Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Texting Christmas and New Year: the Fun and the Craft in a Phatic Communion


Obododimma Oha

Christmas often occasions the exchange of goodwill message between friends, acquaintances, relatives, and professional colleagues. The message has become quite stereotyped, not just in content but also style. A finely-worded Christmas greeting card could obviously add to the joy that a celebrant hopes for during the Christmas season. In spite of the stereotyped nature of many Christmas messages (which has been mainly caused by the copying and reprinting of existing messages for commercial benefits), some individual recipients of Christmas cards still pay attention to what those cards are saying, and try to imagine the senders of the cards as actually "saying" those words to them. Even when buyers of such cards are not the authors of those messages, they ultimately assume responsibility of authorship by selecting those cards from the stores, buying them, signing their names as those saying those things, and mailing them! In other words, even if one has not read the words on the cards before buying, signing, and mailing them, one has committed oneself by sending them. As a matter of fact, it is extremely risky to pick a card marked "Christmas Greeting" in a card store and simply sign and mail it with the assumption that it must be saying the usual good things of Christmas. That is extremely risky, for the card goes to represent the sender before the receiver without also saying, "Oh, he or she picked me in a hurry," or "he or she assumed the card could not have said the wrong thing"! What if the Christmas card is saying more than the simple words of Christmas? What if the card expresses a deep affection, the type that only a lover can say to another lover, and the sender, impervious of this fact, picks it and sends it to his or her boss, to a married woman or man, etc? Cards create lasting impressions!

In another angle, some of the Christmas and other greeting cards found in the shops today may have other language problems, for instance grammatical errors. If a professor of the English language should pick such a card printed in bad English and mail it to another colleague, maybe overseas, wouldn't that be terribly damaging on his or her reputation? The receiver may understand that the sender did not print the card, but cannot excuse the fact that the sender subscribes to the bad English the card speaks. An exception here, of course, is the deliberate use of dialect in writing the card, maybe to evoke humor, negotiate linguistic identity, etc. For instance, one can find some peculiar cards written in Nigerian pidgin, which say such things as: "Make we celebrate as Mary don born Jesus for Bethlehem to save man pikin," "Tank you Jesus for to come become like me," and "Dis na true love, Papa God come become man."

Further, the design of a Christmas or any other card is part of the language the card speaks. Senders of cards can and do select from a wide range of designs, each choice being dependent on the sender's personal preferences, assumptions about what the receiver would like, focus on how the design would communicate an aspect of the Christmas that the sender is interested in, etc. With the emergence of the personal computer and availability of photo editing software, senders can easily generate their own designs, edit existing photos or designs, or select from a range of templates available on the Internet. 

Also, the emergence of mobile telephony and the sms writing has greatly affected both the tradition of buying and sending printed cards and the exchange pattern of messages at Christmas. Electronic writing of the mobile telephone type is a tradition of paperless communication. It also solves the problem of postal delay in some countries, which sometimes causes printed cards to get to their addressers only after the celebration. Further, whereas printed cards require expending energy and time to obtain them from shops, and do cost more, sms and other electronically relayed cards are far cheaper.   An individual can also send just one type of card to 1000 recipients in his or her phone or computer contact list, at the click of a button. The sender doesn't have to address 1000 separate cards and post them, and still be able to enjoy Christmas like others!

One challenge that attends to electronic messaging in Christmas and other social celebrations is the deluge of such messages and how to deal with them. If postal delay is painful, at least it ironically postpones the stress of having to respond to all the messages from one's multitude of acquaintances. But with electronic messaging, one has to respond to all these coming in, at least to be fair to the senders. It would, of course, amount to an impoliteness and lack of civility for one to receive a message of good wishes at Christmas and not respond to them or to reciprocate! So, one has to share one's Christmas time punching the keys of one's electronic device, almost endlessly. With one hand one grabs the turkey leg and with another hand types a message to respond to an incoming good wishes of yuletide. And, as one is trying to complete one, another Christmas message arrives. 

With electronic writing comes what one could refer to as "electronic Christmas," which requires special skills of navigating the computer or cellphone and creating images of Christmas that are, in their own right, a remarkable demonstration of creativity. 

Some of messages are also particularly amusing and playful, adding to the design of cheering up the receiver during the period. One of such playful SMSed Christmas messages which I received from an old schoolmate read as follows:

"B4 pple begin to send u fake and insincere New Year wishes, let me send u & ur loved ones my family's original New Year Wishes. Belovd, in 2012 God will open up new horizons in ur life, turn ur pressures to pleasure & all ur obstacles to miracle, in Jesus name. Amen."

So, there are "original" as well as "fake" season's greetings? One could easily identify a re-registration here: the language of commerce used in Nigeria obviously becomes re-used here in referring to type of season's greetings. Nigerian business persons often try to draw the attention of their customers to the difference between the genuine products they have in stock and the fake versions also in circulation. The analogy implied in my friend's re-use of the language is revealing, for season's greeting comes to feature as something being marketed to service tenor, in this case to maintain close inter-personal relationship. I would obviously prefer to value an "original" greeting meant for me to a "fake" one merely transferred to me, it is assumed. 

Competition is also clearly implied in the message, for the sender is not just sending what he feels I would treasure more, but is interested in the time of its arrival as a variable. What arrives first creates and maintains lasting impression in the recipient. In that case, the arrival of the genuine message in good time would make me treasure my relationship with the sender more than I would for later senders. Late senders, it is assumed, don't think highly of the relationship with the recipients!

I particularly like the poetry in the language of the SMSed greeting cited above. One notices internal parallelisms: "turn ur pressures to pleasure," ur obstacles to miracle." "Pressures" and "pleasure" share phonological features, with some minor phonemic differences --indeed those differences accounting for the expressed divine transformation. If the phonemic changes do not happen, no matter how minimal, then no (divine) transformation of the addressee's circumstances has taken place. One's pRessureS have to drop their significant "R" and plural "S" for the "pleasure" to emerge and happen as the acceptable semiotic. Similarly, one's OBSTacles have to dough off the first four letters (OBST) and allow a reinvestment with MIR for MIRacle of change and difference to happen. Indeed, a demonstration of the desired transformation through the structure of the verbal elements used!

Some of the SMS messages also try to introduce an element of surprise which, in fact, is connected to the whole idea of creating excitement and pleasant experience in the sharing of Christmas goodwill. Two of such messages I received read as follows:

(1) Credit alert. Acc. No: Year 2012
    Acc Name: The favoured by God
    Depositor: Holy Spirit
    Amt: Grace, Glory, and Peace.
    Avail. Bal: Good health, long life, prosperity and joy in the Holy 
    Spirit. All for you and your household. 
(2) ALERT: CREDIT! ACCT: 1/1/2012 of Dr Obodo Oha
    Amnt: Divine Fav'r. 
    Depositr: Almi'ty Gd. Aval. Bal: Gud health long life, prosperity
    Remark: Congrats & Happy Nw Yr, Sir.

Obviously, the two messages above are variants of a type of Christmas/Christmas message with bank alert as its textual frame. The emergence of this re-registration of religious message as banking discourse in the Nigerian context is somewhat linked to the introduction of electronic messaging by banks in Nigeria, particularly through SMS and email alerts. As always, one discourse learns to borrow from another to support its own type of rhetoric.

The framing of the Christmas message as a bank credit alert is particularly attention-grabbing, partly because many people want to know what is happening to their money in the bank, what more when it involves information that deposit has been made. They want to know immediately the amount paid in, who made the deposit, etc. Second, at the time many people using cellphones are dealing with a deluge of Christmas messages and the frequent arrival of the sms becomes a disturbance for one wanting to enjoy the Christmas in other ways, some people may not want to bother to give fuller attention to what each arriving SMS is saying. They might say, "Oh, same Merry Christmas again!" So, an sms Christmas message crafted as information about money is a special trick to win attention. 

it should be noted that there is already an existing sub-genre of Christian tract evangelization that tries to reinvent the Christian message about repentance, salvation, and the consequences of sin as a financial transaction. Some evangelical tracts in circulation in Nigeria are designed like currency notes or bank cheques. Interestingly, it is hard currencies like the dollar and the Euro that feature in such designs and not the Naira, the local currency. The reason is clear: the dollar and the Euro are stronger than the Naira in the market, and to be wealthy in the hard currency is to be above many other citizens. From that paradigm, one can imagine the Chrtistian tract saying implicitly that it offers a form of truth or salvation that is higher than some others being preached.

Ordinarily, the messages circulated during Christmas and New Year celebrations could become stereotyped and boring if the same old forms and contents are present. But the presence of Information Technology makes a great difference: IT provides opportunities through multimedia facilities for the same old content to be reinvented so that sharing them becomes a very wonderful experience that makes the season desirable to many. Visual and audio Christmas and New Year messages created with smart phones and PCs add to the artistic recreation of the  season as cultural performance and help in compensating for the problem of message stereotyping.

1 comment:

Stevens Iyanda said...

Quite a refreshing read, and thought provoking. Such ability to invest the most mundane of topics with novelty, scholarshipwithout it becoming inaccessible to the non-scholarly, shows what fine mettle the writer is made of.
And unlike most scholarly works, this one adds an inherent and immediate value to the reader in that It opens his eyes about quite a few things on sending and receiving greetings and congratulatory messages. It quite startles him into worrisome thoughts about what he did do and did not do during the last festive season. It did me.
Tomisin-Olu Stevens Iyanda.