Friday, June 20, 2008

On scripts and ad-libbing

People who know me at all IRL, or on the wider blogosphere, may know that I bang this little drum all about ‘scripts’. It goes like this... All around us are scripts that we can, very easily, find ourselves reading. We don’t consider our words or our actions – they fall into our hands and mouths as the ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ or ‘obviously best’ way of being.

In almost any sphere of our existence there’s an appropriate script. Born male? Here’s your script. Female? There you go. Reckon you're gay? Here’s the words. Mother? Father? Middle-aged? Define as ‘alternative’ in your parenting? Got a teenage child? Get the idea? There are ones about race and religion too, of course. It’s what is expected of us in the social world and, perhaps more significantly, it is what we come to expect of ourselves. I suspect I’ve ripped this idea off from stuff I’ve read over the years. Doesn’t Goffmann say things along these lines? I expect so. But, I have also thought about this a lot. As I have aged I am ever more aware of the scripts.

Being a parent is, undoubtedly, one of the most script-laden spheres of my existence. The language alone is incredible in its sheer volume. Is baby ‘good’? Does he sleep? Terrible twos? Tantrum, strop, paddy? Discipline in your home? Consistent? Nurture? Wholesome dinner? Routine? Jabs and checks? Homework? All this is the stuff of the mainstream. But, then, there’s the ‘alternative’ versions. Co-sleep? Attachment? Natural? Organic? Energies? The scripts are there too – for the taking. Other parents will watch you, listen, try to peg you on the line here. Is she as ‘normal’ as me? Is she as ‘genuine’? Watch what she says to her little one who hits... Watch the snack she gets from the bag... I know that there have been times when I’ve floundered in all this. And there have certainly been times when my refusal to adhere to the script has been profoundly uncomfortable.

Once I was in a group of parents who were attempting to support each other – bound together by a loose label of difference. The conversation turned to matters of discipline. The assumption, unspoken, was that we must, surely, all be wanting a ‘disciplined’ home? We must, surely, all see the need for punishment to achieve this? And, after all, no-one ever said they respected their parent for being nice, did they? Firm was what we had to be... I coughed and pointed out that I actually did respect my mum for being nice. I had no desire to be the boss. Nervous laughter and that horrible feeling of being ‘off-script’.

It’s easier not to be ‘off-script’ isn’t it? We all need some time when we feel ourselves safe, surrounded by the sameness of shared experience and outlook. We’re all women here, right? Or we’re all home educators? I don’t trash it. There have been times in my life when I needed, desperately needed, some time when I could relax and stop expecting the insults and hassle that came with being in a minority. The day we got attacked on our way to a Pride festival, I couldn’t have felt quicker healed, sitting bandaged and hugged in a park full of queers. But there’s a difference between finding company, solace and nurture for the different parts of ourselves and swallowing the book. Being aware of the script is a life skill, I reckon, and one we ignore at our peril.

In terms of home ed (just to keep this post vaguely on-topic) there are, of course, scripts. We grab them up as we embark. Working out how to label ourselves is key, isn’t it? Then working out what we’re supposed to say if we’re autonomous, or structured or whatever. However, one of the benefits of making an unusual choice is that there is more opportunity to write your own script. So, in essence, home ed is far less scripted than the role of parent who sends child to school. That’s certainly been my experience. As soon as P was in school I felt myself very heavily scripted. I had to smile at the teacher and thank her – regardless of her behaviour. I had to make sure I adhered to their rules of what I put in my child’s book bag or lunch box. I was ‘good’ in much the same way I was as a pupil. Just picked up the grown-up script and carried on.

Gender is, of course, a positive minefield of scripted interaction. It flows so deep that we barely hear it. When P was a little monkey toddler I’d take her to groups where mothers of boy children sat around and sympathised about how ‘boys never stopped’ and ‘they just climb everything’. On the floor, their little boys played, still and thrilled with train set. I found it hard to join in because I had to keep rescuing Pearlie from the top of the toy trolleys... Script said that boys had energy and girls were manipulative and men were hopeless at doing laundry and on and on. Of course, the little children couldn’t understand all this, could they? It couldn’t possibly be sinking in, settling in their little heads and shaping their view of reality? It couldn’t be how we learn that script, could it? I suspect it is.

I don’t claim any moral high-ground here. I do and say what is expected far more than I ever challenge it – or even think about it properly. We all do. But, as I grow older, I feel more and more liberated from the script. This is probably the slow, slippery path to the batty old lady at the bus stop who wants to tell you about her underwear. But I like it.


Grit said...

i'm wearing dig's underpants. they are quite comfortable. and they are coloured green.

i hope by that comment i am saying 'i agree!'

HelenHaricot said...

hmm, very thought provoking [as usual] i think scripts are very important in society, i think it helps society function to have a broad outline of acceptable or not. i think that as a species, we seem to be far to good at taking it to the nth level, and society attempts to bind us in tighter and tighter spirals with the scripts, until there is an explosive and dramatic no. the scripts are unwound, and the new society starts with new scripts to tie tighter and tighter.
i am obviously quite a script follower in quite a large portion of my professional life. i think it is important to 'see' the script not just enact it, as then you can perceive how to work with it succesfully for both your individuality and maintaining whatever it is that needs to be maintained. privately, i guess the important scripts end up being ones that work in your family. but... i totally agree with the shorthand girls this boys that twos the other. i am guilty of saying bB is 'very 3' but it is in the deveopmental stage of pushing and asserting - sb never was very 3.
i hope that as mine get bigger they can have an awareness of 'scripts' how we choose whether to abide by, bend a bit or ignore, but to see where they are as well. tall order!
did this make sense? been up for far too long!

HelenHaricot said...

as in i totally agree with you that it is negative to have the proscriptive scripts on what ages and sexes will be like as children!!

Allie said...

That's very interesting, Helen. Yes, you are right, of course, that scripts can keep us all chugging along without constant conflict.
But, I think that some parts of the social world have really improved in recent years as the scripts have got more flexible. One example is the script of patient and doctor that my grandmother always used. She believed that doctors were demi-gods and never asked questions. Her script never really deviated from "Yes, thank you doctor". This was rather unhelpful from the point of view of actually getting treatments that worked!

Now that script is loose enough for me to use it but actually still be me, and find out what I need to know. Personally, I quite like a doctor to be a bit remote and direct as I associate that with professionalism and competence. When I once had a doctor handle my baby with tears in her eyes and mounting panic in her voice, that was a script deviation that I could have done without!

Allie said...

BTW, Grit, thanks for the underwear update. Mine are white (well, they were) and part of the shared stock.

Gill said...

Yes, the script is powerful isn't it? And it gives us that comforting sense of solidarity but it also makes cliques and pressures people to conform. Some of it has been helpful to me - male and female hormones and brain structure is different and learning this by experience and in theory has saved me a lot of angst and confusion, but I can see where there are problems with making moulds for people.

Vive la Différence! And it's healthier to march to the beat of your own drum too I should think.

Reminds me of Don Juan, advising Carlos Castaneda to dump his family, because they never stop trying to force us into the rôle they had planned for us. He said something like: "You can never become yourself while there are people who have such strong expectations of you to be the way they always knew you to be."

Allie said...

Ah now, brains and hormones and all that. What is most interesting to me is that, whatever the truth about differences between the sexes (which is far from simple or agreed, as I understand it) there are such enormous cultural variations. Just a quick google found an old article that pointed out that a woman in the USA is (statistically) more likely to commit murder than a man in Japan. And, of course, it is also true that in any population there will be huge variation within your two groups. For that reason, we are best served by not making assumptions based on gender. Though, of course, we all do.

One of the things that has always seemed most strange to me in the nature/nurture debate is the notion that innate characteristics are somehow more 'real' than those that develop through experience. Stuff I've read recently about early brain development and loving interaction (all refs escape me!) shows that the two are more closely linked than we can imagine. A social behaviour (like neglecting a child) can result in changes in brain structure. But, even less dramatic outcomes are undoubtedly real for us all.

Beyondmywildest. said...

I've just started work in a pharmacy. I'm bound by confidentiality so I can't tell anyone what nearly every woman asks for but I blame their underwear myself.

Thanks for this post.

Anonymous said...

Dh and I share pants too. He's the left brain and I am the right brain. But we meet together in a spinal cord.

I am just reaching free of scripts and age is the key to this freedom I am tasting.

WTF am I then?

*checks mirror* oh yeah, tired, LOL.

Excellent writing Allie, really encouraging words :)

EF x

mamacrow said...

been thinking about this post a lot before I commented.

some random comments - if you take a large group of boys and a large group of girls (and I mean at least 50 of each) you will find some general similarities and differences, but there will allways be exceptions to the rule, and besides, then you get into the nature/nuture debate which I'm not sure is resolvable anyway.

People with one/two children (even five like mine) CANNOT make accurate statements because they have such a small subject group, which are NOT a random sample (re genes, background etc) and don't have a control group. so there. Sorry, will get off my reseach high horse now, but this kind of 'instant expert'ing (as DH and I call it) REALLY ANOYES ME! (so much so, I can't spell, seeming)

what all so REALLY gets to me is people's inability to see the HUGE and very real differences between punishment and discipline. NOT mutually inclusive, NOT interchangable, not necessarily both disirable.

also WHY is niceness so looked down apon? Why does it seem to be seen as a negative week trait when I think it's actually often a very strong one? Why is it so under-rated?
and why on EARTH can one not be nice and firm concurrently?! I can, for one!

ok, getting down off my soapbox now. Nice thought provoking post :)