Wednesday, April 21, 2010

From Texting to Botox... Losing Emotional Fluency

There's much to like in the concept of cognitive fluency, except that it has been mislabeled. A concept that refers to the value of clear and concise, easy to grasp, expression should itself be clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Normally when we say that someone is fluent in French or Spanish we mean that he can not only speak the language, but that he can speak it well. Someone who is emotionally fluent can express appropriate emotions within the appropriate conversational context.

I would say that Aristotle was asserting the value of emotional fluency when he declared that the best expression of anger directs it to the right person at the right time in the right place in the right way under the right circumstances.

Dare I say, it is easier said than done.

Someone who is emotionally fluent is also capable of picking up the cues in another person's response to conversation. Knowing what the other person is feeling allows you to adjust your own emotional state and your language to bring it into harmony with that of the other person.

For over a century now, therapy has touted its ability to help people get in touch with their emotions and express them. I have often taken exception, because therapy seems to want to teach people that expression is a good thing no matter when, where, how, or why you express it. If you learn from therapy to emote on cue, you are on your way to becoming a drama queen.

Too many therapists see themselves as drama coaches; they train their patients in wildly inappropriate expressions of emotion. They seem to believe that the true purpose of speech is to expel your noxious mental gases, whenever, wherever, and to whomever you please.

It is hardly surprising to see a profession that began with a patient lying on a couch talking to a wall arrive at the point where it glorifies histrionic displays of emotion.

People connect when they communicate. Face-to-face communication is the best. It involves words, tone of voice, gestures, and facial expressions. The better your sense of non-verbal cues the quicker you will know whether your listener is happy, angry, afraid, sad, or bored. Those cues allow you to tailor your conversation and your emotions to the other person. The more your conversation is "bespoke," the closer you will become, the better you will connect.

Being emotionally fluent means knowing how to harmonize your emotions with that of another person. It does not mean that you need to wear your heart on your sleeve; it means being on the same page with the other person. You can be emotionally fluent if you express the proper emotion about a baseball game or a piece of gossip or even a difficult personal moment.

After face-to-face, we have telephonic communication.

When you talk on the telephone, you lose the gestural and facial aspects of conversation. But you still hear the person's voice, so you can judge, depending on the quality of the connection, the person's emotional state and adjust accordingly.

Next in line, after the telephone, is writing.

Paradoxically, while written expression is inferior to communication viva voce, some people are so skilled at writing that they can express a panoply of emotion through word choice and syntax. This talent does compensate for the absence of voice, gestures, and facial expressions, but only in part. Truth be told, we are more likely to trust someone when we are talking face-to-face.

It is easier to fake sincerity in a letter than it is when you look someone in the eye.

The last, and lowest form of human communication, must be text messaging. Compared to letters and even emails, short-form, barely literate text messages communicate the least amount of information, whether on the level of fact or feeling. Unfortunately, as a recent study showed, today's teenagers text message more than they talk to each other. Link here.

If you were worrying why these children feel so much disconnection and anomie, then perhaps this perfidious medium has something to do with it. And, a generation that texts more than it talks is also likely to be a generation that hooks up more than it dates. After all, hooking up involves the least conversation; dating involves the most. Considering how much texting these children do, it should not be surprising that they feel uneasy and not-quite-competent to engage in face-to-face conversation.

However well brought up a child may be, the more he texts the more he will, necessarily, lose his emotional fluency. And the less he will be attuned to the emotional expressions of others.

For the moment texting is a domain that has been colonized by the young. Older folks who missed this developmental stage have far better communication skills. Some of them text, but most of them have not become addicted to it.

Something else causes older people to lose their emotional fluency: Botox. Most often it is used by women, but it has increasingly been tried by men.

Recent studies have shown that when Botox numbs your face, your ability to express emotion becomes inhibited. The slight facial cues that show sorrow or anger or boredom or sadness are erased by Botox. Thus your listener will be less likely to pick up on them and more likely to extend lines of conversation that are causing the two of you to disconnect. Links to some of the studies, here and here and here.

Happily enough, Botox does not effect gestural communication or voice. However much it impedes communication Botox does not undermine it as well thoroughly as texting.

And yet, the research linked above makes an important point about emotion. Botox, it appears, inhibits your ability to experience emotion. Apparently, mind and body are not quite as disconnected as Descartes would have had it. When you hear or see something that provokes an emotional response, your face will express the emotion.

The term express is a slight misnomer here. If Botox has numbed your face to the point where it cannot make the appropriate expressions to designate an emotion, this, in and of itself, inhibits your ability to experience the emotion.

Thus, Botox tends to detach you from your feelings. Call it repression, if you like, but it also detaches you from those others who want to get close to you be reading your emotions and adjusting their language to fit your mood.


Susan Walsh said...

Ah, this is a great post. I worry most about males, to be honest. Girls do a lot of texting with each other, but they still schedule plenty of face-to-face time. They prefer the long, drawn out conversations that texting doesn't permit. Boys, however, sometimes need encouragement to emote anyway, and we've removed much of the incentive for them to do so. There are times when texting is a nice touch - after time spent together saying how much you enjoyed it, for example. Or texting a "good night" message. Texting is good for the equivalent of a post-it note, but it's a terrible substitute for emotional exchange, and I do think it is having a detrimental effect on relationships.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, Susan. As you said on your blog today, there seems to be a backlash against hooking-up.When will there be a backlash against obsessive texting?

Of course, testing has value, if used in moderation. But when young people communicate mostly by text messages, something must be happening. I think it's great that girls also schedule face-to-face time... but I assume that that is with their girlfriends.

How well do these girls know how to talk with boys?

Surely, boys have difficulty communicating with girls, because the type of communication required feels alien to them.

Here again, as you say, girls are the gatekeepers, and whereas with sex, then can simply close up shop for a while, when it comes to communicating with a boy, they need practice. It is not a skill you get by talking with girlfriends.

Are the girls who schedule lots of fact-to-face time with their girlfriends, the same ones who hook up with boys?

Robert Pearson said...

Botox, it appears, inhibits your ability to experience emotion.

A very important point, and one that I don't think has been emphasized nearly enough. Emotion is intimately tied to muscular tension, relaxation and position. This was brought home to me many years ago when I read that you literally cannot be angry while your jaw is relaxed. Try it--let the jaw hang loosely with no teeth touching and attempt to feel angry. Think about something that would normally make you furious. You will find that the rest of the physical signs of anger, fist clenching, chest tightening, etc. cannot follow, and that you feel no emotion of anger, no matter your mental effort, as long as the jaw stays relaxed.

I wish I could remember where I read that, but this remarkable insight has assisted me many times since in being angry at the right person, at the right time, etc...

So it does not surprise me that the paralysis of some facial muscles can make it difficult or impossible to experience certain emotions. What a price to pay for a temporary, false look of "youthfulness."

Ralph said...

I am reminded of the song from the musical "Annie", that you are never fully dressed without your smile.

Something you didn't hit on that interests me is the current popularity of the diagnosis of aspergers syndrome (a form of autism) and its symptoms of having the inability to read social cues.
I know a child diagnosed with it, and am a doubter.

As much as younger folk text, talk on phones, etc., the subject matter seems to concern themselves, they are not engaged in deep philosophical debates.

I disagree that boys or males need to be encouraged to emote. I am very comfortable with the strong silent type, and am fortunate to have a husband who is that type. Me, I'm the emotive mess. Yet, when his dad died, he did cry. When the cat died, he didn't, but he made a very nice wooden casket for her, and put her in a nice grave. He didn't need to emote, he acted.

An old pastor said once that girls are about relationships, men about missions. Women work face to face, men side to side. I know more men that can disagree, then work together to meet a goal, than women who would do the same.

If women communicate so well, how come so many women prefer to work with men? I have heard numerous times from women that they would rather work with men, and never heard one say they would rather work with women.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I had not heard of the study about anger and facial muscles, and I thank Robert for bringing it to our attention. Perhaps some of the links will clarify the issue, but I certainly hope that anger management classes have figured it out. It feels a lot easier than rummaging through your past to figure out who you are really mad at.

I agree with Becky that the diagnosis of Aspergers is getting a little too much play these days. I had not thought that a generation that grows up communicating via text is not going to be able to develop normal socialization skills.It would not be totally surprising if some of these young people found themselves with a psychiatric diagnosis.
I have also heard many times, as Becky has, that women consistently say that they would prefer to work with or for men. And I am not at all sure why this is so, except that some women feel that in a male environment they have more freedom to do their jobs and less demands to share personal experiences.
Men seem to be more strict in their separation of work life and personal life, and this helps everyone to do a better job.
For now, that is just speculation.

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