Involved or Alone?

In reviewing the various theoretical concepts which have been developed ‘for understanding human interaction’, Deborah Tannen identifies a fundamental dichotomy between

‘conflicting needs to be involved with others and to be left alone’ (Tannen: 137).

Intuitively one would readily agree with this statement as it seems to cover the whole range of the desire to interact, from hermit at one pole to Facebook addict at the other. Moreover, it could be assumed that in between one should be able to find room for all other types of personality.

However, as with other dichotomies such as individualism vs. collectivism, what appears to be self-evident often obscures more than it reveals, especially in terms of motivation (i.e. ‘needs’ seems to require no further explanation). We also have the culturally-loaded concept ‘indirectness’.

Cultures differ on what one should be “indirect” about, on how to be “indirect” and, most importantly perhaps, on why to be “indirect”‘(Goddard & Wierzbicka, 1997: 235)

Applying the cultural script theory (an offshoot of NSM) may help unravel some of the complexity behind the intuitively self-evident dichotomy of needs. These cultural scripts should include some of the following:

I want ‘to be involved’ with someone else:

I want to say something to someone

I want someone to say something to me

Sometimes it is good to be where there is someone else

I want ‘to be alone’:

I don’t want to say something

I don’t want to hear someone else say something to me

Sometimes it is good to be where there are no other people

Even in this short description we may note that both cases involve more than the subjective need of the individual ‘to be involved’ or ‘to be alone’ as there are value-judgments to be made regarding the desirability of each attitude.

Moreover, if we use the above explications, we can discard the cultural baggage of  the English words “alone” and “involved” and can readily translate these attitudes in other languages, in which the value judgments may depart significantly from what we think as “normal” (i.e., according to the norms) in English.


Goddard, C. & Wierzbicka, A. 1997, ‘Discourse and Culture’, in Discourse and Social Interaction, ed. T. A. van Dijk, Sage Press, London, Chapter 9, pp. 231-257.

Tannen, D. 1981, ‘New York Jewish Conversational Style’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, Mouton Publishers, vol. 30, pp. 133-149.

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