Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Relationships, Political Debate ... and Basic Skills (12 Jan. 2013)

           During the era of the audiocassette, at the time of the great flourishing of the American 12-Step movement — probably some time in the 1980s — a bootleg tape circulated of an address to a 12-Step conference by a psychologist who'd been asked to talk about relationships.

            Relationships were a hot topic in the last third or so of the 20th century, with a lot of people complaining of having problems forming and maintaining serious relationships.

            So the psychologist had been asked to give a talk for a lay audience, but a knowledgeable one, on relationships.

            As I recall the tape, the psychologist wasn't going to deal with whether or not there'd been an increase in problems of relationship, nor with sophisticated analyses of what might cause those problems and how to cure them. He asked instead what abilities might be required to maintain a relationship and decided that one obvious one was the ability to carry on a serious, intimate conversation.

            Then he asked what basic skills might be required to have an intimate conversation.

            Most basically, a person would need to figure out what he was feeling — the speaker was male, and I'm male, so let's gender the pronouns male here — and put that perception into words for himself. Then he'd have to express those feelings to the other person, and then shut up and listen, really listen, to the other's response, and then recycle, starting with feelings elicited by the other's words.

            And so on for a number of exchanges.

            The research the speaker had seen indicated that these skills were somewhat like language: not that they were hard-wired in the way language acquisition is — unless your early years are in a totally pathological situation you will learn a human language — but that they were something one "picked up" from one's family and early peer group, and it was just possible that if one didn't "pick them up" at an early age, learning them later could be difficult. (Few adults can "pick up" a foreign language; we have to work to learn it.)

            And how many Americans were picking up those skills effectively, how many families were, so to speak, teaching them well? He said the best guesses were about 20%. By the time we reach adolescence or adulthood, about 20% of Americans have strong competence in the skills necessary to carry on an intimate conversation, to do a good job talking about their feelings.

            Which means that some 80% of Americans have less-than-stellar down to downright poor command of the basic skills needed for a serious conversation about feelings, maybe serious conversations, period: at least serious conversations on topics about which, as we say, people feel strongly.

            For a couple or three years after hearing that bootleg tape, I asked every clinical psychologist I talked to what they thought about the analysis. To the last shrink, they agreed that, if anything, the statistics were optimistic; they felt that far fewer than 20% of Americans were skilled at having an intimate conversation and that large numbers weren't good at all.

            Okay, this would be an unreliable sample: shrinks tend to see people not doing well with relationships. Still, even allowing for pessimistic shrinks overgeneralizing from their experiences — even allowing here a hefty "plus or minus __ per cent" — even so, there's a fair possibility that a lot of Americans have trouble with relationships for the very simple reason that we have trouble talking about them.
            And the situation may be more serious than that observation indicates.

            First, if this analysis holds, it's quite possible that things have gotten better the last generation or so but unlikely that improvements will come quickly. If your parents weren't good at intimate conversation, it's a skill you'll probably have to learn later in life — learn with difficulty — and if you don't, it's likely to be a skill you'll won't hand down to your children. Etc. over the generations.

            Second, more may be involved here than touchy-feely couples relationship and family dynamics.

            During the same era as the speech to the 12-Step conference, Professor Michael Moffatt was occasionally living among and studying Rutgers University undergraduates and eventually reporting his findings in Coming of Age in New Jersey: College and American Culture (1989).

            Moffatt found "some classic, old-fashioned America anti-intellectuals among the undergraduates at Rutgers" and noted that the term "bull session" for a rambling talk about deep things was unknown to his informants; but the students Moffatt studied claimed "that the now-unlabeled college 'bull session' was still alive and well at Rutgers in the late twentieth century." That Moffatt hadn't observed one would likely be because his dorm-mates "had probably not wanted a known professor listening in on their private intellectual forays." In self-reports from 1986, however, the students said they had serious conversations "all the time among themselves" (298-99).

            Significantly, however, they also said that "they usually did this talk quietly and intimately, with one or two friends." Moffatt notes, " in fact, a certain an analogy between sex and mind in the assumptions of the students. The expression of your real, honest mentality, like that of your real sexuality, could make you vulnerable among your peers. [* * *] As with sex talk, so, too, with mind talk: the safest place to do it was outside the hearing of the dorm peer-group — very late at night in the lounge with just a few friends, or in your room or a friend's room, or elsewhere" off the dorm floor (299).

            Two related points here.

            First, as a teacher in the 1980s intio the 2000s, I probably erred in casually asking students in a classroom, "Well, OK, but what do you think about that — what are your feelings on the subject?" For my students, divulging one's real thoughts and feelings might have been a highly personal matter.

            More relevant here, what if discussing emotionally-charged political issues is close to intimate discussion, and if many Americans lack not only background knowledge, basic information, and training in logical argument, but also lack basic skills in discussing just how they feel about a public topic?

            What if, especially, many Americans lack skill and practice in that move of shutting up and really listening to what the other person is saying — and the following move of pausing to determine just how we feel about the other person's comments: that thoughtful, "in-feeling" pause before mouthing off ourselves?

            It's possible that since the 1980s "The Politics of Feeling" have become more respectable, simultaneous with increasing acceptance of "letting it all hang out" in public, perhaps even an expectation of public emoting. It is possible that since the 1980s politics in America have become a paradoxically public "intimate discussion," often carried about by people who lack the skills for such discussions.

            The issue will be in and out of the news, but I wouldn't expect rapid improvement in Americans' handling of our personal relationships. And I see with the now-anonymous 12-Step spearer's analysis yet another reason to be pessimistic on improvements in American public debate.

            Many of us not only lack the skills for important conversations but don't even know we need them. 

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