Poverty specialist: language does matter

by Emily Goodell | 11/12/07 3:57am

Members of different classes should not make assumptions about each other, Jodi Pfarr, a consultant for Aha! Process Inc., said in a day-long "Bridges out of Poverty" seminar Saturday in the East Wheelock Cluster. Pfarr, who grew up in generational poverty in South Dakota and has worked for Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and the St. Paul Police Department, emphasized the importance of listening to people from other classes instead of making assumptions about their problems and imposing solutions.

"When one community says, 'Here's your problem,' and they immediately slap them with a solution, that's where there is a disconnect." Pfarr said. "If we do this we're not nearly as effective as we could be."

Throughout the seminar, which was attended by students, administrators and community members, Pfarr encouraged understanding between people of different classes, explaining that economic class can skew perspective.

"Instead of trying to see yourself in someone else's shoes, listen to their perspective and own your own experience," Pfarr said.

Pfarr established the concept of a generational class system, defining someone living in "generational poverty" as a person who's family has lived in poverty for at least two generations.

With audience input and the use of discussion groups, Pfarr drew a contrast between a middle-class lifestyle dominated by achievement and a lower-class lifestyle dominated by relationships.

"Relationships dominate someone living in generational poverty." Pfarr said, explaining that when someone living in generational poverty has the choice to meet the needs of a person or the needs of an institution, the relationship will always win out.

For the purposes of her analysis, Pfarr defined poverty as "the extent to which one lives without resources," and explained that someone living in generational poverty is fighting to survive. She rejected the notion that people in such situations are "unmotivated," as some case workers complained.

Pfarr defined the middle class as people who earn a "living wage," enough that they do not have to worry about immediate survival and can plan for the future.

"How far into the future [you can plan] is dictated by how far above livable wage you are," she said. "In poverty, there is no future picture to look forward to."

Audience members also discussed whether there are enough jobs in their community with livable wages for the number of individuals who live in poverty.

One impediment that people often face in dealing with those coming from generational poverty, Pfarr said, is the language barrier. Pfarr explained a model comprising five types of human language, ranging from the "frozen language" of the Pledge of Allegiance to "intimate language" between lovers or twins. Pfarr said that the language barrier comes from the different registers of languages used by different classes.

"Middle class will tend to utilize formal register at a higher rate and poverty will tend to utilize casual register at a higher rate," Pfarr said.

Since the formal register is more commonly used with people in positions of authority, these people tend to judge those who use a more casual register.

"Respect is the extent to which someone meets your expectations," she said, adding that since people from the middle class tend to use the expected formal register more, "oftentimes people treat [the middle class] with more mutual respect."

The best way to make a difference, Pfarr explained, is to make sure that the same level of mutual respect is present in interactions with everyone.

In addition to contributing to verbal communication barriers, these language differences also make it more difficult to nurture understanding between people of different classes, Pfarr said. While the formal register nurtures "abstract processing," the casual register nurtures "concrete processing," or external thought, using the five senses. As a result, Pfarr said, people from generational poverty have much more difficulty processing abstractly. This, Pfarr said, is where the language barrier often prevents effective communication between people of different classes.

The middle class should not look at helping people in generational poverty as a charitable activity solely to make people living in poverty "better," Pfarr said, but in order to have people representing all walks of life together at the "table," finding ways to better the community.