Category Archives: Problem Practices

Communication behavior or analysis that is often counter-productive

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Is Basic Conversational Fluency Atrophying?

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We are kidding ourselves if we believe “social media” substitutes for communication in a social world.

It seems that many of us are losing our will or abilities to sustain a genuine two-sided conversation. We now seem to be coaxed into being an audience for the rambles of acquaintances who are desperate for acknowledgment.  When did the idea of engaging in a true exchange with another become so problematic?   The experience is familiar: after an extended time with someone do we notice that we were little more than spectators to their thoughts and feelings.  Some have even mastered the kind of “no breath” ramble that discourages interruptions.

It has always been true that an evening with others might be hijacked by an acquaintance that needs to be heard. Whatever curiosity that could have once existed has been swamped by the conversational equivalent of a filibuster.

This kind of domination of what could be a genuine exchange can come from people in all age ranges. But my experience is that it is most pronounced among older adults who seem to exhibit of a person with fewer chances to have conversational partners. Dustin Hoffman gives us an example in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected )(2017).  His character, Harold, is a needy and aging sculptor, mostly in denial that he is no longer a hot in the fickle New York art scene. Baumbach has given Harold a bundle of declarations spoken into a void. Even his wife and adult children have tuned out.

It’s an old axiom in my field that opinion-giving is a common feature of the male communication style. But I see it more as becoming an equal-opportunity trait. With many exceptions, age seems to drain away interest in others. And so, conversations can devolve into long and unsolicited monologues: reports about what a person has been reading, commentaries or sermons offered but not invited, old stories retold, or the recitation of events in their extended families. Many seem to have forgotten how to share the conversational stage.  At the end of some of these longer performances it is easy to feel like a witness rather than a participant.

If it’s possible that advancing age makes us less willing to do the work of fully engaging with others, the other end of the life cycle poses its own challenges to the idea of genuine conversation. The primary cause seems to be increased self absorption, decreasing opportunities to listen to others with accuracy.

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As noted here before, the most interesting research on this subject is from Sherry Turkle at M.I.T., who has been documenting the well-known drift of the young away from direct interaction to alternate channels that enlarge connectivity but diminish communication richness (Reclaiming Conversation, 2015). The platforms are well-known, including Instagram, Facebook, X, and other forms. Under the misnomer of “connectivity,” changes in technology and adjustments to them are slowly schooling younger generations to prefer communication that is mediated, self-contained and intentionally isolating. Many seem to be struggling to acquire the social intelligence needed to display empathy with others or exercise a degree of self-monitoring.

We are kidding ourselves if we believe the false equivalency that lets texting or “social media” substitute for living in the social world.

Turkle documents a wholesale flight away from direct conversation and toward electronic messaging.  In the words of many of her interviewees, meeting directly with someone is “risky,” “too emotional,” “an interruption,” and “anxiety producing.” As a high school senior she interviewed observed, “What’s wrong with conversation?  I’ll tell you what’s wrong with conversation!  It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you are going to say.”

Responses like these suggest a desire to escape the burdens of acquiring the essential rudiments of what psychologists sometimes call “social intelligence,” meaning the ability to navigate through relationships that unfold in real time.

It has always been true that some conversations are difficult.  But this kind of face-work is also the essential work of a complex adult life. As Turkle notes,

Many of the things we all struggle with in love and work can be helped by conversation. Without conversation, studies show that we are less empathic, less connected, less creative and fulfilled.  We are diminished, in retreat.  But to generations that grow up using their phones to text and messages, these studies may be describing losses they don't feel.

It’s worth remembering that forms of mediated communication are usually not additive, but reductive. Texts, e-mails, and even video games require various fundamentals of communication, but almost always take something away.  It may be immediacy.  It may be full interactivity or feedback. But the most consequential of all is a pale approximation of intimacy.

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About Those Advice Columns. . .

We have little choice but to try to manage social challenges through language.

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It might appear that the heydays of advice columnists are mostly in the past. But who better to offer suggestions for just the perfect response than a writer on etiquette and manners? We usually must talk our way through problems of behavior or attitude, even if multiculturalism, and the raw ends of various cultural awakenings would seem to make any response suspect. After all, we are now a coarser nation. And in some settings, pleasing others with our words or acts carries less importance. In the 21st Century can the quaint idea of ‘etiquette’ still have something to tell us?

I can remember the tough graduate instructor who made the surprising observation in a seminar that we should take the subject of etiquette seriously. He meant the kind of advice freely given in “Ms. Manners” columns and her modern counterparts. The idea took us by surprise and had us wondering if we would soon be using Ouija boards rather than libraries for basic research. What could academic rhetoricians gain by looking at advice in the popular media about how to slip through awkward social knots?

But he had a point. In hindsight, it does not take a deep thinker to realize that a verbal response intended to solve or defuse an awkward moment is always interesting. Our connections with others is much more fluid, but predicated on expectations that will not be violated. We still have no choice but to find the right words and gestures to maintain or strengthen the contacts that make civil and predictable. The seminar members eventually got the point, coming to see any etiquette guide as but a simple form of a rhetorical manual. In fact, old guides offer chances to peer into long-abandoned social norms that help illuminate how we evolved into our current social selves.

The key point here is the idea that negotiating differences is almost always a linguistic task. Movie guns and stunts might have us believe otherwise, but we know better. We usually must talk our way through problems of behavior or attitude. If our goal is to thrive in many different contexts, we have little choice but to try to negotiate tricky social challenges by using the resources of language.

Today the professional advice givers exist online as well as in legacy media, distant heirs to the traditions firmly laid out by Emily Post or Dear Abby.  But we should not really be surprised.  Discussions vary from the familiar (Do I need to spend time with my right-wing inlaws?”), to workplace problems that raise clear ethical issues (“My boss is sexist.”)

For example, the New York Times regularly runs ethics columns in its Sunday Magazine and business pages. In each the authors suggest reasoned responses to gnarly workplace or family problems: for example, what a junior employee should do if they notice that a senior employee is padding the books, or what to do about a relative who persists in offering unsolicited and unwelcome political views. When we substitute what is “ethical” for what’s “proper,” we are perhaps closer to the vernacular of our times. These columns still work, even if they are not addressing the racier behaviors that show up in Slate’s long-running “Dear Prudence” feature.

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Because we easily buy into the process of parsing responses for their appropriateness, questions of etiquette can never be out of place.

There is also a second advice-giver at the Times who deserves special notice. Philip Galanes writes the Sunday “Social Q’s” column in the Styles section. He seems to like reader questions that can be answered with sensible responses that allow a graceful escape. Consider his suggestion to a writer who does not know how to tell a friend that she dislikes her smoking. A fear of saying something has kept the writer from offering an invitation for dinner. His solutions usually take the form of a direct request. Say “I love you, May, but I can’t take your secondhand smoke. If you’re willing to take your ciggie breaks in the great (and frigid) outdoors, we’d love to have you to dinner at our place.”  Even so, he advises that there should be no general lecture on the risks of smoking.

To a questioner who wants to confront the drunk that her young daughter encountered at a children’s party: “Say nothing. You are not the right messenger.”  And to a vegan who is tired of advice and health warnings given by friends who mean well but should butt out, he offers a simple but effective response: “I’m good with my choice, but thanks for your concern.”

We would be mistaken to assume that “good manners” means retreating to passive language. But take another look at the last suggested comment. The suggested “Thanks for your concern” wording for the vegan can have a subtext that might be more brutally said as “Mind your own business.”  But the use of the word “concern” softens a more confrontational effect.  It gives the intrusive advice-giver the benefit of the doubt.  Similarly, the assertion “I’m good with my choice” is perfect: “my choice” is reminder of the vegan’s obvious right to make their own decisions. In its own way it makes the advice-giver seem petty, but it comes wrapped in a non-confrontational “covering.”

Comments to defuse awkward situations always work better when they are close to our own authentic “voice.”  Responses to the big and small moments of social interaction carry our unique rhetorical signatures. The familiar observation we often make about someone else, “That’s what I would expect them to say,” is a reminder that our personal rhetorical style precedes us. This complicates the utility of a “one size fits all” response in any setting. But it does not make the attempts any less interesting.

The idea of finding what might be the perfect response is a good exercise with wide applications. For example, think of a screenplay as a worked-out set of character-specific responses and, inadvertently, as commentary on the appropriateness of responses in a given scene.  Are they the right words for the circumstances? Polite or crude? Do they civilize or brutalize us? Because we easily buy into the process of parsing responses for their appropriateness, questions like these can never be out of place.

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