How to Get Rid of an Unwanted Suitor:
Advice from Hmong Elders
Susan Meredith Burt
Department of English
Illinois State University
In an interview designed to assess changes in the pragmatics of the Hmong spoken by the immigrant generation and college-age young adults in a Hmong immigrant community in Wisconsin, interviewees were presented with the following prompt:
“A young woman is at the Hmong New Year Festival. A young man wants to play the ball toss game [a traditional courting game] with her, but she does not want to. What are some ways she can ask him to leave her alone? Which way seems best to you? Do young women today know how to say this?”
When we analyze immigrant women’s responses to this face-threatening scenario by generation, striking differences emerge: the elders recommend using bald-on-record statements and blunt, unmitigated directives; the one exception to this is the youngest elder, who uses an excuse and a postponement. Younger women, who have grown up in the U.S., overwhelmingly recommend using excuses and postponements, the occasional apology, and no directives. The younger speakers, to western ears, sound far less direct and more polite than the female elders recommend—a pattern that seems puzzling.
The explanation lies in the different cultural conditions under which the speakers imagine the interaction taking place, as these were immensely different for women who grew up in Laos than for those who grew up in the U.S. In Laos, a suitor posed a real threat to a woman’s autonomy; Hmong marriage customs included possible marriage by capture, bride-price negotiations, and marriage possibly resulting in lower status as a second wife in a polygynous household. Thus, the interaction involved higher stakes for the older women, when they were young, than it does today for young women growing up in the US.
One cultural discontinuity that marks the Hmong refugee immigration from Laos to the United States is a change in the relative status of women within Hmong society (Donnelly 1994, Meredith and Rowe 1986). What the data on this speech act type show is that that change in status affects the politeness strategies speakers bring to interaction, although not, perhaps, in quite the way that Brown and Levinson (1987) would predict. Here, the increased power that a relatively higher status brings to women in the US allows them to prioritize goals of self-presentation over goals of self-preservation, in that a suitor in the US does not usually constitute the dire threat to the woman’s autonomy that he could in Laos; from her relatively safe position, then the woman can afford to be less direct, more polite in her attempt to discourage an unwanted suitor.