Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Interpersonal communication

I have been musing a lot about how, considering what social creatures we humans are, we manage to communicate so poorly on the whole. I am not sure why this should be since it seems we have every opportunity to master at least our own language and most of us have at least a modicum of ability to understand the state of mind of other people.
And so, I was reminded recently of this particular internal dialogue I had with myself. I think I understood myself, although I may get the wrong end of my own stick on occasion.
The beauty of text is that one can subsequently revise the words to edit out one's own self-contradictions. Real life, where conversations happen in real-time, mean that we do not have this luxury and here perhaps, I uncover at least one reason why poor communication results.

This was written recently on a trip to Scandinavia where a dull flight afforded many opportunities for observation:
Interpersonal communication is an imprecise art. I am, I like to think, quite articulate. By this I mean that if I have a thought, concept or emotion to describe, I can usually express it precisely and feel I have, if not conveyed it accurately, then at least clarified in my own mind what it was I was trying to say to my own satisfaction.

In addition I feel, though I may mistakenly inflate my own abilites from an observer's perspective, that I am quite astute when it comes to the protocols of conversation: I attempt to listen attentively, giving feedback with nods and "hmm, yes" kinds of backchannels at regular intervals, I make appropriate eye contact and smile in the right places. Years of sales meetings and customer dinners have made this something that comes easily to me without self-consciousness. Or so I flatter myself to believe.

Why, then, are some people easy to talk to but not others? For instance, I was talking to a slovakian lady a while ago on the way out to Hungary. For two hours we traded comments, anecdotes, opinions and replies. And it was lovely! A more interesting couple of hours on a plane I have rarely spent.
And now, across the gangway is a seemingly effervescent swedish lady who, though very personable, seems impossible to talk to for any length of time without awkward silences developing. Somehow, where last week, words came easily and naturaly as things occurred to me to say, or in response to some small story, today, the words sound thick and sticky in my mouth and my voice sounds to me unfamiliar and forced. My comment about northern living in scandinavia being a relatively recent human development and blond(e) hair being only 11000 years old met with a slow blink and puzzlement (usually I only see this in religious zealots who deny the possibility of evolution). I realised that seeding the conversation through facts she might find interesting, was not really working. I asked a few questions of her but even though I constructed "open" questions as my sales training had emphasised (and which surely people do naturally anyway?) the answers seemed to be dead ends.

So, the conversation foundered with what I think I discern as a palpable sense of failure on the part of both parties despite evident willingness from us both. So why the difference? And why was I unable to be my natural self in the former case but not the latter? The recipient? Her reactions or lack thereof? Chemistry? Maybe she just didn't want to talk to me, although I sensed that was not the case from her body language. And I am not being all Dunning Kruger here, I am sure.

Ok, Body language can be misread or even not noticed: On the bus on the way to the plane, a man was talking to (or mostly at) an elderly couple. The conversation seemed consensual, that is, both were seemingly happy to engage in it and neither of the couple seemed to want to disengage from this insensitive largely-transmit-only speaker.
The younger man was explaining to these two complete strangers many aspects of his life and they occasionally, as opportunity permitted, reciprocated with their own little sets of facts and opinions.
But why? Why do people volunteer information like this? (says I, ironically, pouring out words and ideas to unseen readers, if they exist at all.) Why are they driven to tell? And what is it that causes them to choose the particular information they offer?

In a social or mating arena possibly people divulge those thing about themselves that they think will make them appear interesting or attractive and thereby provide increased status: they offer that which will make them seem more desirable. And yet, much conversation is haphazard, some even inane, with seemingly no thought given to content or context.And in general, this is natural and quite enjoyable.

The Swedish lady is now asleep and her traveling companions are engaged in polite but distant (from their body language) conversation. This appears to be ignorantly hopeful on behalf of the man and polite, possibly to the point of defensive on the part of the young lady. And beyond the words, many other messages are unconsciously sent, received or missed. I can see them quite clearly.
He is not going to get her number. Not unless he learns to shut up and listen - to all the messages available.