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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel On TV/Radio column
[November 19, 2012]

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel On TV/Radio column

Nov 19, 2012 (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- I interrupt my wife. A lot. And I think I've been brainwashed to do so.

By television.

At least that's my excuse.

TV influences tastes and mores in countless ways. If it didn't shape our consumer habits, there wouldn't be commercials.

We are all born with a clean slate. So how do we learn behavior and interaction From family, of course. And school.

But the hours spent watching TV must be included in the mix.

It has been estimated that Americans watch more than 4 1/2 hours of TV a day, a figure in decline because people are spending more time on the Internet and portable devices. That is the equivalent of more than two months of TV a year and almost 10 years of viewing between the ages of 5 and 65.

We all inevitably learn things from such prolonged exposure, and it reveals itself in different ways.

For me, it's interrupting my wife.

Sometimes when she's speaking, I think I know what she's going to say and interject. Or I ask a question before she is finished.

I try to explain this is the nature of dialogue and conversation, but the explanation even sounds hollow to me.

Like many people, I found myself absorbed by the election coverage and the circus of media -- debates, political advertising, talking-head shows and spin doctors -- surrounding it.

Then, just before the election, I saw a preview of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," which was the antithesis of this cacophony.

The title character, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, speaks in long sentences very slowly, pauses so listeners can absorb what he is saying, and continues.

No one interrupts him.

And this deliberate, thoughtful pace -- profound in its silence -- was in stark contrast to our modern political discourse. Surely lack of mass media as we know it led to more serious and mature interactions. Surely our babbling culture is unique to history.

Or so I thought until I was disabused of the notion by Lynn Turner, a Marquette University professor of communication studies with an emphasis on family and gender.

"If you had a transcript or tape of Congress in Lincoln's time . . . I think we would find to the contrary," said Turner. "We run the risk of over-romanticizing the past. But if we dug into historical data, we would see that there was a . . . lot of rudeness, albeit couched in more flowery language." Both of our interactions are influenced by our time period, she said, but "we're just influenced by different things in different ways.

"And we were always, perhaps, rude and hard to talk to." Each emerging technology has influenced the way we communicate. Today, people cite the short-attention span generated by social media.

"But the hue and cry in the 1950s, when most people started putting televisions in their homes, was that it was going to ruin kids' attention spans and family communications," said Turner. "Which was also what people said about telephones, that they would ruin family dinners and our ability to talk to each other." Some might argue that that, in fact, has occurred. Witness the way family members can be in the same room interacting with their electronic devices rather than each other.

"Most literature does suggest," Turner said, "that the instantaneous ability to communicate in these little bursts . . . is changing our brains. Whether it's for bad or good or neutral we don't know." The fast pace of television dialogue is also a sign of the times and reflects how we really speak, said Turner.

"If you think about how 'Leave It to Beaver' sounded, it was less real than if you watch 'Modern Family,' " said Turner.

And one thing that makes modern television more real is fast-paced, "overlapping dialogue. Not wait, pause and the next person talks. Even in the 1950s that was not how people talked. It was a style of acting. And now it's changed because" sounding "more real is sort of a hallmark of judging if something is good." And in real life, Turner said, such conversational interruptions "are not always bad. It shows that people are invested in a conversation. Interruptions are evidence of involvement." But my interrupting of my wife may have a simpler explanation.

"A lot of gender studies suggest that women do get interrupted by men more often than the reverse," said Turner. "Some studies show women like to tell stories in convoluted ways. They might give you a flash-forward, a little preamble, they don't get to the point as quickly as men do. Men prefer a more linear narrative" and "don't understand women's ways of telling a story." And that problem, my friends, is older than television.

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