Tag Archives: self-presentation

Sleepwalking Through A Conference Call

CONFERANCE CALLThe ubiquitous conference call now routinely competes with other tasks: texting, cleaning out the inbox of our e-mail, checking online for some piece of ephemera, or counting the minutes until we can leave.

I have a good friend who flies a lot for work.  He regularly commutes to the West Coast, Asia and Europe to meet with clients and other members of his firm.  By all accounts, he’s very good at what he does.  Even so, on those rare occasions when he momentarily alights in our part of the country, I find myself invariably asking him if he could save a lot of wear and tear by skyping or relying on the standard business tool of the conference call.  He usually gives me a half-smile, once asking what I do when I’ve got time on my hands in a meeting that requires listening to disembodied voice through a box.

The truthful answer for me and probably most others huddled around a phone in a conference room is that we go into the human equivalent of a device’s airplane mode. We’re not really connecting. And most of us are probably not ready to play our “A” game. The person on the other end of the conversation is there but also not there.  We hear them, but reacting to them is awkward. There is always a sense that the vital rhythms of listening and responding to the unseen person are irretrievably crippled.  As my colleagues might say, there is no true synchronicity.  Moreover, most of us are now so device-dependant that an extended conversation with the unseen is an open invitation to move on to other tasks: cleaning out the inbox of our e-mail, sending texts, or counting the minutes until we can leave.

Of course the price to pay for being in the same space is not always a picnic. Meeting face to face with an angry clients is taxing. And the logistics of flying long distance are now something to be endured. Crowds, connections and airline schedules have become mazes that can require more energy than the business reasons for the trip. Even so, my friend regularly endures a juggernaut of 8-hour flights and airport transfers to meet in person with clients and co-workers.  He seems confident that he can bind those individuals to his agenda much more completely than would be the case if he relied on e-mails or conference calls.

Separated from those we want to reach, we begin to lose the incentive to transcend differences and work through difficult obstacles.

CONFERANCE CALLFor all of the effort of being in the same space, what is gained?  Any answer includes the obvious and the subtle.  It’s clearly evident that we pick up a lot of meaning from body language, especially (but not only) the face. As has been said many times in these pages, eye contact matters.  It gives us clues to the state of mind of the person we are trying to engage.  Moreover, being within four feet of a person we want to influence means they will have an obligation for attention that is usually lost in distant connections.  Attention adds energy to the exchange. Throw in the additional advantage of the obligation to actually listen, and the miasma of organizational sleepwalking  that characterizes some conference calls can be defeated. My experience is that this ersatz format allows attention to fall to perhaps just one-half of what it could be.  Separated from our interlocutor, we begin to lose the incentive to work through difficult obstacles.

Skype or some version of it is an improvement.  And there is every reason to celebrate the family and personal connections it can help maintain.  But in organizations where personal appearance and presentational skills count much more, making an impression at a distance is difficult.

In addition, knowing that oneself is on camera carries its own distractions.  Self-presentation to a camera is restricting and unnatural. It’s more or less like holding up a mirror to ourselves as we speak.  And most of us will do better not studying ourselves while we try to brainstorm ways to save the world.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

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We Should All Be Up For An Oscar

Contact with another demands that we ask “What drives this person?” It’s not just a question; it’s the question. The process of creating a fully developed character does the service of making the answers more transparent. And it’s why drama as an idea is so powerful as a way to account for what others say. Just as an actor may imagine a “back story” that provides the reasons for their visible acts, so do we all fanaticize back stories to find explanations for the behaviors of those we interact with. In this process, art is the perfect condensation of life.

Literary scholar Bert States approaches the essence of characterization from an unusual but revealing perspective. In his perfectly titled Great Reckonings in Little Rooms, he asks us to consider performers in relation to the occasional live animal who is sometimes written in to a script. It’s a useful juxtaposition because it helps us see what is so essential about the idea of performance.

A dog can learn a set of behaviors that it can do on command. It behaves on cue through a process of simple conditioning. It’s an obvious point, but it’s also a reminder that it doesn’t quite work to describe the dog’s efforts as “acting.” An animal isn’t in the business of constructing a different individual, nor does it consciously perform actions to telegraph what will unfold in the rest of the narrative. Dogs fall below a common measure of higher consciousness measured in a procedure called the “mirror test.”  In it, animals are given a temporary facial mark created with a safe dye, then shown a mirror and observed to see if they recognize themselves. Their lack of awareness on the low side of this threshold—common for a dog, but not for a higher functioning ape—doesn’t mean we can’t be enchanted. The famous wire-haired terrier Asta “playing” “Mr. Smith” in Leo McCary’s The Awful Truth (1937) is certainly one of the joys of that film. A running gag in the story is the apparent pact that Mr. Smith has made with his owners: he will hide his face in his paws while they (Cary Grant and Irene Dunne) conceal a toy somewhere in the room. Then on cue, he scours the apartment to find it. The fun of his presence comes from being a terrier who, like most pets, wins us over by simply showing up. In comparison with actors who have taken on the personas of another person, a dog is always the same dog. In truth, Asta’s “performance” is mostly a trick finessed into something more by good editing.

The point here is obvious but important. The difference with dogs and other animals is that they don’t have social intentions. They may indeed be imprinted with a social nature. But they cannot fake sociality in the ways that theater and life require. Trainers work to teach dogs to take on broad behaviors that signify certain attitudes: indifference, aggression, an enthusiastic welcome, and so on. But the dog is never really in the game of creating and sustaining an alternate reality. We are the species that gives meaning not only to signs, but symbols. We give significance to elaborate codes far removed from the sensory information that animals process. And we delight in constructing alternate (and often totally false) selves, sometimes relishing the possibilities of a masterful deception. Dogs can deliver fragments of themselves of cue. And they surely aim to please. But what is alien to their nature is the essence of ours.

This human capacity for selective representation of oneself should cast doubt on at least one of the oldest clichés we thoughtlessly foist on each other: the imperative of living a life of “personal authenticity.” This aspiration sits near the top of the Pantheon of most-desired human goals. We savor the idea that there are consistencies of behavior that ostensibly point to some durable mental core. Synonyms for the authentic person are mostly eulogistic: “genuine,” “reliable,” “dependable,” “credible,” and so on. By contrast, no similar bouquets are offered to the consummate role-player. We deny the mastery of numerous selves any public honors. But there are surely times when we recognize the truth:  that we exist in multiples, and that—like the actor—an acquired repertoire of roles is a basic life skill. As audiences to each other, we need the other’s familiar persona, even though the reality that we have multiple selves makes the search for intentions all the more difficult.

Adapted from Gary C. Woodward, The Rhetoric of Intention in Human Affairs (Lexington Books, 2013).