November 20, 2011

Talking Past Each Other

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Morris Berman ’66 is what some might call a radical. He’s also an award winning writer and cultural historian. But, regardless of what we might want to label him, I think he has some interesting things to say about our society. In an essay titled “A Show About Nothing,” comparing American society to the show Seinfeld, he says the show, “in a word,” is about the “callousness, the almost autistic indifference, of daily life in America.” A significant cause and symptom of this inability to connect is the shallowness, the hollowness, of the characters’ daily interactions and conversations — or lack thereof.

Here’s when I feel the same indifference at Cornell: when I walk into West Side Express, write my name on a slip, hand it to a person who barely acknowledges me and with whom I barely make eye contact, then wait in silence for 10 minutes and finally walk out, sandwich in hand, scarcely having said a word. This may as well have been the register at the grocery store, the counter at the bank or really just about anywhere. It doesn’t always happen like that. But most often it does. Blank, uncaring, silent indifference on both sides. Mine. Theirs.

It doesn’t just happen at the store either. It happens with our friends. Berman notes that the characters in the show, who are supposedly friends, often “talk simultaneously ‘through’ each other, as though the other weren’t even present.” And so do we. Here’s an example: “I need to vent.” These conversations are not so much conversations at all but rather agreements between two people to put up with the other so long as they too are afforded the opportunity to rant and rave. No one is listening. Just talking. Simultaneously. Through each other.

It goes on at work too — in the context of the manufactured communication of networking-speak. Both parties, while having almost nothing to say to each other, proceed to struggle and fight their way through a conversation because they have implicitly agreed that talking will be mutually beneficial. They scamper to rattle off some fact, some point, some area of mutual relation. But, all too often, the whole thing dies a slow, frustrating death.

What is happening? Why can’t we talk to each other?  Why do our conversations, so often, fall flat or never take off in the first place? I think there are two reasons. First, conversation is viewed only, or primarily, as a naked, crude, mechanistic means of transferring necessary information. Second, we’ve forgotten to listen.

Legendary psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his classic book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, puts it like this: “Utilitarian ideologies in the past two centuries or so have convinced us that the main purpose of talking is to convey useful information … as a result, people have become almost unable to talk to each other outside of narrow topics of immediate interest and specialization.” This, he notes, is a “pity” because it is conceivable that the “main function of conversation is not to get things accomplished, but to improve the quality of the experience.”

This is why we don’t converse with those cashiers, clerks and tellers. Why would we? No information needs to be transferred — except “cash or credit.”

Well, not so long ago, taking Csikszentmihalyi’s word to heart, I made an effort to “improve the quality of the experience.” So, I actually got to talking with one of the employees at West Side. We talked about music. He told me about how he likes John Lennon more than Paul McCartney because Lennon, he thinks, has a more “raw” and “authentic” sound. He also told me to check out a certain Neil Young album which, after listening to, I loved. The whole thing was great. Quality improved! And yes — information was transferred, but this was not the purpose of the conversation, it was just an incidental little treasure.

Real conversation, as I see it, also serves another important purpose. It allows for the chance to be heard, to be really listened to — not just as an information-conveyor, but as person. In part of a six-part series called “Civil Conversations,” journalist, broadcaster and author Krista Tippett explains that “cutting edge science of the brain tells us that actually being listened to has physiological effect … It’s redemptive.” But, very little listening tends to go on when we converse. Often we’re not even looking at each other, faces busily buried in a BlackBerry, or anxiously waiting for it to just become our turn to speak again.

The point runs deeper too — to political discourse. Tippett points out that there is research suggesting that “even in very heated difficult debates, if at the end … [the] people who lose the argument feel that they have been heard, they are better able to make peace with what the result is.” I’m not going to be so bold as to diagnose the cause of the deep polarizing political divide in our country. But certainly, part of it results from a feeling on both sides that in some fundamental sense they are not even being listened to.

Conversation, of course, is not a panacea for all our social and political ills. And it’s not as though we never converse with each other in deep, rich and satisfying ways. We do. But too often we do not. And it isn’t just because we don’t have the time.

So, if we stop viewing people and conversation simply as instrumental means to some end and if we actually start to listen, then maybe we can start talking.

Sebastian Deri is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at sderi@cornellsun.com. Thought Crimes appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Sebastian Deri