I was recently asked whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic about the coming year, and my mind drifted to a talk I heard just before the new year by the author Deborah Tannen. An expert in cross-gender and family communication, Tannen focuses on “conversation rituals—automatic ways of speaking that affect the responses we get when we talk to others:" basically, how individual perceptions of joint interactions silently give shape to collective reality. Husband and wife fight because she thinks he wants genuine feedback on work, rather than the positive reinforcement he’s craving. Guy at work is perceived as a bully by his team, when really, as one of six siblings, he learned young to yell loud if he wanted to be heard. Tannen argues that differences in these rituals are often at the center of most dysfunction in relationships, professional or personal. Changing up the conversational rituals breaks up the pattern and catalyzes progress.

Listening to her got me thinking about broader conversational rituals, and the way our politics, culture and economy have long been defined by a predictable equation of who says what when. Elected officials posture largely for the political elite, pundits have focused on small insider-y details that feel irrelevant to the masses, corporate titans repeat economic myths with little review and people increasingly gravitate towards media outlets that reinforce their own existing belief system.

But 2011 showed evidence of a complete rewire of the conversational rituals that got us in our current stagnant state. People spoke out of turn, people spoke who didn’t have proper credentials, people spoke unmediated to each other, people spoke. Period. The net effect was a leap forward a system reboot in how we experience, and thus shape, our worlds. Consider:

Cultural: #IranElection—OK, I know the Green Revolution was in 2009, but those days in June broke ground for new patterns of information sharing and solidarity tactics that were pervasive through the Arab Spring and forever changed our conversational rituals around global events. Within hours, it was clear that traditional systems used to interpret and compartmentalize events within our dominant foreign policy lens were dissolving in the face of the individual accounts endlessly streaming on Twitter. Primary accounts and unfiltered images passed from virtual hand to virtual hand in seconds, and they not only expanded the content that defined our opinions, but they forced us to reconsider our own role in the unfolding events. In the face of immediate heroism and graphic brutality, the divisions between actor and witness became blurred. In our simple choices of whom to follow, what to re-tweet and whether to color our avatars green, we immediately and publicly defined our own relationship to events unfolding across the globe. The ripple effects quickly reached unprepared pundits and statesmen who were no longer asked to explain events to a passive audience but were forced to respond to active participants in a vibrant global experience.  

Economic: #Sharable—Despite being in its infancy, the rise of the sharable economy and what its aficionados call “collaborative consumption” is already changing our conversational rituals around consumerism and ownership. Why go to a hotel when you can get a more intimate and less expensive experience from booking a room in someone’s house on airbnb? Why go to a bank if you can have a more direct a personal relationship with your investor on Prosper.com? Direct lending even extended to #OWS when MoveOn.org set up Occupy Wish List which allowed different encampments around the country to post needs and individuals to provide for them. Taking a centralized middleman out of economic exchange changes the equation on everything from employment to profit models. But it gets really interesting when we realize that the byproduct of peer-to-peer models is the inherent shift from the central organizing principle for consumers from “ownership” to “access.” If I only use my power drill two hours a week, why am I paying for it full time, when I can have one for a fraction of the cost at SwapTool.com? There are very few bad actors on these sites, because the networked community outs them quickly and they are marginalized by the group. The result is a level of confidence among members that allows goods and services to flow freely with promise of payment. In addition to fundamentally changing the conversational rituals around consumerism, the peer-to-peer service platforms—with their horizontal trust-based relationships—should serve as a beacon for every political organizer who could never seem to crack the coveted “Organizing 2.0” code.

Political: #OWS—From the moment it became a story, Occupy Wall Street scuttled entrenched political conversation rituals and has continued to do so with remarkable durability. Elected officials bobbed and swayed before questions about the protests, trying to decide which side was the most politically rewarding. Pundits rushed, and failed, to compartmentalize the flocks of occupiers within an existing familiar context. The notoriously silent 1 percent have gone public in an unprecedented defense of their right to be rich. The December 17 protests did not merit much air time in traditional outlets, but the Ustream feed had tens of thousands of viewers consistently throughout the day. Even when the media finally settled on a familiar theme of “police versus protesters,” occupiers spoke directly to one another and a sympathetic public to invert the normal stereotyped roles. The most searing and lasting image of the protests came not from a cable news crew or a New York Times photographer. The cell phone video of protesters being tear-gassed at point-blank range passed like wildfire via every medium possible and spawned a generation of pepper-spray art.

The unfamiliarity of the brand, the contagious nature of the tactic and the lack of recognizable figures speaking for the movement created the perfect storm to shatter the political conversational rituals. While others lament the lack of #OWS demands, organizational infrastructure or political plan, I applaud their most significant contribution of disrupting that conversational norms and throwing entrenched power off their talking points.

In 1994, when the concept of conversational ritual was new, Tannen wrote an OpEd for USAToday titled, “You Can Talk Your Way Through The Glass Ceiling.” The piece explains her focus by stating, “I want to give everyone more control through awareness of how ways of speaking affect getting credit, getting heard and getting promoted—right up through the glass ceiling.” I’m not sure that the democratic glass ceiling will be shattered in 2012, but the conversations in all the areas that matter this past year make me hopeful we’re getting closer.