Tag Archives: communication

Parting Thoughts

                                     Wikimedia.org

Communication is not done with any of us, nor can we be finished with it.  It will have its way with us for the remainder of our days. 

These are the weeks when the nation launches another cadre of college graduates into the world.  The annual ritual marks an important milestone for them and their parents.  Most welcome the day; but I can sense that for others it comes with some trepidation.  Graduates are given a map that is ambiguous. With a mix of joy and uncertainty some move on to jobs, perhaps a lazy summer at the shore, graduate school, or  back to the shelter of their old bedrooms.  No thanks to our politicians, they enter a world that is far from the stable platform they might have imagined back in high school.

When I graduated from the leafy outdoor theater at a college in California things were not that different. True, the Civil War was over.  Rails had finally been joined at Promontory Point in Utah. And we were getting spoiled by the comforts of indoor plumbing.

With all of its uncertainties, the frequently rampaging river of American life obscures what we thought would be clearer pathways.

In actual fact, the stormy year of 1968 held out the same kind of outstretched hand of opportunity, but we also knew that thorns were concealed in the other. Then, the Vietnam War threatened to be my generation’s next experiment in communal living.  And that was only one reason the nation faced doubts that stained its collective soul.  Our cities had been battlegrounds.  A president, his brother and Dr. King had all been killed by assassins. Racial justice was still in the distant future. What other options were there but to draw on youthful reserves of optimism and move on, comforted in the possibility of marriage, a good job, or perhaps escaping deeper into academia.

With all of its uncertainties, the frequently rampaging river of American life obscures what we thought would be clearer pathways.  That’s especially true for young adults in the arts and humanities.  Even so, I think anyone who has become a student of communication has a little bit of an edge, but only an edge.  In truth, communication is everybody’s business.

When I have the chance, I usually offer some version of this idea in a parting comment to the seniors graduating from our program:

When you begin to think about it, your degree in this subject carries burdens. This isn’t a static discipline you learn and then move on. There really isn’t such a thing as complete mastery of the arts of connecting with others. Like all of us, most of you will spend most your days in hot pursuit of rewards for changing the thinking of others. This may require acts of creation, education, interpretation, explanation, persuasion, justification, reporting, narration or defense. To be sure, all of these efforts can be taxing. And listening to others do the same can turn mastery of the tools of everyday discourse into a life-long enterprise. This is true for all of us, whether or not we have chosen to study communication formally.

Over time college graduates sometimes abandon in life what they studied in college. But that will not be true for you.  Communication is not done with any of us, nor can we ever be done with it. It will have its way with us for the remainder of our days. Over a lifetime of relations with others our abilities to connect will sometimes open doors and occasionally not be enough to keep them from closing. We will often wonder what we might have done to tame the forces that create barriers. 

So, as the cliché has it, we must embrace even an uncertain future: to be ready to find whatever communication resources we can to make friends out of strangers. 

The Eyes Have It

       Caravaggio                                        Wikipedia.org

It’s easy to forget how much we give up when we send words in place of ourselves.  The inability to make eye contact begins to starve communication of its hold on us.

A recent New York Times report describes managers at “fast casual” restaurants assigning staffers to greet new customers with a reassuring and direct “welcome.”  Apparently businesses found too many first-timers leaving if no one in charge acknowledged them.  It’s a specific application of the more general principle of a direct gaze as the near-certain requirement of  interpersonal engagement.  Child development specialists remind us that an infant’s search for its parent’s eyes is not only a joy, but an early sign of a child’s readiness to become a social being.  Only weeks after birth infants begin to seek out the eyes of their parents. It’s nature’s way of cementing the bond that assures that the many needs of a relatively helpless newborn will be met.

It’s also a given in the business and academic worlds that connecting effectively with another person means returning their eye contact.  This can vary from culture to culture.  But it’s own norm. Even experts offering advice for choosing a new pet from the pound note that a good bet is usually an animal that gazes on our face.  And it’s clearly true that  our pets are veterans at the game of shamelessly using those looks of expectation to get us on our feet to provide some useful service.

It seems that the poets were right.  We look into the eyes of others as if they were “windows of the soul.”

Try a simple experiment to test the essential nature of direct eye contact. Talk to a friend or relative face to face, but look at one of their ears rather than their eyes.  The poor victim will often move to try to adjust to your off-kilter stare.  They want to be at the center glidepath of your eyes to find signals of your engagement.  Looking away suggests you want to break off the exchange. It seems that the poets were right.  We look into the eyes of others as if they were “windows of the soul.”

Of course what is going on is more than reciprocal staring.  We have an entire lexicon of signals that are modulated through the eyes and the facial muscles that surround them.  Ask an actor to perform the emotions of surprise, concern, fear, or joy.  Most of the work of suggesting these inner states is going to happen within the pupils of the eye and the muscles of the eye-lids brows immediately above them.  Often these are the only tools a film or television actor has, since they are usually shot in tight closeups.  Witness the last half hour of Damien Chazelle’s much-praised La La Land (2016). The final scenes of the former couple are predicated on our noticing eyes that lock as if they still had a shared future.

What is obvious here still needs to be said.  The more we shift to mediated forms of personal communication—texting,  phoning, e-mail and their equivalents—the more we explicitly violate this fundamental norm of communication.  Like most, I delete some unread e-mails with the gusto of a chef cleaning up the debris on a cutting table.  It’s easy to forget how much we give up when we send words in place of ourselves.  Indifference to the channels we use and an unwillingness to make eye contact with our circle can starve communication of its hold on us.