Eve Danziger (Univ. of Virginia)
“Cultural diversity in metacommunication and metacognition: The view from Mopan Maya”
In the conduct of conversation, individual metacognition and interpersonal ‘Theory of Mind’ are intertwined, since speakers must evaluate their conversational contributions for informational or other forms of adequacy with respect to the needs of their particular interlocutors (Proust 2013, Schegloff 1972). But anthropologists report that across societies, different cultural attitudes exist as to the acceptability of speculating on what is taking place in another person’s mind. In the ethnography of Native America for example (Basso 1984, Guss 1989, Reichard 1944, Witherspoon 1977), and in the Maya area in particular (Danziger 2006, 2010, Gaskins 2006, Kockelman 2010, Shoaps 2009), it is frequently observed that assessment of another person’s individual intention is not prioritized as part of the interpretation of his or her acts and utterances. Instead, speech and action are evaluated with reference to a supra-human moral order, in which what counts is fidelity to cosmic prescriptions for action, rather than to what are considered momentary and error-prone individual mental states. The Native American ethnography differs from longstanding Pacific observations in a similar vein (Rosaldo 1982, Duranti 1993, Robbins and Rumsey 2008), since in Native America the claim that others’ minds are unknowable is not centrally made. A variety of belief-systems with respect to metacognition and metacommunication thus exists around the world.
These culturally particular belief-systems readily find behavioural reflexes in such macro-social domains as legal proceedings (Rosen 1995), or the acceptably institutionalized forms of verbal art (Bakhtin 1981 , Danziger 2011). But could such culturally-specific ideologies also play a role in guiding micro-interactional activities, where processes are more real-time and unreflective (Danziger 2006, Duranti 2010, Rumsey 2013)? The present paper compares data from Mopan Mayan and from U.S. English speakers engaged in a blind picture-matching communicative task. While many aspects of conversational interaction are similar across the two populations, beliefs about mutual-knowledge-calculation indeed appear to have some correlates in the conduct of these events. The consequences for scholarly reflections about what is ‘natural’ with respect to metacognition in human interaction are considerable. If some aspects of non-reflective interactional behaviour are penetrated by cultural ideologies, then different thresholds of vulnerability to cultural modification may be a key to discovering and mapping distinct layers of procedural metacognition. Conversely, if there are levels of interactional processing which are impervious to cultural input from Mopan ideologies, then presumably they are equally impervious to such input from U.S. or European philosophies. In short, if the Mopan speakers are doing more mutual-knowledge-calculation than they think they are, then the U.S. speakers (and the language specialists who share their cultural philosophies), may be doing much less. The culturally informed component in metacognition and metacommunication must become a central feature in our thinking about these faculties.