A Little Silence

As individuals who are part of many relationships, from work to private, dyads to large groups, most of us spend a large proportion of our time in conversation with others either face-to-face or in a mediated format.  Added to that, we listen to music or talk-radio, we watch TV, we text and message, etc.  These interactions are the building blocks of our relationships, impressions of others, images of self, values and judgments, and our views of reality.  So, they are vitally important.  But, so is the time we spend communicating with no one but the self.

Small children, left to their own devices, will often seek a quiet space to sit and play alone or daydream while looking out a window.  They are young enough to not be concerned that a quiet moment is one spent not “getting things accomplished.”  They enjoy the silence (and by this I mean the lack of engagement in communication with/from/to another, not the total absence of sound).  As we get older, in U.S. culture, we seem to view quiet with suspicion.  Even if alone, we turn on the television for background noise, or we put on the headphones and crank up our favorite bands.  Sitting quietly seems like time wasted that could be spent doing something “better” or more “useful.”  Yet, it isn’t wasteful to take those moments.

It’s interesting to note that many religions or spiritual paths invoke the value of silence.  For example, in the Hindu faith, we learn that the supreme force can only be accessed through the practice of silence.  The Buddhists tell us that silence and tranquility are part of the path to enlightenment.  Mohammed said that the proper “first stage of worship is silence.”  The Daoist monks inform us that silence is the true and necessary action.  In the Bible, we are reminded that there is a time for silence.  And the Talmud argues that silence is good for the wise and the foolish.

Even without a particular spiritual focus, silence has value for us.  In the periods of quiet we encounter, we can process our experiences, and ponder their meanings.  We can celebrate the things that are wondrous, and grieve the things that make us sad.  We can think through what has happened and plan for the future.  And we can just “be” in that moment without worrying or wondering how we are presenting the self to others.  Those aren’t easy things to do in a constant stream of conversation.

So, today, maybe take a few minutes of quiet for yourself.  Turn off the radio, the TV, the computer, and your cellphone.  Stop talking, texting, blogging, and emailing. Find a place where you can be just for you, just for a bit.  Enjoy the sound of silence.


Writing Professional Emails

In today’s highly techno-focused culture, we are becoming accustomed to the speed and ease of sending instant messages or texts as a way of communicating with others.  And, the use of emails in professional settings is ubiquitous.  Unfortunately, the style of writing often utilized in instant/text messaging seems to be gradually sliding into workplace/academic email messages, to the detriment of the sender’s professional image.  In a professional setting, appropriate emails should be understood to be more similar to letters than text messages, and even quick/short emails should be more like a professional memo than a text.  In the post that follows, I provide some basic tips to help prevent your workplace/academic emails from creating problems with your self-presentation or damaging your professional relationships.

  • Utilize the subject line wisely.  A well-written subject line encapsulates the purpose of the message and will help the reader move it to the appropriate location on the “to do” list.  Subject lines like “Hi” or “: )” are inappropriate and may cost you in additional response time.
  • Greetings/Salutations are important.  Just like in a letter, starting off on the right foot is a good idea.  Simply beginning your email with a sentence can seem abrupt, demanding, or downright rude.  Consider how you would address that person if you were writing a letter and use that format (e.g. “Dear Professor Rowan; Greetings, Dr. Simone; Hello, Mr. Betts).
  • Watch your grammar/spelling/style.  While writing an email is not as formal as writing a paper, errors can both detract from perceptions of the writer and make it more difficult for the reader to understand the message.  Use spell check, but don’t count on it to catch everything.  You need to proofread as well.  Common errors include mixing up homophones (their/there, it’s/its), sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and words used incorrectly.
  • Keep your email on track.  Most people receive many workplace emails each day and if they have to wade through a long narrative or many questions about issues unrelated to the point of the email, you are less likely to get a response to what you really need.
  • Make your request/need/point clearly.  Don’t expect the reader to guess what it is you are trying to say or asking.  Remember, this should be like a professional letter.  If you are asking for a solution to a particular issue, and you have one in mind, indicate it.  For example, if you aren’t able to be in class on Tuesday, don’t write your professor and say, “I can’t be in class on Tuesday, ok?”  Indicate a particular plan of action and ask politely if it is appropriate: “I cannot attend class on Tuesday due to a funeral.  I would like to submit my assignment on Tuesday morning, by 8 a.m., via email.  Would that be appropriate?”
  • Keep your tone appropriate to the relationship and context of the message.  Do not be rude, overly disclosive, or excessively emotional simply because it is an email. “Please” and “thank you” are still polite terms and should be used.
  • Avoid “text speak.”  LOL, G2G, TTYL, B4, etc. are not appropriate for professional emails.
  • Provide contact information, in case the reply is one that cannot easily be emailed.
  • End with an fitting farewell and a “signature.”  Whatever farewell you might use for a letter to the same person (”Sincerely,” “All the best,” “Have a lovely semester”) is fine.  It doesn’t have to be completely stodgy, but it shouldn’t be “later dude” either.

By following these basic tips, you can create workplace/academic emails that get your messages attended to and leave the reader with a positive impression of you as a professional worth notice.

Happy writing,


Summer 2009 – Read a “Banned” Book

As communication scholars, we take the right to free speech pretty seriously, and that includes the issue of censorship.  While we often confuse acts involving private companies (e.g. an online forum has a policy against profanity) with censorship, true censorship involves efforts by the government or governmental agencies to restrict the rights of free speech.  One example of censorship is book “banning” in public school or community libraries.  Book banning (the removal of particular works from library holdings due to a challenge regarding content) is an example of censorship because it impedes the right for “unpopular” opinions to be expressed or heard.  Such restrictions have impacts that go far beyond the availability of a particular book.  As stated by Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in 2002, “First Amendment freedoms are most in danger when the government seeks to control thought or to justify its laws for that impermissible end. The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought.”

So, for Summer 2009, support the efforts of the American Library Association and other groups by reading – or reading to the children in your life – and talking about some of the most challenged books of 2008 (descriptions provided are from Amazon.com entries):

  • And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell – This tale based on a true story about a charming penguin family living in New York City’s Central Park Zoo will capture the hearts of penguin lovers everywhere. Roy and Silo, two male penguins, are “a little bit different.” They cuddle and share a nest like the other penguin couples, and when all the others start hatching eggs, they want to be parents, too. Determined and hopeful, they bring an egg-shaped rock back to their nest and proceed to start caring for it. They have little luck, until a watchful zookeeper decides they deserve a chance at having their own family and gives them an egg in need of nurturing. The dedicated and enthusiastic fathers do a great job of hatching their funny and adorable daughter, and the three can still be seen at the zoo today. Done in soft watercolors, the illustrations set the tone for this uplifting story, and readers will find it hard to resist the penguins’ comical expressions. The well-designed pages perfectly marry words and pictures, allowing readers to savor each illustration. An author’s note provides more information about Roy, Silo, Tango, and other chinstrap penguins. This joyful story about the meaning of family is a must for any library.
  • His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman- In an epic trilogy, Philip Pullman unlocks the door to a world parallel to our own, but with a mysterious slant all its own. Dæmons and winged creatures live side by side with humans, and a mysterious entity called Dust just might have the power to unite the universes–if it isn’t destroyed first. In The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman has written a masterpiece that transcends genre. It is a children’s book that will appeal to adults, a fantasy novel that will charm even the most hardened realist. Best of all, the author doesn’t speak down to his audience, nor does he pull his punches; there is genuine terror in this book, and heartbreak, betrayal, and loss. There is also love, loyalty, and an abiding morality that infuses the story but never overwhelms it. This is one of those rare novels that one wishes would never end. (The other books in this series are The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
  • TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Lauren Myracle – (summary for first book in the series) Three high school sophomores, lifelong best friends, are now facing a variety of emotional upsets in their personal and social lives. Angela is boy crazy and emotive, but able to lend support to her friends when they need it. Zoe is the quietest and most self-effacing, considered by some to be a goody two-shoes but in fact headed full speed into a very dangerous relationship. Madigan is the hothead, less certain of how to grow up than she allows anyone, including herself, to see. The entire narrative is composed of the instant messages sent among these three, from September into November, as they each get involved with dating, sort out how to have friendships with others, cope with disasters that range from wardrobe issues to getting drunk, and offer one another advice and defiance. Each character’s voice is fully realized and wonderfully realistic in spite of the very limiting scope of the IM device. Page layout mimics a computer screen and each girl IMs in a different font and in her own unique verbal style. (The title is IM jargon for “talk to you later”). Myracle not only sustains all this but also offers readers some meaty-and genuine-issues. Both revealing and innovative, this novel will inspire teens to pass it to their friends and will suggest to nascent writers that experimenting with nonnarrative communication can be a great way to tell a story.
  • Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz – Creak… Crash… BOO! Shivering skeletons, ghostly pirates, chattering corpses, and haunted graveyards…all to chill your bones! Share these seven spine-tingling stories in a dark, dark room.
    Alvin Schwartz is known for a body of work of more than two dozen books of folklore for young readers that explore everything from wordplay and humor to tales and legends of all kinds. His collections of scary stories — Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, More Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, Scary Stories 3, and two I Can Read Books, In A Dark, Dark Room and Ghosts! — are just one part of his matchless folklore collection.
  • Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya – Besides winning the Premio Quinto Sol national Chicano literary award, this novel of a young boy in New Mexico in the 1940s has sold more than 300,000 copies in paperback since its 1973 debut. Here, however, the book gets the hardcover treatment, with a few illustrations added for color. LJ’s reviewer asserted that “the novel has warmth and feeling” (LJ 2/1/73) and a place in all fiction collections, especially those serving Chicano populations.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky – What is most notable about this funny, touching, memorable first novel from Stephen Chbosky is the resounding accuracy with which the author captures the voice of a boy teetering on the brink of adulthood. Charlie is a freshman. And while’s he’s not the biggest geek in the school, he is by no means popular. He’s a wallflower–shy and introspective, and intelligent beyond his years, if not very savvy in the social arts. We learn about Charlie through the letters he writes to someone of undisclosed name, age, and gender, a stylistic technique that adds to the heart-wrenching earnestness saturating this teen’s story. Charlie encounters the same struggles that many kids face in high school–how to make friends, the intensity of a crush, family tensions, a first relationship, exploring sexuality, experimenting with drugs–but he must also deal with his best friend’s recent suicide. Charlie’s letters take on the intimate feel of a journal as he shares his day-to-day thoughts and feelings:

    I walk around the school hallways and look at the people. I look at the teachers and wonder why they’re here. If they like their jobs. Or us. And I wonder how smart they were when they were fifteen. Not in a mean way. In a curious way. It’s like looking at all the students and wondering who’s had their heart broken that day, and how they are able to cope with having three quizzes and a book report due on top of that. Or wondering who did the heart breaking. And wondering why.

    With the help of a teacher who recognizes his wisdom and intuition, and his two friends, seniors Samantha and Patrick, Charlie mostly manages to avoid the depression he feels creeping up like kudzu. When it all becomes too much, after a shocking realization about his beloved late Aunt Helen, Charlie retreats from reality for awhile. But he makes it back in due time, ready to face his sophomore year and all that it may bring. Charlie, sincerely searching for that feeling of “being infinite,” is a kindred spirit to the generation that’s been slapped with the label X.

  • Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily von Ziegesar – (summary of first book in series) – At a New York City jet-set private school populated by hard-drinking, bulimic, love-starved poor little rich kids, a clique of horrible people behave badly to one another. An omniscient narrator sees inside the shallow hearts of popular Blair Waldorf, her stoned hottie of a boyfriend, Nate, and her former best friend Serena van der Woodsen, just expelled from boarding school and “gifted with the kind of coolness that you can’t acquire by buying the right handbag or the right pair of jeans. She was the girl every boy wants and every girl wants to be.” Everyone wears a lot of designer clothes and drinks a lot of expensive booze. Serena flirts with Nate and can’t understand why Blair is upset with her; Blair throws a big party and doesn’t invite Serena; Serena meets a cute but unpopular guy; and a few less socially blessed characters wonder about the lives of those who “have everything anyone could possibly wish for and who take it all completely for granted.” Intercut with these exploits are excerpts from www.gossipgirl.net (the actual site launches in February), where “gossip girl” dishes the dirt on the various characters without ever revealing her own identity amongst them. Though anyone hoping for character depth or emotional truth should look elsewhere, readers who have always wished Danielle Steel and Judith Krantz would write about teenagers are in for a superficial, nasty, guilty pleasure. The book has the effect of gossip itself once you enter it’s hard to extract yourself; teens will devour this whole. The open-ended conclusion promises a follow-up.
  • Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, by Sarah S. Brannen – When her favorite uncle, Bobby, announces that he is getting married to his boyfriend, Jamie, Chloe worries that he won’t have time for her anymore. The characters are all guinea pigs in human dress, and the sweet, double-page spreads in watercolor and graphite show the idyllic bond between the child and her uncle, as they walk together in the woods, row on the river, and more. In contrast are the scenes of her sadness and jealousy until she learns to have fun with both Bobby and Jamie together—even as they talk about their plans to raise their own kids. The climax is the joyful, exciting wedding—the couple in tuxedos, Chloe as the flower girl, and the big, extended family all together, smiling and teary. A celebration of same-sex marriage, this is about family happiness. Pair with Justin Richardson’s And Tango Makes Three (2005).
  • The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini – In his debut novel, The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini accomplishes what very few contemporary novelists are able to do. He manages to provide an educational and eye-opening account of a country’s political turmoil–in this case, Afghanistan–while also developing characters whose heartbreaking struggles and emotional triumphs resonate with readers long after the last page has been turned over. And he does this on his first try. The Kite Runner follows the story of Amir, the privileged son of a wealthy businessman in Kabul, and Hassan, the son of Amir’s father’s servant. As children in the relatively stable Afghanistan of the early 1970s, the boys are inseparable. They spend idyllic days running kites and telling stories of mystical places and powerful warriors until an unspeakable event changes the nature of their relationship forever, and eventually cements their bond in ways neither boy could have ever predicted. Even after Amir and his father flee to America, Amir remains haunted by his cowardly actions and disloyalty. In part, it is these demons and the sometimes impossible quest for forgiveness that bring him back to his war-torn native land after it comes under Taliban rule. (”…I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”)Some of the plot’s turns and twists may be somewhat implausible, but Hosseini has created characters that seem so real that one almost forgets that The Kite Runner is a novel and not a memoir. At a time when Afghanistan has been thrust into the forefront of America’s collective consciousness (”people sipping lattes at Starbucks were talking about the battle for Kunduz”), Hosseini offers an honest, sometimes tragic, sometimes funny, but always heartfelt view of a fascinating land. Perhaps the only true flaw in this extraordinary novel is that it ends all too soon.
  • Flashcards of My Life, by Charise Mericle Harper – Like many teens, Emily has tons of friends, thinks her parents are totally uncool, and wishes for a boyfriend. For her birthday, Aunt Chester sends her a set of blank cards called Flashcards of My Life. Each card has a label like Friends, Kiss, Identity–different topics to spark some writing. Emily starts on the cards and, in the process, readers learn about her. Her best 24-hour friend, Sandra, doesn’t like her school friends, Sarah W. and Sarah J., leaving Emily stuck in the middle. The girls all have crushes on different boys and there’s the constant swirl of rumors of who likes whom. The story is full of early teen angst–being uncomfortable in one’s body, not sure why parents act like they do, crying over the smallest things. The style and language are aimed at younger readers; however, some of the topics make the story a better fit for older readers. For example, the girls think their gym teacher is a lesbian because of her roommate’s picture on her desk. The font appears to be handwritten, and numerous doodles, charts, and diagrams adorn the pages. An entertaining but hardly earth-shattering look at junior high life.