Indexicality, Expertise and Twitter

It surely comes as no surprise that we use language differently depending on who we are talking to. Or where we are. And whether we are tapping away with our thumbs on a smartphone, using a fountain pen on our best headed notepaper, speaking face to face, or screaming at our other half on the phone over the roar of public transport.

Some of this is to do with the constraints of the method we are using. But a lot of it is to do with making sure that we are being sufficiently polite and paying enough respect to our interlocutor’s status and relationship with us.

While not overdoing it. Because that would be weird. And come across as sarcastic.

So, how do we know which version of all the available phrasings to use?

I mean, quite often the context is, or should be, enough. You don’t need any special cues to be super polite to every person you encounter in the building where your super important job interview is taking place.


Who knows whether that woman or that man might turn out to be the interviewer and not the intern, despite their apparent youthfulness.

And whilst people used to make fun of the ‘sent from my iPhone’ signoff, it was a way of signalling that the production circumstances were less than ideal. Which might account for any miss-match between the way the message was expressed and what you might have thought was due to you.

I came across a reference recently* to the way that Korean telephone opening sequences are a bit longer and involve more phrases back and forth, because, it was speculated in this book, it gave the listener a bit longer to tune into the way of speaking of the other person when no visual clues are available. And this increased the chances that the participant would be able to use the appropriate form of polite address in a language where this is hardwired into the grammar and important to get right.

It’s easy to condemn the concept that we are swayed into assuming the social class, likely educational background and status in relation to you of someone you are talking to because of their accent. It’s a lot harder to say it doesn’t actually happen, that we don’t do it all the time.

This is the nice thing about moving to a completely new country. The intricacies of social positioning are largely a mystery, at least at the beginning. I still can’t pick out a Muscovite accent from a St Petersburg one or that of someone even from further away from the centre of civilisation, although I’ve internalised some of the visual stereotypes.

Which brings me to how we signal expertise in the relatively anonymous arena of Twitter, where everyone certainly does not know your name unless you are a truly global superstar.

Image by Karen Arnold from Pixabay

Of course, the first rule of being an expert on Twitter is to avoid being a woman. It is extremely noticeable that experts of the unfortunately female persuasion have a distinct tendency to add ‘Dr’ to their Twitter handles. Yes, I am aware it was one of those collective social media episodes from a while back. The fact that it has stuck does rather suggest that it is slightly easier for a lady nuclear physicist to comment on nuclear physics without having a relatively large number of people come and tell her to read her own authoritative book on the subject before she dares make such wrongheaded statements.

The blue ticks you say? Well indeed. That can backfire though if you say something and people note the blue tick and decide you are insufficiently famous or expert to have such a mark of distinction. It’s not quite the invulnerable shield, although it’s interesting that people tend to react as though it is a (wrongly given) blanket endorsement of any and all views by Twitter. Even though it’s been given for notability in a particular area.

But what prompted this post was the discovery of this perfect example of a linguistic trick. Or rather this perfect example of someone taking the piss out of a linguistic trick being used to signal expertise in a suddenly interesting field. To muscle their way to the top of the punditry pile in a mass of billions of voices on social media, presumably.

Text reads: one of the absolute, surest signs that somebody is about to start talking bullshit about China (zhongguo, or the Middle Kingdom') is when they start unnecessarily putting the Chinese in when addressing a foreign (waiguo) audience

This sort of thing is called indexing, by the way, in case you thought there wasn’t actually a discourse analysis connection.

Indexicality is the idea of language having contextually bound meaning, although as far as I can tell, when one uses the verb form, one is able to talk about people using language in a particular way so as to construct an identity in a particular context. Such as the identity of an expert.

So, what flexes do you use to index your expertise, and when do you find yourself needing to do it?

* In Barbara Johnstone’s Discourse Analysis.

What do you think?

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