Aging in the Media: When Bad Things Happen to Good People
by Jaye L. Atkinson — Georgia State University
March 25, 2009 – 00:22
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.
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