The art of withholding

This Speech Events blog post is an attempt to get a handle on those trying times we “withhold,” from friends, from family, from companions.

Blog posts should be timely. As a Canadian with sometimes US aspirations, I write this blog post in the late afternoon of Justin Beiber’s comeback hit, Where Are You Now That I Need You, having had some time now to digest it. And also at the peak of that of another, Drake’s Hotline Bling, recognizing a trend that not all Canadians seem to be getting what they want or need from others; and that maybe this calls for some accounting.

Notwithstanding this (rather flimsy) claim to kairotic appropriateness, it is offered with some hesitations. Among other concerns, it’s not clear to me whether a discussion of “withholding,” especially as I am undertaking it, is appropriate for an anthropologically inspired blog called “Speech Events.”

Obviously, most kinds of withholding would not suit: withholding taxes, withholding snacks, a ride to the movies. But, we can, of course, withhold in speech: withhold information, withhold emotion, withhold interest, withhold disclosure, or withhold attention including withholding our conversational turn altogether. It is this last kind in particular, “withholding attention,” that has seemed to put my fellow Canadians, Drake and Beiber, in such a tizzy. It is what I’m interested in here.

Yet, even in this more restricted sense, I’m not sure “withholding” is a “speech event,” at least in the Hymesian sense this blog seems to have been inspired by, not least because it involves an absence of speech rather than the event of it.

To “withhold attention” is certainly a kind of doing, however. We feel we’ve been withheld from, and this feeling suggests a deed has been done. There are, moreover, a non-changing set interactional participants in a “withholding,” even if there is no speaker as such. So the appeal for this post’s inclusion in Speech Events is made on these more modest grounds: the act of holding out in conversation (carrying all the speech act baggage that implies).

But what kind of act is it? What does it do? When is it done?  It is, in any case, a funny kind of speech act; a performative achieved through non-performance. But, importantly, not a non-communicative non-performance.

Apologies now for the unimaginative title. I’m not even the first blogger to blog about “the art of withholding” (see here, here, here …). My particular inspiration, in both form and content, comes, however, from Michael Nichols’s 1995 book The Lost Art of Listening, recently assigned in a class I TA for.

The title indicates its argument. That listening is something that we do and could do better. And that good listening is something “we” (presumably Westerners) are no longer up for. Implied, of course, is that listening — creatively, sensibly, delicately, artfully — is important. Listening is the gateway to empathy and human connection.

This kind of abstraction from situation, culture, social context is not anthropology, and probably not a good starting point for a blog inspired by Dell Hymes’s work. The action said to be accomplished by not listening is made relative to something like humanness, or whatever is the object of psychology. Nichols is a family therapist (among other things). Yet, despite its universalistic lament and its nostalgia for a bygone golden age of “listening,” on the basis of my own, personal, subjective experience, I can’t contest. The feeling of not-being listened to when I want to be is frustrating. But the feeling of not being heard when I seek love or friendship has been painful and isolating. The injury suggests that sometimes “not-listening,” like “withholding,” is a kind of non-performance performative.

(As a kind of aside, “not listening” should probably be distinguished from “not hearing,” as in “sorry I didn’t catch that.” Auditory obstacles can intervene in our efforts to engage, the cell phone connection fails or bandwidth maxed. Though many of us have experience the annoyance of such failures, there doesn’t appear to be grounds here to catch feelings.)

Although related, “withholding” in conversation is clearly not the same thing as “not listening” (let alone “not hearing”). For all sorts of reasons, and in all sorts of ways, does “not listening” happen. Being absent, for example, distracted and distractable, lost in the argument, busy, and so on. “Not listening,” in these ways, is a disengagement and certainly can’t, on these grounds, be an art. Withholding, on the other hand, requires active engagement, and necessarily depends on attentive listening; if not, how would we know when, where, and how to withhold?

But in some cases, the two come together. One can calculate their response to an invitation to engage in order to achieve the effects of “not listening.” In these cases we’re engaged in the subclass of withholding in question here, “withholding attention.”

Insofar as “withholding attention” is a special kind of responsive “listening,” (or responsive abeyance) we might consider it an artistic not-listening, and, as such, claim warrant for becoming more reflective about its uses and effects.

“Withholding attention” can be explained in a kind of blend of conversation analytic terms and Gricean “utterer’s meaning”, it seems to me. Conversational analyst have shown all the ways conversationalists model, and invite next turn behaviour. If, as a respondent, we (a) recognize the invitation, and (b) recognize that it was the intention of our interlocateur to have the invitation (and (c) its intention) so recognized, we’ve listened. If in turn we don’t, we have happily executed a “withholding of attention.”

At the risk of heaping abstraction on abstraction, we can press a bit further: We can withhold attention explicitly (“I hereby withhold attention”(?)). In other words, communicate that we have no intentions of communicating. We show to our inviter that we know we should, but we don’t care to. Such explicit withholding seems to me to redouble the injury of “not listening,” a purposeful not-having-our-humanness-affirmed.

But we can also withhold our attention “silently,” disguising our “withholding” as simply a “not listening,” or, even better, as a “not hearing;” an email not received.

Given the uses and pervasiveness of “withholding attention,” – or “blanking” as defined in urban dictionary – it hasn’t, as far as I can tell, received its due among conversation analysts or linguistic anthropologists. A playful or calculated (artistic?) withholding of attention in the throes of new love – how many days before calling? — can invite longing. The eventual acquiescence, affirming (as when Gabriel García Márquez’s Florentino Ariza — perhaps the only literary equal to Drake — after a torturous two-day wait for sign from his beloved, Fermina Daza, finally receives it and proclaims: « Esta es la occasion más grande de mi vida »). A steadfast withholding of attention of a suitor or would be companion can communicate un-interest. From a family member or a friend, we might withhold attention, explicitly or implicitly, to return a hurt suffered against us.

The ubiquity and obviousness of “withheld attention” might be more pronounced now than ever. Having recently entered the world of mobile, instant messaging (and being a Canadian, apparently), I’ve became much more conscious and conscientious about withheld attention. On most applications, we get a signal when a message has been sent, another when it has been received, and yet another when it has been read. If the phone then “blings,” we know we’ve been responded to. But until then … you got me down, you got me stressed out. Some dating websites have the option to allow users to pay extra to “withhold attention,” e.g., allowing premium users to view the profiles or emails of potential dates without those dates being notified of the view.

Opportunities for playing and gaming by way of “withholding attention” abound. “Good” text-ers can tease, hold in suspense, and finally relieve those who might seek their attention and affection. To avoid the whole fracas, one can leave their phone at home or simply turn it off, dodging conversational invitations and preventing read signals from being sent or received. Leaving your phone at home would be to trade a “withholding of attention” for a genuine “not hearing,” although, of course, it may not be understood that way on the other end.

And there is, I guess, the rub. A “withholding attention” can be confused for a “not-listening” or even a “not hearing.” As speech acts, both “non-listening” and “withholding attention” can fail, of course. A stubborn suitor can fail to “hear” the explicit “withholding of attention” performative; willfully or ignorantly they might confuse it with the non-injurious “not hearing” and keep trying. The illocutionary intent hasn’t achieved its perlocutionary effects.

More troublesome still, as a special class of non-performance performatives, both “non-listening” and “withholding attention” are especially susceptible to what might be called “accidental firings.” In a kind of reversal of fortunes, a perlocutionary effect has been effected without the illocutionary intent.  A “not-hearing” can effect a “not-listening.” And an inability to respond can perform a “withholding of attention”.

« Si aceptó la carta –[Florentino] dijo—es de mala urbanidad no contestarla » ; though the 13 year old Fermina had been hampered by a domineering father. In the month intervening the delivery of his letter and the reproach, love-sick Florentino could do nothing but eat gardenias, drink cologne, and “wallow in a pool of fragrant vomit in a cove of the bay where drowning victims washed ashore”.

But less dramatic examples surely exist (and here the point of the blog post). Difference in styles of cue giving or wait time in the midst of conversation — either idiosyncratic or cultural or situational or interpersonal — might cause one to feel themselves “withheld from” or “not-listened to” even if they have been. Examples are easy to come up with. If your partner engages in neck stretches while you’re making an important point, do we have grounds for feeling upset? If your partner takes time to respond to the joke you messaged them (or the love letter), or does not at all, are there less wounding reasons for the delay? Surely expectations about responsiveness can be unreasonable.

As a kind of rejoinder, and supplement, to Nichols and others who call for better listening, surely the burden of “listening” must be shared with the speaker, to know when, where and how we are, and can be, listened to, and to appreciate the conditions and expectations that come between us and the experience of having been heard and attended to. We can only wonder about all the reasons Beiber’s not being responded to in the way he needs, or why Drake’s hotline no longer blings.

In the universalistic spirit of Nichols, all this talk about “not talking” here is a kind of call for “us” to be better, more reflective, more introspective communicators. By that I mean to be better talkers and better listeners, of course. But also to learn how to be better at whatever participation roles and obligations exist between conversational turns (waiters, calculators, contemplators, would-be-respondees, etc.),  wherever we might be, with whomever we might be speaking to, and by whatever means.


(Thanks to Mark Lewis for the brilliant image suggestion)

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