Not Surly

Benjamin Lee Wharf, Edward Sapir, Exxon Valdez, George Murdock, Kappa Sigma, prime numbers, Social Structure Study 1949, surly, Vanderbilt University -

Not Surly

When any group of people get together, they'll establish their own language. Sociology 101 will inform that any group is a "society" and the language is used as a "symbol" to communicate the "values" of the society. 

My college fraternity, Kappa Sigma at Vanderbilt University, was one such society in the early 1990s. The word surly was definitely a symbol. You'd hear it echoed throughout the fraternity house and out on the front deck.

"He's Surly." 

"That's Surly." 


The guys would sing it and exaggerate it and make a big deal feigning fear of the person who was being surly. It was all part of the endearing tomfoolery that makes a group of people comfortable with one another.

What does surly mean, anyways? 

The Google dictionary defines surly quite simply as "bad-tempered and unfriendly"  

But What was really happening?  

Let's look at Chapter 3 about Culture in The Introduction to Sociology. Here are a couple of excerpts. (Emphasis has been added.)

Through his research, Murdock identified other universals including language, the concept of personal names, and, interestingly, jokes. Humor seems to be a universal way to release tensions and create a sense of unity among people (Murdock 1949). Sociologists consider humor necessary to human interaction because it helps individuals navigate otherwise tense situations.

Back to the fraternity house where something wonderful was happening. Whether they knew it or not, the society of young men was identifying that one of their own was stressed out and needed some help navigating the tension that was "all pent up" inside them.  So they would loudly point it out in a sing-song voice to dissipate the stress. Suuuurlllleeee! To an outsider, it might seem as if the downtrodden person was being further mocked. But that wasn't the case at all.

The textbook goes on to say: 

Even while it constantly evolves, language continues to shape our reality. This insight was established in the 1920s by two linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf. They believed that reality is culturally determined, and that any interpretation of reality is based on a society’s language.

You are welcome. You can now namedrop "Sapir and Whorf's 1920 study on language" as "common knowledge" at your next social gathering when people are talking about what shapes our culture today. And that's not all, Sapir and Whorf go deeper: 

To prove this point, the sociologists argued that every language has words or expressions specific to that language. In Canada, for example, the number 13 is associated with bad luck. In Japan, however, the number four is considered unlucky, since it is pronounced similarly to the Japanese word for “death.”

In the U.S, we also join the belief that 13 is unlucky. But we don't have an issue with the number 4. Here at When You Word, if you have been tracking with us, you know that 47 is the most perfect number. While this article is about "surly", I need to digress on 47 and other prime numbers for a moment. 


[ Tangent Alert: 47 is a Prime Number ]

One of those fraternity brothers goes by the name Mark Chalos. In general, he's not surly at all. An extremely effective individual who knows things about things coupled with an incredibly astute ability to articulate them. I recall a time when a group of us had a nice chinwag (google it in another tab if you don't know what it means.) Some people call them BS sessions. Mark starting talking about prime numbers and using them to be effective when presenting numbers. Mark went on teaching us, and I paraphrase...If your data tells you that nearly half of the population have some characteristic, don't say "nearly half". Use a Prime Number instead, like 47. Never use 25% or 1/4 of the population. Use 23% or 29%. And so on. My love affair with the number 47 probably began soon after this informative chinwag. Let's review all the beauty and glory of the Prime Numbers that are less than 100...

2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89, 97

Here at the When You Word blog, we often present real people with real lives. Mark is a real life person. A successful lawyer leading an impressive firm. His dad, Michael, is an maritime lawyer as well who was part of the team who represented Captain Hazelwood from the Exxon Valdez. For those old enough to remember this case, you know how big that story was. For the younger crowd, "Exxon Valdez" is worth some internet searching. You can google both of these attorneys. Their resumes speak for themselves. As for me, when using data as part of my presentations, I still use prime numbers when telling a story. They are just more effective. Thanks, Mark for this insight! 

Shaping your reality

As Sapir and Whorf indicated in their study, reality is culturally determined, and culture is affected by symbols, such as language, then our view and stance on surly becomes very important. Are we to be Friendly or unfriendly? Better or Bitter? Good tempered or bad tempered? These are minute by minute decisions each day as we choose how to interact with people. 

Here at When You Word, we're going to choose Not Surly. Additionally, when we inject humor into conversations (or t-shirts), we're going to let people know that jokes have been proven to release tension in George Murdock's 1949 study on Social Structure and that language shapes reality as proven by Sapir and Whorf a century ago in 1920. If my shirt says I am not surly, then I am not surly. No joke. You can order your shirt today at this link. When You Wear it, you'll be reminded to be good tempered and friendly. 

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