Tag Archives: the American character

An Emerging Norm of Low Affect?

teens and cell phonesThe boiler that should be white hot in youth can now seem too tepid, a long way from generating  a significant head of steam. 

Mental Health professionals often recognize a common symptom in patients characterized by an immobile face, little interest in the world around them, and a very narrow expressive range.  This at the end of a scale that is far away from the idea of an animated and expressive individual. “Low affect” is sometimes a sign of depression. It can also be a side effect of certain medications. But I also wonder if it is becoming a comfortable norm for too many young Americans who have overdosed on the sedative effects of screens.

This thought came home a few weeks ago watching a college drama instructor working with her students in an acting class.  A course in acting can be a wonderful experience even for students with no interest in a theatrical career.  Taking on a role is a chance to try out the feelings and emotions of another character.  It’s a way to step into alternate personas.  Add in the fact that most plays keep a character’s pain or joy close to the surface, giving new and productive emotions a rare workout. I recommend the course to any student in any field of study.

In this particular class the instructor was working with one young woman who was doing a monologue in which a daughter explains to a friend a newly discovered cancer that may well claim her mother. Over the years the parent-daughter relationship has been stormy. The last line of the speech included a hint that it might be better if the mom succumbed sooner rather than later.

The segment from a Christopher Durang play suggested a long and complicated backstory that included the sometimes ambivalent feelings between mother and daughter. Tensions between the two have ebbed and flowed over the years. Yet the young actress could only motivate herself to “play” the reading in a gray apathy.  Her lines were spoken in a monotone and with a face that gave nothing away.  That was her understanding of the character’s state of mind, she noted, in spite of the teacher’s insistent plea that this character surely had other emotions—anger, disappointment, fear, regret—that needed to surface.  The frustration of the instructor over the flat reading was obvious, similar to what Dustin Hoffman’s perfectionist actor felt in the iconic Tootsie (1982). Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey  tries to get his girlfriend and acting student played by Teri Garr to perform “rage” for an upcoming audition.  That’s what her  character needs to feel, but Garr’s is up to little more than a whimper. That is, until Dorsey finally coaches her to bring the anger out in the open.

Of course it’s risky to draw much from these simple examples.  But they fit with growing evidence that too many young adults have been benumbed into a muted conversational style.  “Performing” one’s enthusiasm for an idea or activity seems out of style. The boiler inside that should be white hot can seem too tepid to generate a sufficient head of steam.

Anyone who teaches the arts of advocacy beyond high school knows this challenge.  We typically  want students to issue full-throated spiels of passionate conviction in their debates or speeches.  What faculty often hear instead is a shocking statistic or example delivered in a whisper, stripped of all anger or irony. The effect is similar to a musician who may have an instrument capable of many octaves, but chooses to use only the middle two.

 We might extend a booming greeting to a friend we are surprised to meet on the street.  But that kind of vocal and physical effort makes no sense if our thumbs are doing all the “talking.”

We have research from Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation, 2015) and others suggesting that conversation—at least the traditional form of face to face exchange–is not the defining moment to make an impression that it was for early generations. Younger Americans now “meet” on screens, keep in touch on screens, and deliver news in the staccato shorthand of texting.  We see this as “connecting” and “talking” through “social” media.  But staring into a screen for six hours a day requires us to mobilize almost nothing of the physical tools of expression.  Face, voice and emotion do not easily reconfigure into words seen as pixels or heard in compressed digital channels.  We might extend a booming greeting to a friend we are surprised to meet on the street.  But that kind of vocal and physical effort makes no sense if our thumbs are doing all the “talking.”

Then, too, greater numbers of students are now showing up on the nation’s campuses with increasingly complicated mental health histories that might explain restrained expression.  More now depend on the use of psychotropic drugs to treat anxiety, depression, eating disorders and ADHD.  The effects of the relevant medications overprescribed for them can vary.  But some can subdue what might otherwise be a buoyant personality.

In the 1960s sociologist David Riesman noted a broad cultural shift that changed the nation’s character: an alignment that re-oriented Americans from the “inner-direction” once common to individuals in an agrarian culture toward a more adaptive “other direction” required to succeed in industrial organizations  (David Riesman, et, al, The Lonely Crowd, 1961).  The other directed person had to be more social to survive.  Our growing attention to personal media may signal a smaller but similar kind of characterological shift that leaves its own marker represented as a drift toward low affect.  In the process the body becomes a more constricted medium than it once was; it’s owner less inclined  to “perform” passions and interests with the kind of vocal animation that we might now judge to be nearly “manic.”

Interestingly, over a longer period of time the problem ceases to be an anomalous result.  The subdued self just becomes a new norm that makes the natural enthusiasms of childhood stand out in contrast all the more.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

The American Pitch

Selling Lemonade in 1960 Wikipedia.org
Selling Lemonade in 1960                   Wikipedia.org

At the beginning of the American Century most citizens believed that social mobility was possible if a person was bold and audacious enough to seek it. 

In a professional baseball game a pitcher’s arm may only last 50 or 60 pitches.  But playing the game of American life may require that we never stop. To each other we pitch for charities, business ideas, book proposals, movies, advertising campaigns and political contributions.  Most of us know the rules. Make the best case you can in a compact time period you are given. And never get caught throwing curve balls.

One kind of pitch is the fundraiser. It’s perhaps a function of our times that we are flooded with invitations to attend events designed to raise money for causes that are worthy, but starved for support.  A recent fundraiser at a posh country club was raising funds for a non-profit organization that provides basic housing and life skills for the developmentally disabled.  Amidst the brie and smoked salmon a room of well-healed people joined an auction to bid on weekend getaways and meals at 4-star restaurants, with all of the money going to the cause. Similarly, local newspapers regularly feature heartrending attempts to crowd-source the costs of an essential medical treatment that a community member cannot otherwise receive. Only in America do we seem to miss the irony of ubiquitous pitches made by neighbors to find dollars to fund services that other advanced societies provide to all.

A friend in London notes that she mostly encounters sidewalk pitches for non-profit organizations. But the appeals are usually to benefit distant populations suffering from famine or other scourges. The goal is to make a quick plea for a worthy cause, with a follow-up request asking the listener to immediately text the money to the needy group. Another friend in Denver confirms a similar pattern, but for more local charities.  She cautions that a walk up busy 16th Street at the center of downtown is done more easily if pretending to talk on a phone. That apparently keeps those who are ready to pounce at bay.

We have also institutionalized pitches.  Candidates meet with potential donors mostly in private to make the case that they alone can rescue the nation. Presidential politics has now become a fully commercialized enterprise. PBS television stations have similarly turned their once-gentle requests for funds into sometimes gaudy infomercial extravaganzas. Television has even enshrined the act of making a pitch in shows like CNBC’s Shark Tank, where the proposals of budding entrepreneurs function as a kind of entertainment.  We get to see how potential investors react to a “hard-sell” made by a dreamer claiming to have invented the next big thing.

The man “on the make” is an American type, enshrined in such social science classics as Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans (Vintage, 1973) and David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd  (Yale, 1961).  As members of a younger and still unformed society our forbearers knew that social mobility was possible if a person was bold and audacious enough to seek it. This kind of up-by-your-bootstraps optimism marked the dominant style of early MGM films such as Babes in Arms (1939), and has been lovingly caricatured  in the Coen Brother’s Hudsucker Proxy (1994).  The brashness of American hype is a fantasy about ourselves that we still celebrate.

What makes a good pitch for a new product or service?  Circumstances require different approaches, but as a general rule the presenter can usually rely on a few elemental guidelines.

1. Be brief and to the point. Explain the concept quickly. Then move on to the comparative advantages that make the new idea superior to competing products or services.

2. Explain the unmet need that is satisfied with the new product.

3. Put the audience in the picture. How might they or a family member use the service?

4. Sell your experience and know-how as part of the deal. It's true of investors that they want the expertise of the pitch-maker as much as they want the product or service.

No business school today could be without courses that require sales and marketing students to storm their classes with a blizzard of hypothetical opportunities too good to pass up. That is one of many possible reminders of why a cultural milestone like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) remains not just a sad family saga, but a quintessential American tragedy.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.eduPerfect Response logo