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
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
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.