Nathaniel Simmons, Ph.D., is a self-identified teacher, scholar, and author. He explores a variety of topics within the Communication field. In this interview, we discuss a research article about speech codes in RuPaul’s Drag Race, celebrity health narratives on Keeping Up with the Kardashians, using profanity to master writing in APA style, and the power of secrets in communication.
Your research specializations are quite diverse but all center around different forms of communication and its impact on culture and health. I am wondering if you can touch a bit on the major themes of your research for our readers who may be learning you for the first time.
I study secrets and how people keep them. This is referred to as “privacy management” within the communication discipline. I use Dr. Sandra Petronio’s Communication Privacy Management theory throughout my research. In short, I study how individuals manage privacy (AKA secrets) within intercultural and health contexts. For instance, I have studied how foreign English teachers and Japanese co-workers manage privacy at work. I have also studied how American celebrity health disclosures influence the American public.
The article that first caught my attention was “Speaking Like a Queen in RuPaul’s Drag Race: Towards a Speech Code of American Drag Queens.” Many marginalized cultures, such as drag performers, tend to create their own speech codes. Now with the popularity of the TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag speech codes have entered the mainstream with many people using such phrases as, “throwing shade,” “spilling the tea,” and so on. How does this fit within the speech code theory?
Speech Codes Theory basically says communities have a particular way of speaking, AKA a speech code. So, yes, drag queens absolutely have unique cultural ways of speaking. The cultural ways of speaking all highlight a speech code. The RuPaul paper I wrote that you mentioned highlighted the code of sisterhood, where drag queens must uphold the bonds of sisterhood above all. I think there’s more work to be done here, research-wise. The catch phrases of “throwing shade” or “spilling the tea” are not necessarily the speech code. It’s just a phrase or saying. However, “throwing shade” or “spilling the tea” might speak to a drag queen speech code that has not yet been illuminated by research. My understanding and use of Speech Codes Theory does not attend to instances when individuals might adopt another’s language. It is entirely possible community outsiders could adopt another’s catch phrases such as “throwing shade,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are abiding by the speech code of the community. Perhaps that is where the upset lies for some… using another’s language, but not understanding how it should be used and what it reinforces when used.
How can cultural outsiders evoke a genuine interest and reverence for another culture’s speech codes without it crossing the line of disrespect and the negative connotation of cultural appropriation?
A speech code is essentially a rule or norm for behavior. Our language can back up, reinforce, or even instruct others on what is and is not appropriate. There are multiple ways of looking at this. From one standpoint, someone might appreciate their norms being followed by outsiders as this might be perceived as cultural sensitivity. However, if an outsider thinks they know the speech code, but they really do not, this might be offensive and might be considered cultural appropriation. Just because you know a catch phrase from a community, doesn’t mean that you know, fully understand, or are a part of that community. It might be interesting to see what Gerry Philipsen, the author of Speech Codes Theory, has to say about this as well.
Another branch of your research that I find interesting is your contribution to the book, Celebrity Health Narratives and the Public Health. Can you tell us more about that book and its major themes?
Thanks for asking! This was a super fun project. When else do you get to read celebrity gossip and watch “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” for work? This book stems from our (the co-authors’) research that revealed when celebrities disclose a health status that they influence education, inspiration, and activism. In other words, when celebrities reveal their health status they raise awareness and help teach the public about the health issue and treatment options, they inspire individuals with the same health status, and become actively involved (or inspire others to become actively involved) in fundraising and cure-seeking efforts.
How powerful do celebrity health narratives tend to be in influencing the general population’s awareness and understanding of particular health conditions?
They are incredibly powerful. As our research states, this has potentially negative consequences. Are all celebrities licensed medical professionals? No. Therefore, the information they share might lead fans to adopt certain treatments that may not be the best for them. Personally, I think it’s fantastic when celebrities use their fame for the “common good,” however, it’s important to think about unintended consequences of our messages. If a celebrity is doing some experimental treatment and advocating for it, fans should consult with their medical providers first before doing something similar.
Another book of yours that grabbed my attention was Bitch Slap APA. I actually teach psychology courses at community colleges and I find that my students tend to have trouble grasping APA style from the manual and other resources. I am definitely considering recommending if not requiring my students to use this book for helping them write papers in APA style. How did you come up with the clever title and somewhat non-traditional approach?
As a former student and current teacher, you probably have experienced thinking or saying a few cuss words yourself while trying to master APA. Most people hate APA. Personally, I love it. My husband co-authored the book with me during his RN-BSN program. That program was his first exposure to intense APA usage (AKA all courses required it). I witnessed his frustration as a student and my own frustration in grading easily missed points. Therefore, we decided to Bitch Slap APA. The title came about because we wanted something that clearly communicated that this book was filled with curse words. The title also indicates that one can overcome APA and show it who is boss. A close friend helped me brainstorm titles. Originally, I wanted Fuck APA, but after running the titles by multiple people, Bitch Slap APA was better received. People thought “Fuck” was too much. Although the book has lots of f-bombs in it! I appreciate that you might recommend it to your students. I would caution you about requiring it for purchase. I wouldn’t want you to get fired over a few four-letter words. 😉
What kind of response have you gotten from the academic community about the book?
Academics either love or hate the book. It isn’t for everyone and was never intended to be for everyone. If you’re offended by any type of curse word, then don’t buy it or read it. However, if you love filthy language and satire…come sit by us. We will help you overcome APA challenges and have a fuckin’ awesome paper. 😉
You currently teach courses in Communication. If you could create a specific course from own interests, what would it be and why?
I’d love to teach a privacy management course that explores secrets between friends, families, and coworkers. There is a lot of interesting communication research within these areas. It applies to our daily lives within and outside of the workplace. We all need to learn how to better manage privacy and how to deal with the results that may occur when we choose to share private information, whether it is our information or another’s. I’ve also been itching to teach a lying and deception course. The content is something I’d like to learn more about. As you know, prepping a course takes a lot of work and I enjoy learning with my students.
Any new projects you can share with our readers?
Currently, I’m finishing up a book from my intercultural privacy management research entitled, Gaijin Private Parts: Maintaining Privacy at Work in Japan. The book will be available via Amazon in January 2018. This book will share narratives from foreign English language teachers in Japan and Japanese teachers and supervisors who work with foreign English language teachers. This book will highlight what each group considers private, as well as how they manage (or should manage) privacy at work. It also discusses the role of foreigners in the English language world of Japan.
Secrets and privacy continue to fascinate me. I am also working on analyzing persuasive messages perpetrators used to silence victims of sexual assault. This involves coding statements perpetrators made to threaten and coerce victims to not report or disclose the sexual assault. Then, I plan to learn how best to disclose one’s sexual health status with their sexual partners.
Thank you, Dr. Simmons, for an interesting interview!