lynden and his party had gone from being national villains to national heroes, and few of my students remarked on the difference.
Being an oral society has given us many strengths. We are warm people; our habit of speaking to people we don’t know makes us appear warm and welcoming, and serves us well with visitors. We are also flexible people, and adapt well to change; this may help to explain in part some of The Bahamas’ success in a region where economic failure is prevalent. We don’t hold onto obsolete ways of life if we believe they will hold us back.
But we also have to watch out for some pitfalls. Oral societies work best when they are small-scale groups of people who all know one another and have many ties. It is very difficult to build a nation on face-to-face communication, which quickly turns to nepotism and who-ya-know, with a flipside of victimization. Reliance on phone calls and personal contact makes the workings of a bureaucracy difficult; and the dependence on what people tell us rather than on what we discover for ourselves can make us gullible and open to manipulation.
So let us celebrate our strengths as an oral culture, and watch out for the weaknesses. And the next time we go to a funeral, and hear a mourner read the printed obituary out loud, let us hold back our irritation and celebrate it instead.
Nicolette Bethel is a Bahamian writer, blogger and academic. She holds a PhD and MPhil in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and a BA in English Literature from the University of Toronto.
She left academia to assume the position of Director of Cultural Affairs for the Bahamas Government, but continues to teach part-time. She also writes a weekly column for the Nassau Guardian.
She blogs at Nicolette Bethel's Blog.
Please buy her book, Essays on Life.