Observer’s Paradox

Yesterday I was sitting in front of my terrapins, watching them. I have a male one and a female one, and they’ve been devoting some of their time to courtship lately. Mainly the male one, as the female specimen looks quite unresponsive to the male’s advances and his display of attentions. They belong to the family Trachemys and, when they reach their sexual maturity, they perform a nuptial dance. Well, the male one does, mostly, although she performs it sometimes, when she’s in the mood, as if she was encouraging him not to lose heart.

As I sat there watching them, my male terrapin, Mafaldo, started dancing as he always does: palms of his little hands facing upwards, and fingers flickering lightly and swiftly producing delicate caresses on the female’s face. In the meantime, the female one, Chupachusa, sat right there, just like me, but without my curiosity or any remarkable prospect at acknowledging the male’s presence: eyes closed, just in case his extremely long fingernails land accidentally in them, legs retracted partially inside her shell. Contrary to her, I thought it was a very interesting event, and I proceeded to record it with my phone: there it goes! the ultra-potent beam of light from the camera instantly thwarted the romantic atmosphere of the moment! Mafaldo lost all concentration and command of his limbs, unwillingly slapping Chupachusa in the face. What a mess! Then, they were both looked at me, accusingly, like saying: “What the hell are you staring at, you voyeur?”

Ashamed, I retreated and turned the camera off, apologetically…

And it all reminded me of Labov’s concept of the Observer’s Paradox when he was studying the use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English) to position himself against the “legend” which said AAVE was a symptom of verbal deprivation (white centric bigots…). He did this by means of using narrative analysis, that is, studying the interviewee’s verbal behaviour during their narratives of their own personal experience, given that people tend to use vernacular in that case. Apart from reaching the conclusion that AAVE is equally rich and effective as “normative” American English, he came across different responses from the interviewees, which led him to acnowledge the fact that the observed person may change their discourse to a more formal one if the observer seems distant, aloof, belongs to a different social extraction, has a different gender, race, age or speaks a different kind of vernacular. Thus, he had to investigate in order to minimize his impact as an observer.

So, next time I’ll were a shell-like helmet.


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