Have you ever sat there like a lump in a group setting, not knowing what to say? Well, researchers at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute have figured out why. Their research study was recently highlighted in the Wall Street Journal. The general gist of it is that if someone perceives that others in a group are smarter or more successful, they will retreat and say less… or nothing at all. Journalist, Elizabeth Bernstein reports that:
“The clamming-up phenomenon seems to be more common in women and in people with higher IQs”.
So, those most likely to keep their traps shut in a group setting are the smart women. (Hhhmmm… Interesting… I am pretty smart and I find it really, really hard to speak up in a group setting, particularly if there are loud, dogmatic extraverts in the group.)
The article went on to say that people who experience this phenomenon are more likely to quietly and silently panic in a group situation, while at the same time being “more attuned to group social dynamics, subconsciously worrying about their performance and evaluating themselves in relation to others”. (Wow, does that ever ring a bell.)
There was no indication that the research also examined language or cultural influences. It make me wonder though… If this is a social phenomenon that applies to native speakers, how much worse does it get for non-native speakers who are in a social setting where “more successful” or “smarter” might also be equated with “more fluent”?
As I reflect on my experience as a language learner, my sense is that this phenomenon would be amplified exponentially in a second language setting. What do you think?
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.