In my last blog entry I started writing about the physical characteristics of humans, and got into a tangent about an ideal of truly honest communication. I’ve had a fascination with human communication for some time. Back in the University of Minnesota I saw a German film Homo Faber, wherein a man falls in love with his daughter, not knowing it’s his daughter. To make a long story short, everyone’s lives get ruined because the characters don’t communicate. Whether due to shame, concern for the other, or fear, they keep their real thoughts secret and the film ends in tragedy.
We humans have this great form of communication called language, but we could use it better. Sure, we give instructions well, we can think through problems, and can try to get things we want. We engage in lots of small talk. But when it comes to really connecting with other humans and sharing what we feel and believe, we lock up more than we show. How many families have drifted apart due to bad communication? How many friendships fail (or never develop), how many lovers never connect, how much tragedy comes about simply because we are afraid to communicate?
I thought about this more today as I worked on my research. New media is having a side effect of dramatically increasing the amount of print communication between young people. In print there might be a bit more honesty. Not only can one take the time to contemplate how to say something (not fearing it’ll come out wrong, or that the other person will interpret and not allow a full statement to be made), but there isn’t the pressure of having the other person looking at you while you communicate. With print, you are in control of the message, it’s timing, length and delivery. You can also decide when to read a response, and how long to contemplate it.
Yet while that may enhance honest communication, there is some reason why we fear being completely honest with each other. Some of it is simple cultural baggage. Issues involving sex, inner fantasies and personal habits often are areas people wall off. We all need private psychological space, and freedom to explore our own minds without having to share it with others. I think, though, we fence off far too much territory, and keep far more to ourselves than need be the case. The reason is that people are both too quick to judge, and they are fearful of others judging them.
We self-censor constantly. We self-censor communicating thoughts that involve violence or hate, often feigning collegiality when we want to kick someone in the shins. If a racist or sexist thought pops up, we self-censor. If we were an honest society, we could state our anger, frustrations and even bigoted reactions and work through them. Now anything politically incorrect is considered offensive. People are expected to be of such low self-esteem that they cannot handle a comment that may be honest, but offensive. Self-censorship becomes a social and often a legal necessity.
Even outside those examples, we self censor communication with others because we worry what they will think of us, or how they will judge us. It’s easier to be safe than to open up. In so doing we give up the most powerful aspect of being human, the ability to deeply connect and communicate with others.
This one reason why humor and satire are so important to our culture. In humor the taboos are lifted. Comedians can joke that they’ve not had a girl friend for so long that they’ve developed some interesting masturbation techniques. People enjoy this not because it’s crude, because it’s a part of life that we don’t talk about — it’s liberating to have someone talk openly about things normally not mentioned. I saw a film where a couple are chatting over a meal, but a voice over showed what they were really thinking. It was fun to watch, in part because we know that happens a lot.
In day to day life people learn to repress what they think and who they are, putting on a show to fit expectations of cultural norms. Often those feelings and thoughts aren’t released and thus build up, coming out later in real aggression, anger, hostility or self-loathing. What we fear becomes what we experience. Humor is an important antidote to this, if we joke about things we can be more honest, and expand the boundaries of social acceptability.
It’s not humor that does this alone, it’s the fact that with humor we suspend judgment. If an acquaintance started to talk about masturbation, one might get nervous, leave the room and say “that guy’s weird.” But we don’t judge a comedian. I saw a male comedian make jokes about a woman’s breast size — try doing that in polite company! George Carlin’s entire comic career was built on poking holes in the ridiculous nature of our judgmental society. That was key to his genius.
If we are to move to really improving human communication at all levels, we have to learn not to be judgmental. I don’t mean in cases where people are being physically harmed, defrauded, or abused, I mean in terms of how we react to other people talking about things that might go outside social norms. People want to open up more, but don’t if they fear that doing so will cause another to shut down, judge them, or talk poorly about themselves to others. As someone who is extremely non-judgmental (that even shows on the Myers-Briggs test where I score to the radical side of “P” on the perceive-judge axis), I get frustrated by the way people get hyper-critical of others, often over petty things. That just makes it harder to connect and accept others.
Key to this is not judging oneself — and some of the most judgmental folk are also harsh on themselves. If one can accept oneself with all ones’ own faults and idiosyncrasies and say, “hey, I’m human but I love myself and understand my own imperfections,” then it’s easier not to judge others. If one is harsh on oneself, it’s almost necessary to be harsh on others or else risk self-hatred. Yet not judging others is not itself enough. There are always areas where we need help. We aren’t satisfied with life as it is, with a relationship, or with our ability to handle various life situations. We may need help overcoming a bad habit, or dealing with bad decisions of the past. The goal of communication has to help others and oneself — to connect with others, overcome difficulties and improve the quality of life.
Not judging is only the first step, it allows communication to open up. The next step is to connect and communicate about how things can be better. You could say there is an implicit judgment there — that a situation can be improved — but that’s a judgment of the situation not of the individual. So to me, in my life, I’ll focus on doing my part to work towards better communication: try to use humor as often as possible, avoid judging others or myself, and then try to understand and help others and myself improve situations. Connection with others is important because no one can handle this life completely on their own.