The following stream-of-consciousness style essay is inspired by The Charisma Myth by Olivia Cabane. You can read my summary and review of the book on Goodreads.
The point of The Charisma Myth was to help the reader adjust their body language to reflect their interests and desires. And it was interesting for me to read not just as a means of self-development, but also as a means of self-awareness and interpersonal awareness.
Obviously, people don’t always mean what they say. But the opposite is true too. Sometimes people do mean what they say, and if you read too deep into the language used or body language exhibited (even if the assessment is completely subconscious), then you can easily misunderstand people.
To use an example from the book: You scrunch your face after I say how important personal privacy is in the context of government surveillance. I can assume that you reacted that way because you don’t like what I said. But maybe the sun is just in your eyes. Another example: Someone asks you how long you’re going to be “stuck” in your current job. You can assume that they think you’re powerless over your situation, or that they disapprove of the work you’re doing. But maybe they’re just trying to be funny, or maybe they didn’t give their word choice much thought. It’s easy to misunderstand people when we delve too deep into things.
And it can be hard to say exactly what you mean. You don’t think in words or language, so speaking involves several encoding and decoding processes. Things quickly get lost in translation. And everything gets more complicated when you yourself don’t even know what you mean.
I don’t know why, but knowing and understanding oneself is, at times, impossible. My only guess is that this is because so much of our mental processes are subconscious. And the reality of the subconscious is that it’s not so easily drawn out or exposed. But that makes me wonder…
When you read a book and can’t summarize it afterward, does that mean you didn’t understand it? Does it mean you weren’t paying attention? When you watch a movie and have no response or comments afterward, what does that mean? It’s possible that you really weren’t paying attention. But in these instances, it’s more likely that your unconscious mind alone is absorbing the information. And that’s entirely different from not paying attention.
We pick up a lot of behaviors and perspectives subconsciously. We do this through observing how other people behave and how other people react to our own behaviors. This subconscious internalization is how stereotypes are created and how things like gender roles and cultural norms come into being too.
Unconscious processes aren’t inherently bad or worse than conscious processes. The reason the subconscious exists is presumably to protect us from the chaos of information overload. But what’s cool is having the ability to become aware, present, and conscious whenever you want to. Being able to read something and then articulate what the text was about is an important skill to develop. Comprehension is a passive process, while restating, describing, interpreting, and commenting are all active processes. You’re always naturally engaged in passive processes, but active processes require more awareness and practice to develop.
These types of active processes are hard and unnatural at times, but they’re learnable skills. It really just takes practice and courage. Courage, you ask? Well, of course! Restating, describing, interpreting, analyzing, and commenting are all courageous actions. You’re creating something–or at least, recreating something–each time you describe, interpret, or comment. Creating takes courage. And so courage is paramount in addition to practice, practice, practice!
Confession: This whole website is my practice arena.
I’ve come to love explicit clarity and exchanging ideas. And actually, my quest to express myself and describe the world around me in an explicitly clear way only started in January 2016 when I created this website. That was the moment when, inspired by a lecture given by Steven Pinker, I decided to get more serious about expression and communication in general. This is when I began actively working on improving these active processes within myself. It’s why I summarize and review the books I read (sometimes publicly on Goodreads and other times privately in a lonely Evernote document) and try to keep conversations going when I have no background knowledge of the topic at hand.
Maintaining a one-on-one conversations that go over your head is a wholly different kind of skill that I may write about when I truly master it, but briefly stated: you have to repeat what you hear and then try to make connections. Outloud. You could be talking about anything — databases, neuroscience, Beyonce, who cares. Basically, when you feel out of your element talking about a subject, and don’t want to change the topic for whatever reason, the first step is to repeat, rephrase, and summarize what you hear. Use phrases like “So what you’re saying is…” and “So it’s like….” The other person will either correct you or affirm your summary. Then you have the option to make a quick connection and tell an anecdote, or let them continue the discussion.
So I’ve already started reaping the benefits of these past three months of practicing these active processes (restating, describing, commenting). My meager skills with them open up an entire different medium of learning: discussion. I can start a conversation with practically anyone and keep it going. And obviously my general writing and communication skills have improved too. So all the discomfort (and that critical “Wow, you’re so dumb” feeling) was worth it in the short term. And I’m confident that as I continue to develop these active skills, everything will pay off much more in the future too.
New Understanding of Empathy
So like I said earlier, this book was about improving your own awareness and body language. But another thing it made me realize is that sometimes we really do mean what we say even when it doesn’t look that way. If I look uncomfortable because the sun is in my eyes (and not because I carry a silent resentment for you that is slowly eating away my love of life and all things good), then maybe that explains why you look uncomfortable too.
I have a slightly different perspective of empathy now. All of the body language ticks outlined in the book apply to the both of us, both you and me. So it seems that this self-awareness and knowledge of the unconscious (and even a love of explicit clarity) can become a problem if we’re not careful. It can put us in a position where we’re constantly evaluating other people’s body language, and then misinterpreting it. It can make us paranoid, distrustful, or just plain lonely (We like people who understand us. So if you constantly misinterpret what I say or do, I don’t want to be around you.).
But having awareness about this possibility of misunderstanding can help us be more empathetic. We can look at not just what someone says or how they act, but the whole picture of the interaction.
Communication is fascinating, and empathy continually reveals itself to be more complicated than I can imagine. It’s hard to understand ourselves and our own motivations. When people from different backgrounds and people with different convictions and ideas come into our lives, things can get messy. But if we resolve ourselves to a state of constant improvement and careful self-awareness, then maybe we can start to bring the results of our unconscious processes to the surface. And then, with those gems in hand, we can better appreciate and understand the people around us.