Category Archives: Problem Practices

Communication behavior or analysis that is often counter-productive

Looking for Listeners

                                Photo: Moira Clunie

The smartphone has a special role in our drift towards inner-direction. By its very nature it is primarily self-referential.  Who has called or texted or mentioned me?  Has my tweet been shared? Has my post been sufficiently “liked?” 

In any hierarchy of communication deficits, the availability of receptive and interested listeners must be near the top.  Good listeners are in relatively short supply while eager talkers are a dime a dozen.   What the composer Igor Stravinsky lamented about pipe organs applies to the overly loquacious: they can be “monsters” that never seem to take a breath. The challenge is finding those souls whose lives are sufficiently centered in their lives to be open to experiencing all that another has to say.

We pay to hear others perform music or theater pieces, maybe stand-up comedy or an occasional TED Talk. As Neil Postman famously noted, if our culture fails in some ways, we are at least ‘the best-entertained society on earth.’  If not to hear what is on Aunt Bertha’s mind, we will still make time for the biggest spectacles our media giants can produce. By contrast, we rarely expect to be enchanted by the everyday thoughts of others.

This means that the verbal and digital traffic that clutters our lives is mostly outbound. Many of us are on lifelong quests to find others who might want to consider our thoughts. By contrast the incoming lanes that can reach into our consciousness are mostly empty, or sometimes closed for lack of use.

Few teachers would perhaps acknowledge it, but one of the joys of having students is that they are a captive audience. Even if they are not exactly in the thrall of a teacher’s words, students will humor their instructors enough to allow them to believe it.

 

The ‘me decade’ never ended.  It’s becoming the ‘me century.’ 

 

This problem of a shortage of truly open ears extends to nearly every realm of human contact. Nearly all of us who write books receive modest returns as royalties. Theater and even motion picture producers usually know the dread of a nearly empty house. I’ve been the organizer of public meetings and town halls where a sense of doom sets in when the invited presenters show up to see a room of mostly empty chairs.  Most of us are simply too insistent that we be the recipient of our own attention. Figure in hours for digital grazing, and we hardly have time left to give ourselves over to others.

The heavies that contribute to a problem are represented in the self-mocking phrase, “Well, enough about you.” They include over-indulgent parents, work culture that easily robs employees of a sense of agency, dismissive judgments couched in mental health categories, and commercial messages that insist that we should treat ourselves as if we are ‘Number One.’

I’d reserve a special role in the shift away from other direction and toward inner-direction for the smartphone.  (If you know this blog, you knew this was coming.)  By its very nature it is primarily self-referential.  Who has called/texted/mentioned me?  Has my tweet been shared? Has my facebook post been sufficiently “liked?”

So if others like us are broadcasters more than receivers, we must arm ourselves to go into the world ready to absorb the self-referential barrages. It’s one reason that more of us sense the need to rebound from an evening spent listening to overactive talkers with enough solitude to help us rediscover the joys of the larger universe.

The Red Carpet to Uncertainty

Awards ceremonies have the unintended effect of creating disappointment in celebrants who may not be celebrated.

The Oscars always loom large in February.  As the cliché goes, it is an American version of a coronation ceremony.  We may not have royalty to fawn over, but Hollywood celebrities can be suitable substitutes.

The event is interesting for another reason. Rhetoricians relish finding underlying verbal routines in recurring forms of discourse: certain generic forms of content and presentations that endure. And the annual awards given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will not disappoint.  It seems that this peculiar spectacle has influenced how we stage many other humbler efforts at group recognition.  If you are associated with any organization, you know that there will be annual rituals to honor donors, participants and achievers.  And in many cases the format may have the same “deep structure” as the annual event held in the Dolby Theater in Hollywood.  In a university setting these kinds of celebrations include graduation, departmental awards given to students, awards to faculty and staff, and recognition of athletic prowess.  The form also survives at end-of-the-year dinners put together by all kinds of organizations, academic and business units, non-profit groups ready to woo more contributors, and even gatherings of pint-sized grade schoolers. We all have our Oscar moments.

It’s best if you can give award recipients a shiny object.  If the organization’s finances are leaner, a computer-generated certificate may have to do.

Any dress-up event includes most of the benchmarks of the form.

True, few of us show up at these events wearing a tuxedo. Indeed, universities have cleverly covered up the shabby clothes of their professors with academic robes.  But any dress-up event includes most of the benchmarks of the form: general praise for the work of the organization from the events’ host, anticipation focused on the honorifics that will be issued from the stage at the front of the room, awards introduced with just a hint of suspense, and the promise of witnessing the surprise of individuals as they chosen for special recognition.  The form is completed when the recipient stumbles to find dutiful praise for as many as possible.

Becoming an Also-Ran

These faux Oscars are usually defended as morale-boosting exercises.  And, to be sure, the award recipients must love them. But there is a downside as well.  As Kenneth Burke reminds us, ‘in unification there is also division.’ The problem is that, for every award winner, there is usually a much larger number of possible candidates who will become de-facto also-rans. If a university department singles out a few students at graduation for special honors, I am always reminded that there are many more who can’t help but feel they were unfairly bypassed. Similarly, make one person “employee of the year,” and there are bound to be others in the room who wonder why their contributions were overlooked.  The ratio of “winners” to slightly annoyed attenders can easily be 1 to 400: a real rhetorical effect that is often overlooked.

The point is a simple one: awards ceremonies have the unintended effect of creating disappointment in the celebrants who might have been, but were not, celebrated. I know, because I still remember those spring “field days” in grade school where the blue ribbons went to the fastest kids. The rest of us settled for the grey “participation” ribbons given to anyone who showed up.