Tag Archives: self-monitoring

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).

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Sometimes the Perfect Response is No Response

The psychological rewards of angry responses are overrated.  Even a brilliant retort is not likely to force an errant advocate back on their heels.

Photo: Harry Truman, the Library of Congress
Photo: Harry Truman, Library of Congress

For many of us the urge to enter the fray to correct or admonish others is a constant.  It is always tempting to think that we are being helpful when we explain to the misguided how they have failed to notice their mistakes.  It’s a self-fulfilling process.  Others offer corrections or criticisms of our ideas or acts; the least we can do is return the favor.

Aristotle was one of the first to systematically describe how a person should defend their ideas when challenged.  He equated the ability to make counter-arguments as just another form of personal defense. Though the great philosopher used other words, he essentially noted that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be pushed around. This was about 380 B.C., demonstrating that some things never change.

Even so, it has perhaps become too easy to fire off a rejoinder or a personal attack. Most of us find it hard to be in a public space and not encounter cross-court slams from an ideological opponent that seem to need an equally aggressive return.

The digital world easily brings our indignation to the fore.  Many websites welcome comments, the majority of which are misguidedly protected with anonymity.  And it isn’t just the trolls that are rattling on about a writer’s sloppy logic or uncertain parentage. In private and public settings everyone seems to be ready with a hastily assembled attitude.  The felicitous put-down is so common that screenplays and narratives seem to wilt in their absence.  What dramatist could write a scene about a family Thanksgiving dinner without including at least a couple of estranged relatives rising to the bait of each other’s festering resentments?  To make matters worse, some of us actually get paid to teach others how to argue, with special rewards going to those who are especially adept at incisive cross examination.

There are many circumstances when the urge to respond is worth suppressing.  Sometimes saying nothing is better than any other alternative: less wounding or hurtful, or simply the best option in the presence of a communication partner who is out for the sport of a take-down.

The psychological rewards are also overrated.  Even a brilliant rejoinder is not likely to force an errant advocate back on their heels. You may be itching to correct them. But they are probably determined to ignore you.

And there are costs to becoming shrill. Harry Truman famously sensed this.  The former President had a hot temper.  Even before he was elected he had more than his share of critics.  But his approach to responding to criticism made a lot of sense.  In the days when letters often carried a person’s most considered rebuttals, his habit was to go ahead and write to his critics, often in words that burned with righteous indignation.  But he usually didn’t mail them.  The letters simply went into a drawer, which somehow gave Truman the permission to move on to more constructive activities, such as a good game of poker.

Not responding to someone else’s provocative words can have at least two advantages.  The first is that your comments probably won’t be received anyway.  We tend to ignore non-congruent information, a process known in the social sciences as “confirmation bias,” but familiar to everyone who has ever said that “we hear only what we want to hear.”  The second advantage is that rapid responses to others can carry the impression that the responder lacks a certain grace. Not every idea that comes into our heads is worth sharing. In addition, fiery replies sometimes indicate that we weren’t really listening.

Time gives us a better perspective.  It allows us to better anticipate how our responses will be judged.  Most importantly, it helps us break the cycle where one wounding response is simply piled on to another.

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