It goes without saying that the internet is changing the way we use language. But what does that mean for us as ambassadors of Christ?

As an undergraduate linguistics student, I have studied language usage online in a number of ways. In this post, I will give you a brief overview of one area of language usage, stance, and some ways you can apply this to your interactions with others online.

How We Use Language Online

First, let’s consider a few characteristics of how we use language online. With the development of the web, anyone is able to contribute and share content. You can create a new blog in just a couple minutes. Signing up for a new social media account takes only seconds, and you can then post whatever you want, whenever you want.

Although the internet isn’t limited to text anymore, much of what we communicate on the internet is still through the written word. When we try to convey information in written form, especially to people we don’t know very well, we lose a lot of contextual clues. We must try to make up for this by changing the way we use language. For example, we use emojis to stand in for facial expressions or tone of voice, and more words to describe the background/credibility we bring to the table. These are just a few of the ways the language we use online is unique.

Stance-Taking in Online Language

One of the elements of language linguists analyze is called stance-taking, or just stance. Stance is “the position people take in relation to oneself, to what is said, and to other people or objects” (Barton & Lee, 2013, p. 87). When people take a stance through language, they are essentially using words to position themselves and others. They do this by expressing their feelings about their statement, or signalling their knowledge and beliefs towards the statement.

There are two types of stance people take: affective stance and epistemic stance.

Affective stance

Affective stance is how people express their feelings about something. For example, you might see a comment like this among a train of other, debate-like comments:

What you said isn’t even worth the time it would take to type out a response.

Through this statement, the person is expressing affective stance by saying it “isn’t even worth the time” to respond. By saying this, they are positioning themselves as someone who values their time, and positioning the other person’s comment (and potentially the individual as well) as worthless or insignificant.

Epistemic stance

Epistemic stance is how people express their knowledge or beliefs about something. Take a look at this excerpt from a Facebook comment about Halloween.

I don’t think you’re opening yourself to demonic possession or the devil if you put pumpkins out or let your kids wear costumes.

The comment author expresses epistemic stance by using the words “I don’t think.” By saying this, the person positions him/herself as having some knowledge about the topic. They chose to use the word “think” instead of simply saying “you’re not opening yourself…” however. This indicates that they are expressing their own knowledge/belief, rather than making the statement as an indisputable fact.

How Recognizing Stance Helps You Communicate Your Faith Online

Identifying stance can help you understand and evaluate someone’s statements online. We all know how difficult it can be to tell what someone really means or what their attitude is in their comments. If you come across a comment that’s ambiguous at first glance, try to analyze it for stance. Try to answer these questions:

  • What opinion or attitude is the person expressing toward the statement at hand? (affective stance)
  • What kind of knowledge is the person claiming about the statement that follows? (epistemic stance)
  • How is the person positioning him/herself and the person he/she is replying to? (remember, “it isn’t even worth the time…”)
  • How strong of a claim is the person making? (remember, “I don’t think…” or just the statement)

Of course, when you find yourself in a conversation online, it would also be beneficial to ask yourself these questions as you type out your reply! Be sure that as you take a stance for your faith, you are careful to express that stance clearly and graciously.

 

References

Barton, D. & Lee, C. (2013). Language online: investigating digital texts and practices. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

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