The scholar Hugh Dalziel Duncan believed that communication has to be studied as a form of theater. We are not only role-players in our lives, but in his simple aphorism that I never tire of quoting, he noted that theater is the process “by which we become objects to ourselves.”
Plays, films, and all forms of written or performed narratives allow us to see our lives in the proxy behaviors of actors in a performance. A character on screen may not be living a close facsimile to our own lives, but their responses to others are still recognizable. Empathy and imagination give us all the room we need to compare our communication choices with a panorama of figures ranging from Hamlet to Harry Potter.
It follows that sometimes the most direct way to access communication challenges is therefore to get down to cases. Communication is almost always a matter of relatively fixed templates: sets of expectations about what someone facing the demands of one setting must do if they are to use their communication abilities to make things better. And that frequently means taking a look at a key scene in a film or play to discover how key figures handle the demands imposed by their own social settings. We’re easily drawn in. And we find that our natural hard-wired love of narrative means that we can place ourselves in almost any scene and compare our likely responses to those given by a character on stage or on the screen.
Most films have such moments, as in the recent Before Midnight (2013) written in part by actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. They play a married couple who came together over the course of two earlier films, and are now drifting out of love and into middle age. The film is a feast for those interested in conversational analysis. But two current favorites are from more popular and commercial films released a few years ago. Each film offers a moment when a simple communication misstep builds into a volcano of hurt and anger. Both play to a familiar litany of questions we ask whenever we failed to realize our intentions with another person. What went wrong? How could someone with good intentions create the interpersonal equivalent of a complete train wreck?
The Family Stone (2006) revisits the familiar terrain of an engaged son bringing his fiancé home to meet his family. Everett Stone’s clan is a free-thinking group of comfortable New Englanders. Dad is a professor. Diane Keaton’s mom is a sharp conversationalist, and happily uses it to build a protective fence around a younger gay son who is deaf, and who is in a committed relationship to an African American man. This modern couple is also hoping to adopt a child. Enter Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker), the new fiance and a Manhattan executive who is invited to meet the family over dinner. Meredith’s views are more conventional that her hosts. And that spells trouble as the conversation turns to the younger son’s impending marriage. She clearly likes the family, but she’s thrown off by Mom’s offhand comment that she wished all of her children were gay. They might stay around longer, she muses. And Meredith takes the bait. Her questions are earnest but potentially wounding to the senior Stones, who wear their liberalism as badges of honor. Will an interracial marriage be more difficult? And would the Stones really wish for gay children? Dermot Mulroney’s Everett is suddenly silent as these question settle over the meal like a bad stomach ache.
As the scene plays, we see a classic communication breakdown. One person lays down an ambiguous observation. It’s followed by a clumsy question that is easily misinterpreted as a marker of bigotry. Meredith is clearly at sea, and wants to be in the good graces of the family. But none of the Stones are interested in helping climb out of the hole she has fallen into.
The Family Stone is a modest film, but this scene is a brilliant miniature of the potentially rough terrain of even simple statements and queries. As it plays, we see why language and the tonalities of presentation complicate what appears to be the simple objective of finding a secure place in another’s life.
A second favorite scene is built around one of the many winsome figures the Hollywood producer/writer James L. Brooks has created over the years. In Spanglish (2004) Bernice stands out as a sensitive soul in a family of over-achievers. Actress Sarah Steele’s empathetic character has an impulse to please which closely binds her to a spirited grandmother and to John, her affectionate father (Adam Sandler). But she must also defend her fragile self-esteem against aspersions about her weight from an overwrought mother. Deborah has made Bernice her project. And while the razor thin compulsive has mastered the outward rituals of everyday conversation, she tends to substtitute empty talk and hours of jogging for true intimacy.
She is the provocateur in this conventional Brooks set up of an upwardly mobile Los Angeles family. Connection and affirmation are put at risk by a character who is not so much malevolent as clumsy in understanding the fundamentals of social intercourse. Even when Deborah returns from a shopping trip with new clothes for Bernice, we sense that her ostensibly thoughtful act will have a painful denouement.
The scene opens with John helping Bernice complete her history homework, making a game out of a quiz question asking for the name of the famous World War II President who was not a “ruse.” What does the word mean? Bernice asks. A “Phony,” he notes. “So this president was not a ruse. . . He was the real thing.” When Deborah returns with bags of new clothes, Bernice is at first delighted by her apparent thoughtfulness. But when she tries on the gifts of a coat and sweater, they are clearly too tight. A quick look at the tags of all the other new garments confirms that Deborah has deliberately bought everything one size too small. This is her idea of an inducement for her daughter to lose some weight, and it unfolds as a slow motion humiliation in front of John and other members of the household. The moment snuffs out the excitement that was just seconds old, leaving Bernice to find a way to resurface with some of her dignity intact. She recovers, fighting back tears. There is no big outburst, just a few rueful words said more in regret than anger. “Thanks Mom. . . I’m glad you didn’t get here a little earlier or else I wouldn’t be able to tell you that your gift is a ruse. Please excuse me.” And she exits.
There is agony in this small but emblematic moment where, as Brooks observes, Deborah feels “the futility of anyone understanding her point even as she makes it.” Those are his script directions to actress Tea Leoni who plays her. She isn’t connecting with members of her family: something she senses, but is powerless to remedy. She is tone deaf to her daughter’s needs. And somehow her ideals for success and a perfect waistline have also made her blind to the charms of her own family.