Amy Hodges
ENGL 104

Discourse Analysis of a Postcard from my Sister

My sister Kristin is three years younger than me, and our personalities are very different. As
children, I was always in trouble, and Kristin never broke any rules. I was the leader and would
tell her what to do, and she would cry and tell on me to our parents. We would argue over
whose turn it was to watch a favorite TV show, to clean up after dinner, or to take care of our
younger brother. However, our relationship today is very different. We are good friends who
talk often about our shared commitments to our family, to our careers, and to our lives as
women. I chose to study the community of the Hodges sisters because I was curious about how
and why that change occurred.

In the research, communities like the one made up of me and my sister are called primary
communities of practice, or primary discourses. People are born into primary communities of
practice, and those communities help us “make sense of the world and interact with others”
(Gee, 1989, p. 485). For example, the Hodges sisters made sense of the world through our
family’s community, which was informed by our racial, social, economic, and national identities.
Though, as Ann M. Johns (1999) observes, people can face conflicts with their primary
communities of practice, and members “may have to make considerable sacrifices” to become
active participants in a secondary community of practice (p. 511). Her article analyzes how
students join a secondary community of practice when they enter university and become
socialized as an academic professional. She says that students “often must drop, or at least
diminish in importance, their affiliations to their home cultures in order to take on the values,
language, and genres” of their field-specific culture (p. 511). Thus, I also wanted to create new
knowledge about how conflicts can change the behaviors of primary, not just secondary,
communities of practice.

First, I brainstormed all of the different ways that my community talks to each other. I put on
the list things like letters, emails, texts, Skype calls, conversations in person, and social media
posts. One day, I was in my office and noticed that I had a postcard from her stuck on my
bulletin board. One side of the postcard (Figure 1) had a picture of Russell Cave, which is
located in northeastern Alabama in the US. On the other side (Figure 2), Kristin had written a
short note talking about her trip to Russell Cave and the current situation at her place of work.
Kristin works as a morning news show producer for a television station in Chattanooga,
Tennessee, and she was having trouble motivating her co-workers to help her create a quality
news broadcast.

Figure 1. Front of postcard Figure 2. Back of postcard

While I have received postcards from Kristin before, the content of this particular card
concerned me. I wondered how she wanted me to react. Did she want my advice? Sympathy?
Did she just want to tell her feelings to a safe person, a person who wasn’t going to share her
thoughts with anyone else? This postcard seemed to reflect both that our relationship was so
close, as she shared these problems with me, and that our relationship was so fragile, as if I said
the wrong thing she might be mad. Additionally, it was important for me to show my students
that you could analyze any piece of discourse for this assignment. Sometimes students think
that their family and home lives don’t matter to their university professors, and I wanted to
show them how I use my analysis skills to solve problems in my “real life.” Thus, I chose to use
this postcard in my discourse analysis.

In order to understand the purpose of this postcard, a reader needs to know some background
information about my family life and our use of postcards. After all, Kristin and I often send
texts to each other in order to communicate more quickly, and I already knew most of the
information on the card. The previous summer, we had talked about some of these problems in
person. When my grandmother (my father’s mother) was alive, family members always sent
her postcards from the places we went to. Kristin, my uncle Don, and I sent the most cards to
her, and she liked seeing the places we went to because she didn’t travel. Additionally, she
didn’t use the internet or even a computer, so we had to use old-fashioned methods of
communication to share these travel experiences.

My grandmother passed away in 2014, and Kristin, my uncle, and I have continued this tradition
by sending the postcards to each other. Although, I often buy postcards but forget to send
them. Regardless, I think that Kristin sent this card to me to keep that tradition alive and
remind me of the community we had with my grandmother. The connection between the
Hodges sisters community and the sending postcards community reminded me that “many
people have chosen to be members of one or a variety of communities” (Johns, 1997, p. 503).
The sending postcards community could have easily gone away with the death of my
grandmother, but the members have chosen to continue a discourse that is “representative of
the values, needs, and practices of the community that produces them” (p. 503-504). This
postcard represents how we value our family connection and remembering our grandmother.

[Dr. Amy got tired and stopped rewriting here. What do you think of this new draft?]

A reader might also not know exactly what Kristin wants from me when she sends this card.
Why is she telling me about her troubles at work? What was she feeling when she was writing
this card? Some of these questions I asked myself when I saw the card.

After seeing this postcard through the eyes of an unfamiliar reader, I started to understand
more about James Paul Gee’s comment that Discourses are “saying (writing)-doing-being-
valuing-believing combinations” (1989, p. 484). Although Kristin wrote this postcard to me, it
actually reflects a lot of other behaviors in our community. As Gee (1989) adds, “It’s not just
what you say, but how you say it. […] It is not just how you say it, but what you are and do
when you say it” (p. 483). Unlike our other means of communication, a postcard cannot be
responded to quickly. Especially when I live in Qatar, where it would take weeks to get a
postcard from here to there. I think that Kristin sent this information in a postcard because she
wanted to delay my response, or to allow me enough time to think about my response.

When we were younger, I think it’s safe to say that I bossed her around a lot. Now, I recognize
that she didn’t like that very much. The discourse of this postcard shows that our relationship
has changed because our communication methods have as well. Kristin feels free to talk about
the problems in her life because I do not immediately try to give my advice to her. If we were to
discuss this problem over text messages, I might be more tempted to give advice. If we are
together on holidays and have a conversation about her problems, I can watch for other cues,
like body language and tone of voice, to determine whether I should give advice or not. Instead
of either of these more immediate communication methods, we use postcards to test out
“sensitive” subjects that would have made us fall into our big sister/little sister roles in the past.

In this research, I learned more about why my sister and I communicate in the ways that we do.
We use postcards to signal our membership in our larger family community and to avoid paths
of communication that caused problems when we were kids. I think that we’ve found a way to
work around our differences, and we have adapted our roles in order to have a better
friendship. I am curious to know if other sisters have made similar changes, especially sisters
who grew up in a different part of the world than Kristin and I did. What role does culture play
in nurturing sisterhood?


Gee, J.P. (

Johns, A.M. (