Tag Archives: Communication

Happy

The limits of my language means the limits of my world. – Ludwig Wittgenstein

I am usually lukewarm about the word “happy”, or at least how it’s used in much of the Western world. There was always something about it that bothered me and I didn’t quite know what it was until I read Lisa Feldman Barrett’s highly informative and very engaging book, How Emotions Are Made. She explained that “happy” in Western parlance is “happy happy joy joy” as in, no worries and all is perfect. In the Eastern world, however, the goal is to be content and equanimous rather than happy.

The different cultural perspectives on the emotion “happy”, as well as many others, have helped me a great deal. In one of the courses that I teach, Theory of Knowledge, we have a unit on knowledge and language in which we address the role that language plays in knowledge creation. A really useful activity is to ask students about terminology – anything from slang and colloquialism to idioms and full translations in other languages – that they cannot quite translate into English. It’s enlightening to see how much of what we “know” is contained in our ability to express it. And if our language lacks an idea, can we still know it? Compelling questions.

For example, if you asked me what I was looking for in a partner, I’d rattle off a series of adjectives, two of which are in Yiddish**. Some people would hear this and nod approvingly and others would lose interest as I started looking for the corresponding descriptions in English to convey the meaning. But if I didn’t have these words, would I be as conscious of looking for these attributes?

Even without knowing other languages, anyone who has gone outside of their hometown has likely experienced a moment of confusion when asking for something that goes by a different name elsewhere. “Soda” vs. “pop” for example. In university, a dinnertime game in the first few weeks was “What do you call . . . ” in which we learned different regional colloquialism for such words. For travellers, a similar hostel game is “What does this animal say?”, which I last played around a fire in a freezing family home in northern Vietnam.

Gezellig is a Dutch word that I think should exist in more languages because then perhaps the concept would exist, as per Wittgenstein. I first learned this word from Feldman Barrett’s book and then heard it while talking with a bartender in Amsterdam. This word means cozy and nice, and also refers to time spent with friends. A concept in Singlish is kampong spirit. Kampong is the Malay word for a rural village, so kampong spirit refers to the helpful attitudes people in a certain place exhibit towards each other, whether friends or strangers. I’ve heard my climbing gym described as having a kampong feel, and I do believe it does.

Regardless of the term that best fits, I know how I felt during my family’s Passover seder today. I joined the Saturday evening seder on Sunday morning here in Singapore, which brought together my immediate family and grandparents with some friends and some of their families. I experienced the gamut of emotions over several hours and I was glad to notice and label them. It helps me think. I was also glad (another emotion? different? how?) to be there with everyone. Passover last year was right about the time when Covid took a turn for the worse here and we’re in a very different place this year. I am thankful for that. And without Covid, we would not have had this seder together and I am filled with golden bubbles that we did.


**heymish – used to describe a person (or place) with a cozy, comfortable, non-pretentious attitude or vibe
mensch – used to describe a truly honourable, decent person

Coney Island, Singapore – April 2020

How to Have a Conversation

Recently I talked with a student who has a bit of a reputation. I’m teaching this student, we’ll call him Jay, for the second year now and I teach him in two courses, IBDP Psychology and Theory of Knowledge. Like many individuals, young and old alike, Jay behaves differently in different contexts and around different people. When I met his mother for the first time she introduced herself as the mother of this “infamous” (her word) young man and told me to reach out if I had any problems.

I’ve taught more than a few of “those kids” over the years and I really like them. I really just like young people, actually, and that’s among the reasons I have chosen to work with them. My conversation with Jay highlighted the importance of having conversations, real ones about real things, with the young people we are raising and with anyone willing to take part.

Conversation

Oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conversation

It started because Jay asked, while reviewing his psychology notes, whether it’s true that being in an MRI with a nipple piercing can kill you. I answered the question the way I try to answer all questions from all people, which is in the spirit that they are meant. This was a real question for this student and it was important to address it as such.

After MRIs, we talked about tattoos, parents, and schoolwork. This led us to talk of what he actually enjoys and we talked about his experiences in the working world. We talked about what it means to be a good person and what it means to do the right thing, and about global politics and the current state of his country of origin. And through it, I learned a lot about who Jay is and how he sees the world.

Upon leaving the room, I wondered two things. First, would this conversation have happened had I not responded openly and respectfully to the question about piercings and MRIs? And furthermore, how many opportunities like this do we miss?

I have written about this before, particularly in a very old blog post that you can read here. (This is an example of a piece of writing on which I have not wavered, which is not true for everything I’ve written.) It is worth revisiting because conversation is important and conversation with young people is critical to who they become and the world that they know. If we want young people to engage with the world around them and improve it, we as adults need to walk through this world with them. We need to guide, support, facilitate. We need to respect, listen, hear, and respond. We need to do this with young people but also with one another. Without conversation, without connecting with others, we will be unable to make the world a better, more peaceful place.

I worry that authentic conversation is not a priority, however, and perhaps there are good reasons for this. There are indeed times when something else should come first. But do we lay ourselves bare in conversation as often as we could? Do we accept that this is a time for being vulnerable and for welcoming vulnerability in others?

Or are there conversations that we prefer not to have, leading us to shy away from any conversation at all? “I don’t like confrontation,” an old friend used to say. We are no longer in touch and I don’t know why, but I suspect it has to do with a conversation we never had.

Confrontation
A face-to-face meeting; the clashing of forces or ideas

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/confrontation

This is an important point: Conversation is not confrontation. There are plenty of ways to have what I have learned to call courageous conversations that are not confrontational, are not arguments. There is a resolution in the end but not a winner. The frame of conversation is critical to engagement. I will respond much more openly to an invitation to talk openly with you if I know neither of us are looking to win in a zero-sum argument.

Lately I have become interested in SCARF, a model by David Rock that addresses five domains of human social experience that have profound affects on brain function and therefore our responses to other people. The five domains are: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. These domains activate either threat or reward networks in the brain, much in the same way as snarling dogs and money. Neuroscience has demonstrated that we are less capable of solving problems and thinking clearly or creatively when we feel threatened. It is no wonder that confrontations and arguments are unpleasant, inconclusive, and often lead to unwelcome changes in relationships between individuals. Along these lines, it is not a surprise that we grow defensive when our status, sense of certainty, personal autonomy, feelings of relatedness, and sense of fairness are threatened. We throw up walls and we become untouchable in order to protect ourselves, and our minds do not work clearly.

This is not the case in conversation. A conversation can be, and important ones often are, confronting to the self without being confrontational towards another person. We can disagree but not argue. Instead of trying to be right or convince someone else that they’re wrong, we can talk with the aim of understanding where, why, and how we’re different. Minds may or may not change but we will all come out wiser, wiser about who we are and about how to understand and interact with the people around us.

There is much we can learn when we are brave enough, strong enough, open enough, to try. Willingness to be vulnerable is essential; it is the way to know ourselves and to show ourselves to others. This is how we must be if we want a world, and I do, in which we hold one another in the palms of our hands. Within such vulnerability is a great strength that allows us to take each other by the hand and forge a path together.

A place to begin is by hearing others and responding in ways that show we are listening. A place to begin is to hear Jay ask about piercings and enter into a conversation about life and the universe.

The Story is Not the Experience

My eyes are not working as they should be right now. The words are blurry, so I’m typing with eyes closed. I suspect it’s some sort of migraine; I’ve been there before. A headache slammed into my head shortly after I returned from my run and I’ve taken painkillers and drunk a whole lot of water, and I’m almost done with my first cup of coffee. My head is far less sore than it was half an hour ago, but my eyes haven’t caught up.

And yet, I could be wrong. Perhaps the blur is because the lenses of my glasses are simply dirty. That’s easy to test, so I take them off, give them a good wipe, and aha! Problem solved.

Yes, sometimes it’s really easy to tell when something’s wrong. Physical pain, someone we love “forgetting” to return calls, a colleague crying in the office, a teenager’s choice to adopt a dramatic new hairstyle are all obvious calls that something is up. We can see it, or feel it or hear it.

But these are symptoms, and all we know is the symptom but not the cause, so we make assumptions and our assumptions might be mistaken.

If we can be wrong when something is tangible and immediate, consider how much more wrong we can be when it’s not. I have written before about the importance of listening and building relationships and, more recently, of the challenges of communication in a digital era. That piece focused on the difficulty of sharing meaning in the absence of visual cues, but did not explicitly address the challenges of communication across time, place, and space. And it is crucial to do so.

I am speaking from the lens of one living half a world away from my family. We speak daily and message almost as often, yet we still experience breakdowns in communication. Why?

As we know, the purpose and method of communication changes out of necessity when crossing time zones. We often need to wait to contact others and there is precious little real time immediacy in our conversations. Instead, we lag. I could send a message to my mum about my blurry eyes right now, but it’s the middle of the night where she is and I can’t expect her to respond, so I turn to friends nearby or other sources for help.

I would rather have spoken with my mum, but by the hour our time windows align, my eyes have returned to normal. There are far more interesting things to discuss, and really there is no point in worrying her unnecessarily. So she will never know.

Now imagine this in a much more serious context. Imagine your partner is on a business trip and has just been robbed. Wallet gone, identification gone. When you finally speak six hours later when it’s morning for you, your partner has already gone to the police, recovered the wallet, and attended the late afternoon meeting. “I was robbed” is now a very different story. Your partner might have been terrified at the time and never mention it. Perhaps the fear itself has become a memory or perhaps he was robbed at a strip club. Either way, you’ll never know.

Let’s go further. Covid-19 is a phenomenon that has spread across the globe and it has caught us in very different places. Our experiences in the last few months differ based on location, age, employment status, living situation, health, and through what we choose to read. But we do not recognize that we see things differently, even as we compare across countries. Even though we should know better, we expect that others are experiencing largely the same things as we are.

Those sharing real time and place with a person who has contracted Covid-19 have a different experience of the illness than those who are not there, and the lived experience might not be communicated faithfully. Those present who experience scary moments, for example, might for a number of reasons omit the memory of these moments from any later conversation. This can happen either intentionally much in the same way as the examples above – why worry someone who is far away and can do nothing anyway? – or unintentionally – those moments have passed and there are other things to talk about

And yet, they may well expect others to know how they were feeling or what was happening. They may be upset that the listener does not respond with as much concern as they had expected. The speaker assumes shared context, which might be mistaken. In this case, the listener misses the fact that just because we are talking about the same thing does not mean we experienced the same thing. Similarly, it is also understandable that the speaker may leave things out. But omission means that the listener does not have the same story. 

I do not think this is anything new. We know and largely accept the above when reading the news. We know that the way we respond to nationally, globally, and culturally significant events such as war, famine, festivals, and Super Bowls varies widely depending on our experiences with these events. But we often do not consider that the same might be true of personally relevant events. We might not consider the power of time, place, and space when it hits much closer to home. 

And we might therefore make the mistake of expecting others to see, understand, and behave just like us.