Tag Archives: Rod Hart

The Damaged Individual Who Cannot Self-Monitor

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump takes the stage at a campaign rally in Windham, New Hampshire, January 11, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder - RTX21VNU
               REUTERS/Brian Snyder   theatlantic.com

To be fully human is to be responsive to the shifting     landscape of others’ feelings.  

People who spend time assessing how we relate to each other usually also reach the conclusion that we possess not just intellectual intelligence—however that is measured—but also social intelligence.   We have various capacities that help us function effectively with others.  These traits include such basic ideas as empathy, the capacity for identification, and a reasonable awareness of what others need from us. This last ability for self-monitoring is a fundamental attribute of maturity.  It’s what makes us social creatures.

Certainly not all communication is so self-regulating.  Hit your finger by mistake when hammering a nail and the first sounds you utter are not likely to be intended for others.  But most of the communication that spills from us encompass the parts of our sentient life that we deem fit for sharing.

Consider even in the smallest exigencies of life:  for example, the reasonable expectation that a person will acknowledge the courtesy of another who has held open a door, or the stranger who has paused to assist someone scrambling to collect groceries that have fallen from a torn shopping bag. There are no hard rules, but the recipients of such acts of consideration are usually expected to acknowledge the courtesy. To be rhetorical is to be aware and responsive to the shifting landscape of events and their witnesses.

This is an interesting moment to think about the social necessity of self-monitoring.  I can’t recall any modern presidential campaign when one of the contenders so casually violated the impulse for self-restraint.

Beginning in the 1970s, rhetoricians began to extend this idea of self-monitoring by attempting to locate the varied dimensions of “rhetorical sensitivity” which could make “effective social interaction manifestly possible.”1  Most notably, Rod Hart and his colleagues developed a massive correlational study of attitudes within individuals that might motivate them to weigh the effects of their actions on others. In their work “rhetorical sensitivity” was essentially a synonym for the impulse to read the needs of others and monitor one’s own rhetoric accordingly. 2

The goal of the project was to develop an inventory of attitudes—known as the RHETSEN scale—to test the idea that “rhetorical sensitivity is a function of three forces: how one views the self during communication, how one views the other, and how willing one is to adapt self to the other.”  Worded where agreement affirms these forms of awareness, some of the items on the inventory include the following:

One should keep quiet rather than say something which will alienate others.

The first thing that comes to mind is [not always] the best thing to say.

When talking to your friends, you should adjust your remarks to suit them. 

A person who speaks his or her gut feelings is [not always] to be admired.

We should have a kind word for the people we meet in life.

This is an interesting moment to think about the necessity of self-monitoring.  I can’t recall any modern presidential campaign where one of the contenders so casually violates the impulse for self-restraint.  Even past leaders who could be crude or thoughtless in private (Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon come to mind) were careful to honor the basic dignity of Americans with varied backgrounds that were within the range of their discourse.

To be sure, partisanship always frays the boundaries of what is acceptable to say in public. And the existence of “live” mics everywhere adds to the burdens of keeping strictly private thoughts out of the ears of others.  We are deep into a new age where audiences are sometimes unseen and unintended. So the risks are greater that a candidate will be heard uttering slurs against individuals or entire categories of potential constituents.

Donald Trump is both the perfect case and a cautionary model.  He is one of the victims of a fully wired age.  At the same time he has eagerly tapped into group tensions and antagonisms that energize his core supporters, using we/them binaries to build a political base based on a strategy of division rather than unification. Mexicans, African Americans, Mexican-Americans,  immigrants and scores of women have felt the cold breath of his offensive characterizations.

When voters express concern about Trump as a role-model, this lack of self-monitoring is partly what they mean.  We expect Presidents to be the personification of rhetorical sensitivity.  We want them to keep their deepest prejudices to themselves.  Virtually every idea of leadership works when the arrows are pointing away from division and toward inclusion. The problem with dividers with insufficient concern for the feelings of others is that they cannot govern a free and pluralistic nation.  They seem only capable of making the society coarser.


1. Roderick Hart and Don Burkes, “Rhetorical Sensitivity and Social Interaction,” Speech Monographs, 39, 1972, 75-91.

2. Roderick Hart, Robert Carlson and William Eadie, “Attitudes Toward Communication and the Assessment of Rhetorical Sensitivity, Speech Monographs, March, 1980, 1-22.

Parts of this essay are adapted from  the author’s The Perfect Response: Studies of the Rhetorical Personality (2010).

The Self-Referential Bore

Caravaggio's Narcissus  Source: wikimedia.org
Caravaggio’s Narcissus
Source: wikimedia.org

Given the interconnected lives that most of us lead, a preference for the personal “I” can show an embarrassing lapse of awareness about the material and social worlds that sustain us.

For some years Rod Hart at the University of Texas has been using software to “read” large quantities of presidential speeches to discover characteristic patterns of phrasing. One category simply codes how many times the speaker is self-referential, using “I” verses “we,” “you,” or “us.”  The overuse of “I” has always been a reasonably reliable indicator of how self-focused and self-absorbed a person is. By inference, we can wonder if such a person needs their communication partner to be anything more than a passive foil.   Richard Nixon scored high as a self-referential speaker, as did Gerald Ford.  Nixon was so self-focused that he would sometimes talk about himself in the third person, as in his comment to the California press that they “won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”

Psychotherapists are especially tuned to hearing this kind of retreat into the self, often interpreting a string of self-referential statements as evidence that an individual is locked into their a very narrow and personal frame of reference. This is especially evident if a person has a partner but never uses the more inclusive “we,” or if the singular form is used as perhaps an unconscious way to distance the individual from family or friends. There are exceptions, but we expect such an individual to be less able to sympathize, identify with others, or listen with useful accuracy.

Some cultural wags have observed that societies such as ours, with its overriding emphasis are on the individual are by definition narcissistic. Contrasting Chinese or Japanese norms tend to favor first consideration for the collective good. So it’s a common complaint that in America personal needs often trump concerns for what would help a group or community. At its worst, this can lead to what the great economist John Kenneth Galbraith famously called “private wealth and public squalor.”

It strikes me that our focus on individuals and their happiness is both the glory and curse of American life. A local college advertises for students with the misplaced slogan, “It’s all about you.” A bank ad a few years ago proudly showed an obviously wealthy executive suitably ensconced in a high-floor office filled with mahogany and glass. The caption that went with this pitch for a setting up a “wealth management” account was the breathtakingly myopic, “You did it all yourself.”

Really? What were the ad’s copywriters smoking when they wrote this?

Only persons totally in love with themselves could be so blind to the many forms of support—parents, mentors, schools, service sector workers keeping our national infrastructure more or less in tact—who played their part in helping the rest of us enact out versions of the American Dream.

As we choose our words we need to ask whether we’ve earned the right to be exclusively self-referential. That privilege is surely evident if we are talking about our feelings and opinions.  We are the only ones that can own them.  But given the interconnected lives that most of us lead, a preference for the personal “I” can show an embarrassing lapse of awareness about the material and social worlds that sustain us.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu