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Spring 2000

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Summer 99 > Article

Pillow Talk, Culture Shock
by Seth Coleman

When Veronica Duncan was an undergraduate studying speech communication at the University of Kentucky, she was disturbed by the lack of information on speech patterns among African Americans.

"I didn't see any research reflecting us. Our cultural norms were not considered in any of the research," said Duncan, who went on to earn master's and doctoral degrees in speech communication at Kentucky. "I didn't feel like I could make blanket claims and come to conclusions without doing research on our people, specifically. Yes, there are similarities [in speech among blacks and whites], but there are very distinct cultural differences that should be considered."

Last year, in her second year as an assistant professor in UGA's speech communications department, Duncan took a step toward filling the void when she published a first-ever study of romantic interpersonal communication patterns between African Americans. Now, building upon that research, Duncan is working on two new projects: One examines the factors that lead African-American couples to invest in relationships with each other; the other is a look at abuse among African-American couples.

"My goal is to find what leads us to increase or decrease our level of commitment to a relationship," Duncan said of the first project. "There are things, verbal and nonverbal, that we do that drive us apart. Things like verbal aggressiveness, and a lack of trust and self-disclosure.

"African-American couples are not investing in their relationships at the same rate that white couples are," she said. "We are marrying later, or not at all, and the rate at which we remarry is lower than whites."

Duncan argues that the assimilation of African Americans into American culture, which is highly structured by European norms, has driven a wedge between African-American men and women. The European ideal for a man, she said, is that he must be the breadwinner, refrain from expressing his feelings and maintain control in the relationship. At the same time, African-American women - especially feminists - are expected to be independent and strong, and not rely on a man.

"So when they come together, both are competing to be in control and that doesn't work," Duncan said. "From my reading of African philosophy, that takes us away from our natural spiritual base. African philosophy calls for men and women to complement each other, not compete with each other."

Duncan said that this competition, coupled with a lack of effective communication, also can lead to abuse within the relationship, the subject of her other new research effort.

"[Abuse] doesn't start on the first date. If it did, you wouldn't see that person again," she said. "It starts out much smaller and more subtly, and it all goes back to the whole notion of being in control."

Abusive mates often show "indications of a need to be in control. But just because someone has control issues doesn't mean they will be abusive," Duncan said. "You have to listen to your spirit and verbalize your feelings.

"If something is said that hurts you, I encourage people to make sure they mention it to their partner. You have to take timing into context and guard against egging the situation on. Say, 'When you said this to me, I felt uncomfortable,' instead of saying 'You made me feel uncomfortable,'" she said. "Communication is the key."

E-mail veronica.duncan@worldnet.att.net for more information.


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Pillow talk, culture shock