This is a special edition of The Ruffian.
Perhaps you have sat in an aeroplane, feeling tired, a little grumpy, in no mood to chat with your fellow passengers. When the person in the seat next to you tries to start a conversation, what do you do? You can’t physically escape their presence. You can somehow indicate that you don’t wish to talk right now, thanks very much - but unless you do so delicately, you risk offending them. Of course, you can just refuse to talk, and damn their feelings. Here’s the one thing you can’t do: you can’t not communicate.
In 1962, a psychologist called Joseph Luft carried out a simple experiment. He brought two strangers together in a room, made them sit across from each other and instructed them not to talk or communicate in any way. After twenty minutes, he interviewed them separately about how they found the experience. On the face of it, it does not seem like a difficult task, but Luft discovered that participants found it highly stressful. His summary makes it sound like a kind of torture:
…he has before him the other unique individual with his on-going, though muted, behaviour. How does the other subject respond to him and to the small non-verbal cues which he sends out? Is there an attempt at understanding his enquiring glance, or is it coldly ignored? Does the other subject display postural cues of tension, indicating some distress at confronting him? Does he grow increasingly comfortable, indicating some kind of acceptance, or will the other treat him as if he were a thing, which did not exist?
A strange truth about communicating is that we don’t get to choose whether we do it or not. In the presence of others, we are always sending messages, as helplessly as a star emits light. And in the online era we are almost always in the presence of others. When someone sends you an email, you communicate by replying and by not replying; when someone comments on a picture you posted on Facebook, you communicate by liking the comment and by not liking it; when you read a WhatsApp message without replying to it, the other person wonders what you meant by that.
Even when you deliberately send a message, you have frustratingly little say over what it says - that is, over what it means to whoever receives it. You can say or text the words “I like you” and the other person might receive them as “I despise you”. You can carefully explain why you believe something to be true and the other person can walk away with a totally different idea of why you believe it.
What your interlocutor thinks you mean is heavily influenced by what they know about you, or think they know about you. That might be a lot, in the case of a spouse who “knows you better than you know yourself”, or almost nothing, in the case of a stranger, in which case the void may be filled by stereotypes and prejudices. Either way, the impact of what comes out of your mouth or your phone is not something you can ever fully control. Communication is co-creation, whether or not we want it be.
The truth is, it’s misleading to think of communication as an individual act of will. A person doesn’t simply decide when or what to communicate; she participates in a communication that’s always already underway.
The Force Field
This is Harry Stack Sullivan, an American psychiatrist from the first half of the twentieth century who is not as well known today as he should be. Sullivan believed that to understand why a person is lonely, or anxious, or overbearing, it isn’t enough to dig into their childhood or probe their inner motivations. You need to study how they relate to others, and how others relate to them. Psychiatrists devoted a great deal of effort to understanding what is going on inside someone’s head; Sullivan believed they should be studying “processes that involve or go on between people.”
Something of a melancholy man himself, Sullivan was interested in loneliness, which he defined not as the condition of being alone but as an unmet yearning for emotional connection. More recently, the cognitive scientist John Cacioppo developed Sullivan’s ideas about loneliness, arguing that it is a self-fulfilling condition. The lonely person becomes hyper-vigilant to perceived slights or threats from her social environment, and reacts to these perceived slights by either withdrawing into herself or lashing out. The people around her start to think of him as moody, difficult, and erratic. So they keep their distance from him, which increases his isolation.
In common with other psychologists of his era, Harry Stack Sullivan was influenced by physics. Just as physicists had proved the existence of an invisible, all pervading fields of gravity and electromagnetism, so Sullivan believed that that any group of two or more people exist inside a psychological force field which silently shapes their thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Intuitively, we conceive of personality as a set of more or less fixed attributes: I’m calm and reflective; she is impulsive and neurotic. Sullivan proposed that the attributes we think of as our own are actually effects of the force field.
In any dialogue, each individual is exerting a force on the other, pushing and pulling them, like planets in a solar system. Imagine a newly appointed manager who is meeting her deputy for the first time. She projects herself as assertive but friendly, and by doing so elicits an agreeable and accommodating response from her number two, which reinforces her own agreeability. The two colleagues part ways full of optimism about their working relationship. In an alternative scenario, the boss pushes just a little too hard to assert herself at the start of the meeting, which provokes a push back in the other direction, which leads her to try and impose her dominance further. Both parties walk away thinking, “My new colleague is a nightmare.”
These two scenarios involve two people and four different personalities. That’s because human communication is a feedback loop. The signals we send, often unknowingly, shape the responses of the people we’re talking to, which shape our own behaviour. When you study someone’s personality, argued Sullivan, what you’re really studying are these interpersonal dynamics, which are in turn shaped by the wider force fields of culture and society. Today, we would add technology. Whether it’s email or Twitter, different communication platforms exert their own particular forces on the conversations people have on them.
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Reading the Room
The most common mistake people make in communication is that they focus exclusively on what they’re saying and neglect the conditions in which they’re saying it - that is, on the force field. That’s what the expression “reading the room” really means: assessing the forces at play before you speak and adapting your behaviour accordingly.
A guy tells you his life story on a date without first creating the conditions in which you might have been interested in hearing it. A politician reels off a long list of policies without convincing her audience that they should listen. Companies issue public statements under the illusion that consumers care about what they have to say. In each case, someone or some people have forgotten that human communication isn’t just the transmission of information, but an event in which people participate.
The force field may shape your responses, but you can shape the force field too; you can try and create better conditions for communication. A door-to-door salesperson who spends the first minute of a conversation complementing the house-owner’s taste in decor is shaping the conditions for his pitch. Coke spends millions on advertising so that when you’re in a store you’re ready to receive the message sent by its packaging (pick me). A skilful politician makes a connection with voters before attempting to explain her policies. A team leader who confesses that he has screwed up encourages others to speak honestly too.
Every encounter we have comes with pre-set conditions, like an app comes with default settings. Good communicators are always trying to understand those conditions so that they can mould them to mutual advantage. Even as they engage in a conversation they’re trying to assess the forces that are pushing it one way or the other. That way, they can influence those forces rather than just surrendering to them. This is particularly important in conversations that involve conflict. There’s a lot to say about this (my forthcoming book is all about it) but for now I want to take a brief look at one of those forces in particular.
Let’s say you’re having a discussion about something on Twitter and your interlocutor says something sarcastic or scornful or just generally shitty to you. How should you respond? If you want to keep the conversation going (big ‘if’, of course) you should probably resist the urge to adopt their tone.
One of the most powerful forces at play in any encounter is what communication scientists call the “norm of reciprocity”. We have a tendency to respond to certain behaviours in kind. In person that means we synchronise: our faces make the same micro-movements, our speech settles into the same rhythm, we fidget to the same beat. Reciprocity happens across media too, because it’s emotional as well as physical. If someone discloses to us something they know or feel, we feel the urge to do the same for them. If someone says or indicates that they like us, we want to show we like them. And if someone is hostile to us we have a powerful urge to be hostile to them.
For anyone trying to make a tense or conflict-ridden conversation productive in some way, one of the most difficult challenges is to resist mindless reciprocity. In the midst of an argument, our mental default is to adopt the tone of the last remark made to us. Twitter is like a machine for mindless reciprocity. Skilled communicators are not ruled by impulse. They summon the cognitive resources to step back from the interpersonal dynamic in which they’re enmeshed in order to consider their strategic options.
Of course, you should always retain the option of responding in kind. Sometimes hostility is the right option to pick. Maybe your goal is to attack that person’s reputation or self-esteem, or even to humiliate them, and you don’t care about harming your relationship with them. In which case, go ahead - choose that option mindfully. But if you’re talking to someone with whom you want or need to stay on good terms, or if you want to model what civil discourse looks like - to them, or to whoever is watching - then following your antagonist down to the low ground is self-defeating.
In that case the best course of action is to consciously choose a different path, instead of the one they are effectively inviting you to follow. They might just respond to your implicit invitation, allowing the conversation to become more productive. Or they might not. Either way, you will be shaping the interpersonal dynamic rather than submitting to it. Although it might feel satisfying in the short term to kick back when you get kicked, in reality you’re allowing the other person to control you. Or rather, you’re allowing the force field to define your behaviour, rather than the other way around.