The Fart Heard Round the Room

As a Professor of Speech at Virginia Commonwealth University I am sometimes tasked with making the mundane interesting. Students are expected to learn the basics of the speech communication process and the terms that outline the experience. The definitions of words such as Speaker, Listener, Message, Channel, Situation, Feedback, Interference, and Frame of Reference are central to understanding the process. Though they are fundamentally simplistic, they can be misunderstood, at least the last few can, without some explanation. Thankfully, my wife and father-in-law gave me an excellent recent example to relay to my classes that could not illustrate the speech communication process with more ridiculousness. Here is their story and how it all breaks down as a speech experience.

On August 21, 2015 while in Colonial Williamsburg, Nancy and her father, Wron, went into the Peyton Randolph House to hear a lecture about slavery. The lecture was a walking tour of the house led by an African-American woman of some years. As they toured the house another woman about fifty-five years old kept loudly breaking wind right in front of Nancy and her dad, and then would casually look around attempting to shift the blame from herself to someone else. This went on for the entire tour, distracting both my family members. When the tour ended, Nancy and Wron came running out of the house to relay the antics of the “farting woman” inside. They recounted their experience in great detail, but as one might predict, learned less than they could have about the Peyton Randolph House or of the slaves living there.

The Peyton Randolph House in Colonial Williamsburg

The Peyton Randolph House in Colonial Williamsburg

August 21, 2015, in Colonial Williamsburg, inside the Peyton Randolph is the Situation, Wron and Nancy are the Listeners, and the African-American female docent was the Speaker. The Message was the story of the house and of the slaves who worked inside it. Easy enough. A Channel is the medium through which the speech is conveyed. In this case the Speaker was in the same room with them and didn’t use a microphone as she walked them through the house, so the Channel is really just the Speaker’s unamplified voice. Now we get to the fun stuff. The loud farting could be taken one of two ways. If the “farting woman” was deliberately farting because she didn’t like the Speaker or the Message, then she was farting as a means of Feedback, conveying to the Speaker that she didn’t like the experience. If she couldn’t help the fact that she was farting, then it was an example of Interference, unexpected or unintentional distractions that obstruct Listeners from giving their undivided attention to the Speaker and Message. The fact that she looked around after each fart also became Interference to the other Listeners but also could be construed as Feedback if she was trying to be funny and in so doing steal focus from the Speaker. Lastly, with either intent in mind, the farting and looking about became Interference for Nancy and Wron and prevented them from giving their full attention to the Message of the Speaker. The extent of that Interference was filtered through their Frame of Reference. Depending on whether or not Wron and Nancy are predisposed to find farting funny determines whether or not the Interference was received as hilarious or offensive. Considering the way both of them came running out of the house to regale me with the story of their misadventure I think we can all guess the answer to this last mystery. The Speaker’s opportunity to share valuable information about a serious and important subject was sadly, somewhat diminished. However, the Situation also created a silly and teachable moment that I can now share with my classes for years to come.

And thus endeth the lecture. Namaste everybody.