The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Nice and being nice

Sometimes we’ll notice a dissonance in a person’s behavior. It’s not always very clear, an impression maybe.

In 1967 Albert Mehrabian published two papers describing his studies of verbal and non-verbal communication. His experiments had a very specific context linked to the expression of emotions, leading to a formula that has since then been misinterpreted and generalized. However, one theme that is regularly reappearing and within his research is the human ability to perceive inconsistent messages of attitude and feelings.

One way to perceive it is when we the words used, the tone of voice and the non-verbal don’t support one another. It’s when they don’t seem congruent. It might even be something we’ll notice more instinctively than consciously. However, we can elevate it from instinct by learning to know ourselves well. A clue we might otherwise miss is a sense of dissonance within ourselves.

It’s subtle and needs our attention to be sensed. It’ll be one we are used to dismiss.

But it is noticing these clues that allow counterbalancing the impact of culture on ourselves.

One of the things culture does is telling us what the accepted or welcomed behavior is. It’s creating norms and behaviors we are invited to accept and will thus reason ourselves into, arguing with ourselves that they are the right ones. It shows for example in social pressure, groupthink, and political correctness. It establishes a tension between how we feel about something and how we believe we can act. It is a gap that leads us to insecurity and possibly to a toxic environment.

Dealing with such insecurity requires courage. It means to say something that will feel awkward, forbidden, or dangerous in some ways. Most often the default escape route of such situations is to be nice. We stretch our tolerance and say something nice. We fear that the other might not buy-in into our idea and focus on making our message sound nice and painless.

What it does, is leave it to them to discover later that their understanding of nice doesn’t correspond to what they heard. Nice loses its connection to trust and thus its meaning.



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