Tag Archives: interpersonal communication

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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Tight Spaces

[The Interpersonal dynamics of Communication are always interesting, and never more so than when we are pushed into close proximity with others. Cramped conditions can be ad-hoc laboratories: chances to see how individuals cope with another’s intrusion into their intimate space.This piece from 2014 is a ‘close reading’ of these kinds of encounters, with an important lesson that usually follows] 

Life has a way of randomly throwing us together with complete strangers in tight spaces.  Trains, elevators and planes typically violate the two- to four-foot zone that the study of proxemics says Americans want to preserve for themselves.  How do we cope?

We’ll skip sitting in steerage on an airliner, where the experience is something to be endured, and where travelers are thankful to still have free use of the pressurized air.  But consider the ubiquitous elevator, and the mix-and-match experience of sharing a meal in a railroad dining car.

As little closets expected to hold 10 or 12 people, elevators represent the triumph of necessity over comfort. Walking up twelve flights of stairs is a good workout. But no one wants to arrive at their business destination looking like they just finished the New York Marathon. So in the cramped space of the little vertical room eyes are averted to the ceiling, the poster advertising the restaurant in the lobby, or to a middle distance that is supposed to relieve others of the need to respond. It actually becomes harder to remain completely disengaged when only one or two are on an elevator. But there are safe tropes for a brief conversation that can help pass the time.  Comments on the weather are usually safe, as are observations on how slow this particular version of the vertical room is. In a hotel, perhaps a timid query about where a co-passenger is from will work. But even that can tread near the borders of the acceptable. Not surprisingly, our comfort in these settings seems to be in direct proportion to the frequency of the experience. Living in the center of Chicago or New York, a person learns how to be a compatible stranger.

As the elevator went up the mood of the passengers inevitably went down.

A few years ago I was at a convention at a large urban hotel where the management thought it would be a good idea to include a small built-in television just above the elevator’s control panel. Strangers who stepped in had to be ready for more than a vertical ride. They were immediately thrust into the world of CNN, where a good day means covering a national or world crisis with live and often disturbing images of mayhem. On this occasion I recall a report focusing on community outrage over a police shooting. The story featured a home video of police beating and subduing two African American men.  Gunshots followed and one of the men died.

Endlessly looping the footage of the attacks over audio discussions of excessive force had the effect of throwing many convention-goers out of their celebratory mood and into the much harder world of a socially polarized nation. As the elevator went up the mood of the passengers inevitably went down.

Here’s the interesting thing. The collection of individuals in the elevator became common witnesses to an ugly incident.  And yet no one wanted to react; no one wanted to reveal themselves to strangers by overtly reacting to the report. Opinions remained too intimate to risk with this transitional group.  Even so, our daily lives are not unlike this transitional moment. Like the tiny space that shuttles between floors, the pervasiveness of our media constantly deliver us to social situations which are not stable for very long.  Media relentlessly push us into vastly different crises that are part of the human drama: some comforting and most disturbing.

Eating in an Amtrak dining car is as close as most of us will get to making contact with a random group of ordinary Americans.

Long-distance rail travel is another interesting case. The day of the long-distance passenger train has mostly passed in the United States.  Even so, some travelers and a handful of trains remain. By custom, a single passenger eating in the dining car of a train will be asked to join others to make a table of four. Amtrak doesn’t accommodate the shy who want to eat alone. Perhaps no other social routine is so likely to throw a person into the intimacy of a shared meal with total strangers. And yet the experience can be surprisingly refreshing.

If most of us live in a bubble of like-minded friends, the dining car is easily going to pierce it. On a recent trip that included lunch and diner I met a clearly well-heeled woman from Virginia horse country returning home after a speech to a woman’s group.  We sat across from a trucker from Elkhart Indiana who delivers buses all over the U.S. (and had to tell us about his $60,000-a-year salary).  At other meals I met two retired professors from Berkeley on their way to see family members in Minnesota, a grizzled Florida retiree returning from a football game in Nebraska, and a perfectly dressed older woman off to see friends in the District of Columbia.

The rules of the table were always clear: references to hometowns, the lateness of the train, and dispersed families are all fair game. Politics, religion and other “third rail” topics are not.  We also had the common experience of having hit a car just after midnight.  It had died and been hastily abandoned on the tracks.  So we compared notes on who had been able to sleep while fire crews pulled the impaled automobile off the front of the engine.

My experience is that Midwesterners sometimes go on for too long about the prospects of their city or college football teams. I usually return the favor by becoming loquacious about the surprising beauty of New Jersey. But there is a bigger lesson here. Spending time in these close quarters is usually reassuring.  If we allow it, even this chance encounter can remind us of our shared and simple decency.