Friday, February 26, 2010

Is the Era of Self-Expression Over?

Peter Kramer's article reads as a useful adjunct to the points I was making in my last post.

There I followed Julia Baird in suggesting that wronged wives should be cautioned about the cost of telling all about their perfidious husbands. Now, Kramer has written that free and open communication is far from being the best policy when conducting a relationship or marriage. Link here.

I very much like the preamble to Kramer's article: "Of all the advice that has drifted from psychotherapists' offices into couples' daily lives, the most overworked-- and, I suspect, the most destructive-- is the injunction to communicate. Be open, be honest, speak your mind, demand to be heard...."

As I have been trying to say, lo these many months of blogging, the forms of expression that psychotherapists encourage within the treatment setting have, for some time now, drifted out of those offices into the culture at large. They have become moral injunctions, promoted in the name of mental hygiene.

They are, as Kramer argues, self-defeating and even destructive. And they are not even very smart.

You cannot take one simple and simple-minded rule and apply it to all human communication. With some of the people in your life you will share more; with others you will share less. With some people you will speak your mind more readily; with others you will speak it less.

With one person there are times when you must speak up; and there are times when it is better to shut up.

A human life is made up of a multitude of different kinds of relationships. And any single relationship has moments where it is good to say your peace and other moments when it is best that you not.

When you start thinking that you must say whatever is on your mind, you have fallen into a purely solipsistic mindset. You are thinking that your emotional barometer is the sole authority for deciding whether to speak or not to speak.

Therapy has done us all a grievous disservice in telling us that what other people think, how they feel, and how they react to your words is a distraction from the true task at hand-- expressing yourself.

What matters in human communication is the effect you wish to produce on your listener. Are you trying to persuade him or to offend him? Are you trying to forge bonds of intimacy, or to put him off? Are you trying to develop a working relationship, or never to see him again?

And then there is the question of whether the two of you are on the same wavelength. If you are open and honest with someone who is closed and reticent your communication will undermine your relationship. And vice versa.

These are the issues in question in all human communication. At the least, it is far more complicated than the injunction to be open and honest. Communication is a social skill; it needs to be cultivated and developed. You need to work at it, and to work at it through many, many conversations.

The best rule I have ever found comes from Aristotle. He said that you should aim to say the right thing to the right person at the right time in the right place under the right circumstances.

Dare I say that it is easier said than done. This does not make it less true; it makes human communication more challenging.

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