Aging in the Media: When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Curator's Note

Having examined stereotypes of older adults and the connection between them and patronizing speech, I am eager to identify media examples of such interactions.  The Communicative Predicament of Aging Model predicts that recognizing someone as “old” elicits negatively stereotyped expectations for that person’s competence and behavior, thus leading to an overly accommodative patronizing speech style. This patronizing speech employs simplified grammatical structures, simplified vocabulary, is often spoken more loudly and more slowly than normal adult speech, and can be accompanied by exaggerated pronunciation and pitch variation.  Scholars have long recognized that this speech style is intended to be helpful, that the person employing patronizing speech is adopting this speech style because s/he believes it is required for the interaction to be successful.  Rarely, has this intention been the focus of analysis. In this media clip from the television show, The Office, Michael Scott engages in various patronizing behaviors and yet he’s doing so with the best of intentions.  Fearing the changes instigated by his younger supervisor, Michael latches on to the definition of age discrimination (though calls it ageism) and hosts a meeting to educate his colleagues on what older adults may contribute to the workplace.  He invites one of the company founders to the meeting, but after that, nothing he does or says actually supports the idea that older adults bring value to the table.  From the phrase, “he’s 87 years young” to the consistent use of “still” in his statements, Michael makes his underlying beliefs about aging and the value of older adulthood very clear.  As a communication and aging scholar, I am attracted to the complexity of this example.  As an educator, I frequently moderate class discussions about patronizing speech and how to know what communication accommodations are essential at any given time and place. This discussion includes the Communication Enhancement Model which emphasizes the need to pay attention to any individual and what his/her communication accommodation requirements may be. Yet the intentions behind the person employing patronizing speech continue to intrigue me and my students. Although we may debate whether we consider Michael Scott to be a good person, he does provide an excellent example of good intentions gone awry.

Comments

Melissa Aleman's picture

Critique of Organizational Training

Jaye, you offer an interesting frame on this clip! I see a lot of varied dynamics happening rhetorically here. In many ways, Michael serves to buffoon organizational training gone wrong as well as agism/patronizing speech itself, providing a social critique of organizational training that isn’t made relevant to employees and on a topic in which they don’t have buy-in. On the one hand the narrative serves to ridicule time and money ‘wasted’ on ‘useless’ endeavors - policy that is being enforced through ‘mandatory training’ on a topic that the employees don’t seem to value, arguing that organizations trivialize social issues when presented in such settings.  The burlesque performance of Michael Scott seems to also criticize patronizing speech itself (as well as critiquing popular messages of older adults - such as the absurdity of using the  "Where’s the beef?" ads to highlight the contributions of older adults). So I guess I see the humor potentially working in multiple ways here - one as a criticism of both training and ageism itself (in both the workplace and popular culture); and two, as the use of ageism as the rhetorical ‘fat suit’, so to speak, that becomes the butt of the joke in which we are ultimately back again laughing at the ‘old people jokes.’  Like the film Shallow Hal, a movie purporting to critique social constructions of beauty that ultimately relies on those very constructions for the ‘fat’ joke to work (Nudd & Schriver, 2005), this clip relies on ‘old’ jokes to work. The question left is whether it ultimately serves as social critique, reproduction of ageism, or perhaps both. Thanks for sharing this!!!

Melissa Aleman

Margot van der Goot's picture

Complexities

This clip is indeed an intriguing example of communication with older people, and the explanation in terms of patronizing speech and the intentions behind such speech is very interesting! This video also shows the complexities that come into play when humor is used (like the commercial by Deutsche Bahn did that we discussed on Monday). Because of the humor involved, I’m not sure what we can say about Michael Scott’s intentions. If I would need to say something about his intentions, I would say I don’t see good intentions. Regarding the whole clip, I see it not so much as social critique, but predominantly as a reproduction of ageism. Obviously, different viewers have different interpretations of the clip, which makes it very good material for a (classroom) discussion about ageism, stereotypes and patronizing speech.

Jaye L. Atkinson's picture

producing ageism

I definitely agree with your comment that the clip serves "predominantly as a reproduction of ageism" and it does so with the buffoonery Melissa mentions as well.  I do think Michael Scott believes he is revealing the value of older adulthood, and if we continue to suspend our disbelief and be in his workplace, he is seriously trying to defend the status quo - "new ideas are illegal!" I worry this clip/episode could make audiences believe that ageism and age discrimination are synonymous.

Jaye L. Atkinson's picture

Absolutely!

Yes, Melissa, I agree and love your analysis of this clip.  For those familiar with the show, I wanted to mention Creed’s appearance - seen in this clip only briefly, saying older adults are lame, after having dyed his hair black to avoid being labelled old himself!  In an earlier scene he shifts his language, and then he’s the one who alerts Michael to the fact that being over 40 at work means you are "old."  As you note, there are many directions for humor, and there are also many directions for accommodations (convergence or divergence) as well as identities.  It could also be very interesting to see how many audience members believe information presented in the clip.

Mary Lee Hummert's picture

Bob's communication

Hi Jaye,

I definitely agree with your analysis of Michael’s talk to Bob Dunder, but I was also struck by the way the writers captured the negative communication behaviors we associate with aging in Bob’s contributions — the off-target verbosity, look of confusion, need for assistance in getting a cab, etc. These reinforced negative age stereotypes just as much as Michael did in his language. As a result, even as the writers present Michael as (unconsciously) ageist, they reinforce negative age stereotypes in their portrayal of Bob Dunder. I think that it’s also interesting that Michael (the purported anti-ageism individual) discounted Bob’s request for assistance in getting a cab, but Pam recognized the sincerity of that request and left the meeting to help.

Thanks for posting this - it’s a great example of the ways in which patronizing can emerge despite the ‘best’ of intentions and of the extent to which communication stereotypes of old age are presented as normative.

Mary Lee Hummert

Mei-Chen Lin's picture

Jaye: When I played the

Jaye:

When I played the clip, it only allowed me to watch everything before 1:54. It won’t play any further after that. I tried several times but got the same result. I couldn’t contibute to the conversation without watching the whole thing.

 

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