Acknowledging Reported Emotions Before ‘Explaining’ Them

Suppose you say, “I’m <angry, sad, disappointed, anxious, irate,….> because of X <my neighbor’s behavior, my father’s letter, my mother’s language to me last night, my husband’s antics….>.” As an example, “I’m sad because  my brother ignored my birthday this year.” Now, suppose your respondent immediately launches into an ‘explanation’ of, or ‘apologia’ for, X: Your brother didn’t really ignore your birthday, it’s just that he was traveling and didn’t have WiFi, and so wasn’t able to call you on the day. Or something like that. This response by your interlocutor attempts to fit the actions or events that have caused you some emotional pain into a causal arrangement that makes your acquaintances’ behavior more explicable; it makes the case that the action was not personally directed, that it was not malevolent, and so on. Your interlocutors are attempting to defuse and remove the sting of the hurt; they are attempting a therapeutic maneuver, devising a narrative that will allow you–as if in the clinic–to tell a story that ‘works better’ for you.

This, more often than not, turns out to be a mistake; such ‘explanations’ and attempts to ‘mitigate’ the hurt, the anger, the pain, simply do not work; you remain as angry, perplexed, or irate as before; indeed, these emotions might have been exacerbated, and you might have an entirely new conflict, one with your interlocutor, on your hands. The problem, of course, is that the original statement has been misinterpreted;  it is a confusion to think these kinds of statements are attempts to assign causal blame; rather, they are reports of feelings.  When the person we are talking to starts to address the causal relationship they think they have detected, they have moved on past the original emotions that actually prompted the report. Contextualizing the reported emotion so that it fits into a wider nexus of actions and reactions and emotions is a worthwhile task; it may indeed make the sufferer feel they are not being persecuted, that they are not alone, and so on. But this sort of amelioration is best carried out after an acknowledgment of the feelings at play. These sorts of reports are calls for help; they report discomfort; they seek relief. But like any good healer, we must first make note of the symptom reported and only then attempt a diagnosis. To begin by offering apologia is a surefire method of negating and dismissing the initial report, which seeks, first and foremost, a hearing.

This kind of interaction is exceedingly common; I have participated in many myself, both as offender and victim. It is often reported as the kind of conversational play between men and women that sets the two genders apart distinctively i.e., men jump to ‘solving the problem presented’ while women ‘process the emotions reported’ (though I think gender lines cannot be so clearly drawn here; there are exceptions aplenty on both sides.) It derails more conversations than might be imagined; and it only needs the simplest of conversational maneuvers, an acknowledgment that we have been listening, to ameliorate it.

On Reading the Unreadable (or Persisting)

Michael Greenberg writes of Jorge Luis Borges:

He advises his students to leave a book if it bores them: “that book was not written for you,” no matter its reputation or fame.

Good advice, but not easily followed.

Borges’ advice isn’t easy to follow because the decision to continue reading is just another instance of that most insuperable of dilemmas: Should I stay or should I go? Should I press on to the summit, risking life and limb, or should I turn back, foregoing glory and the chance to prove myself against the unforgiving elements? I was warned, after all, that I would experience many, many, moments of utter exhaustion, that I would have to dig deep into reserves that I didn’t know existed. Should I persist in this floundering relationship and attempt to rescue it from the doldrums in which it finds itself, thus investigating the depths of my emotional and romantic commitment, or should I cut my losses and run, seeking a better partner elsewhere? The romantic was always supposed to be our sternest test, wasn’t it?

The reading of a book poses this question in particularly vexed form. We have been urged to show a little backbone in our intellectual endeavors; we have been warned pleasures of the mind are not so easily earned; we accuse ourselves, relentlessly, of indolence in matters of edification. We are convinced we are distracted and flighty, flitting from one easily earned pleasure to the next; we are well aware the classics are often ‘difficult’ and require ‘sustained attention’. If a book ‘bores’ us, surely it is our fault, not the author’s, and we should press on regardless, trusting the difficulty journey ahead will bring its own rewards soon enough. Glory, we well know, comes only to those who persist; those who take the first exit on the highway to greatness are destined to only enjoy minor pleasures. So, this boredom that afflicts us, surely it is a reflection of our intellectual infirmity, an entirely ersatz disease. Can its reports really be trusted?

Matters, of course, are made worse in this day and age, as we suffer the ever-growing deluge of the written word, online and offline. We learn every day, with growing dismay, of the decay of the reading mind, the growth of the 140-character missive. Boredom by book seems like an exceedingly common disease, possibly even over-diagnosed.

If we could only trust our own inclinations, our own expressed desires, Borges’ advice would be far more tractable. But we do not. They have gotten us into trouble many times in the past; we know they will continue to torment us so in the future.

Fears of premature abandonment aren’t going away any time soon.

Note: In the past year, I have abandoned classics by Stendhal and Balzac; my guilt lasted for several days, and it was not assuaged when, on reporting these surrenders to a friend, he responded, “Really? I’m surprised. Those are great reads!” Borges can at least rest content his writing will never bore me.

Photocopiers and the Failure to Agree on Meaning

Brett Weiner at The New York Times has put together an amusing Op-Doc titled “Verbatim: What is a photocopier“? As  Weiner describes the provenance of the piece:

In a deposition in Ohio, a lawyer became embroiled in an absurd argument about the definition of a photocopier….The dialogue was so sharp, inane and fully realized that I assumed it was fiction. I traced the deposition back to the Ohio Supreme Court and downloaded hundreds of pages of legal documents from the case. To my pleasant surprise, it was as strange as it was true.

In this short film, I sought to creatively reinterpret the original events….My primary rule was the performance had to be verbatim — no words could be modified or changed from the original legal transcripts. Nor did I internally edit the document to compress time. What you see is, word for word, an excerpt from what the record shows to have actually unfolded.

Wiener’s short film is entertaining enough; the conversation is exasperatingly funny.  My first  response to viewing it–on a friend’s Facebook pages–expressed the suspicion that The New York Times‘ readers might rest content with snickering at just legal conversations:

I hope people don’t think – as the New York Times seems to want them to – that this captures some conversational dysfunction unique to the legal profession or to its discourse.

The New York Times, of course,  seems to think it is on to a good thing when it comes to showing us how dysfunctional it thinks legal discourse can be:

This marks the debut of a new series, presented by Op-Docs, that transforms verbatim…legal transcripts into dramatic, and often comedic, performances. Here you will find re-creations of actual events from the halls of law and government.

But the dysfunction on display in Weiner’s short film is far more ubiquitous and widespread – it is not confined to the legal sphere. This should be evident from the fact that the conversational interlocutors cannot and will not agree on the meaning of a widely used term; such disagreements are not unknown elsewhere, precisely so many conversations between humans are adversarial (like that between the lawyer and his unfortunate witness). In these settings, the acknowledgment of a shared meaning can  all too often entail the concession of a debating point, a rhetorical disadvantage that may seem unbearable enough to seek refuge in obfuscation. At those moments the failure to agree on meaning is a tactic to retain conversational advantage; it allows for the creation of an ambiguity where definite resolution would lead to unfavorable outcomes. (The witness in the video above is clearly worried he might concede too much by agreeing on a meaning of the term ‘photocopier’).

The most common and painful instance of this occurs in arguments between couples headed for a break-up: as the relationship disintegrates and falls apart, so do the conversations between the former lovers. (Our literature is replete with these; the mastery of a novelist is often displayed in his or her recreation of these agonizing moments.) These become increasingly conflicted and intractable; the shortest, simplest resolutions cannot be arrived at. All too suddenly, a pair of humans who had once imagined their significant other could actually intuit their inner feelings and sensibilities, find themselves unable to make their simplest pleas and requests comprehended and heard. Failures of memory are a well-established trope of these conversations, of course–“You hurt me when you did X?” “But I didn’t do X, so I have no idea what you are talking about”  – but so are failures of commonly understood meanings. We find out that our former lover ascribes meanings to “respect” or “commitment” or “listening” or “fidelity” that we don’t; our best attempts to point out we once shared meanings flounder. My examples are all of terms that are quite complex but as folks engaged in break-ups find out soon enough, you can’t agree about the meaning of just about anything as things get worse.

Failure to agree on meanings is more common than we imagine; it is how we indicate to our interlocutors we are not full, or even partial, participants in our conversation; it is how we indicate that our ends are different and will be achieved in our own distinctive ways.