I don't know about the rest of you but even the names of these linguistic concepts sounds fancy. They're pretty cool parts of our lives that we, like most linguistic concepts, do without realising it. I mean, we are well aware of them when they are done wrong and we are faced with an 'abnormal interaction'. Anyway, these specific parts of linguistics relate to how we interpret interactions (social or otherwise) and how we change during them. It's easy for us to say that we just 'know' how to interact and respond during activities or conversations, but (like everything) there is more to it than that. There is more hiding away beneath the surface of all interactions, and understanding what interactive frames and knowledge schemas are provides us with an insight into our own and others workings.
The inspiration to write this came from a reading I did in a linguistic course by Deborah Tannen and Cynthia Wallat called Interactive Frames and Knowledge Schemas: Examples from a Medical Examination/Interview. As you can tell from the title, this particular reading focuses on the event of a medical examination or interview and how these linguistic concepts come to play during them. For more context, the medical examination and interview is between a paediatrician, an 8-year-old cerebral palsied child and their mother. It should also be noted that the paediatrician is recording this interaction for possible future study. The aim of this paper is, and quite brutally put, to show that examining the child 'in her mother's presence constituted a significant burden on the pediatrician' (Tannan & Wallat 1993, p. 63), which occurs due to framing and continuous reframing, and mismatched schemas. So, how can something so subconscious to us be a 'significant burden'?
Well, it's not always subconscious. Ultimately, when something in interaction is incorrect or causes miscommunication, our brains tend to try and fix that situation and thus we work hard to redo the interaction so it is understood. Bet you didn't know these actions had names though, did you? (Maybe you did, I don't run your lives!).
Although they seem very similar, interactive frames and knowledge schemas are quite different. At the heart of it, frames and schemas are used interchangeably since they relate to the structures of expectation. However, in this reading interactive frames are defined as:
'...a definition of what is going on in interaction, without which no utterance (or movement or gesture) could be interpreted' (Tannan & Wallat 1993, p. 59-60) or '... a sense of what activity is being engaged in, how speakers mean what they say.' (Tannan & Wallat 1993, p. 60).
To put that plainly, we use interactive frames to identify what is happening in an interaction so we can respond appropriately. For example, we need to be able to tell if a comment someone says is in the frame of a joke or not. If it is a joke but we don't understand it as such, there is a possibility that the joke-teller will feel hurt or embarrassed. They may even try to explain the joke to you.
I cannot tell you how many times this happens to me, particularly with sarcasm. If you ever say something that's supposed to be sarcastic to me, chances are it's going to go right over my head unless you make it SUPER obvious you're being sarcastic!
Another example would be if someone were to poke you. Are they doing it in the frame of wanting your attention or are they doing it to be aggressive? To interpret this wrong could lead to a fight or, again, a person in the interaction feeling hurt or embarrassed.
Ultimately, interactive frames really constitute how we understand what an interaction is all about or, as Ortega y Gasset (1959, p. 3) states, 'what game is being played'. Are language games getting involved in this as well? Well, as you can imagine, a lot of linguistic theories overlap one another due to theorists building from past theories or repurposing them. Nonetheless, gotta love a good language game!
Knowledge schemas, on the otherhand, refer to:
'... participants' expectations about people, objects, events and settings in the world, as distinguished from alignments being negotiated in a particular interaction' (Tannan & Wallat 1993, p. 60).
Basically, in all interactions we enter, or may even be in the middle of, we bring a whole range of different experiences into this interaction. I don't mean everything we've ever experienced (although it could affect how you interpret the interaction), just the experiences around that particular interaction. These experiences are our knowledge schemas (which I think sounds pretty cool).
The implications of entering an interaction without that previous experience is that you may misunderstand something or respond incorrectly. There is also the possibility for our knowledge schemas to change. If we enter, or are in the middle of, an interaction with previous experience in whatever the interaction is, we may find that our experience is not enough. It might be outdated or we are unaware of something, in which case our knowledge schemas are revised.
Now, going back to the original question of how these linguistic concepts can cause 'significant burden'. When knowledge schemas are mismatched, say with a medical professional who has a lot of medical experience and a mother who may not have any experience in the realms of medicine, it causes someone to accommodate for the lack of experience. So, in the reading, you have a paediatrician who has to keep reiterating that some things the mother is worried about is normal for the child or isn't causing harm to them. It's easy for the paediatrician to say this as they have that experience and knowledge. The mother, on the other hand, does not. Therefore, the paediatrician is having to go back and forth between interactive frames (speaking to a child to build a rapport with them, speaking aloud for the recording about health findings and communicating with the mother to inform her on the situation in a way she'll understand) to accommodate for the mismatched schemas.
It's pretty impressive work, if you ask me!
I don't know about you but I think it is absolutely AMAZING how there is so much happening within us as we interact or communicate with anyone. The fact we balance out interactive frames and knowledge schemas ON TOP of a whole bunch of other linguistic stuff happening... I don't know, but it makes me feel unbelievably talented.
How we communicate and interact is so complex and yet we don't even realise it! And the cool thing about interactive frames and knowledge schemas is that it's not only part of how we work. Yes, other animals experience these too! I mean think about it, animals have to make decisions about how other animals are acting. I know we don't understand how they think but it's incredible to imagine it!
So, there you have it. There's something about learning our linguistic capabilities that is so empowering, so I hope you feel the same way too!
I think it's pretty incredible that in writing, writers have to be able to create interactions between fictional beings that make sense. This means that linguistic concepts are being used by the characters in the story. My mind continues to be blown when I take these amazing linguistic theories and then apply them to writing or any other form of storytelling. Maybe you'll start noticing this in the next book you read, movie you watch or video game you play!
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Charlotte is a reading and writing lover who has completed a creative writing intensive course at the University of Oxford and is a current university student studying a double degree in journalism and creative writing. If you are curious to learn more, check out the 'About' page.