Once one begins to understand the technical terms of interpersonal communication, and realizes that the stakes involved with communication are actually quite high, one is faced with a dilemma: what do I do now? Saying nothing is as full of meaning as saying something: no matter what strategy you choose, no matter how carefully or sloppily you ‘next,’ something is going to happen and whatever you did/didn’t do is inevitably and unavoidably included. Not only does this social fact apply in the direct interpersonal relationship; there is also consequentiality for witnesses. Very little of how we behave in the world escapes the perception of others, how we are is observed.

We watch each other and others watch us. This occurs within our class (as a group in a common situation operating within a particular structure), and it occurs between us and all those other people who are not in the class. For instance, your friends and family, possibly even coworkers, are noticing all kinds of things about you: how you orient yourself to the demands of the task (being a student), to the subject matter itself (learning), to the juggling act you have to perform to balance doing well in this course while still maintaining all your other responsibilities. Because I intentionally create a structure for us to do some of our communicating in public (through the anonymous weblogs), people we do not even know may also pay attention to what we are doing, to what we say and how we say it.

I want you to read a blog entry that I wrote last semester for a more advanced course in interpersonal communication: Introduction to Small Group Dynamics. The entry is titled “Audience: to imagine or ignore.” Assigning this to you to read is a teaching experiment – I suspect that much of the content will be confusing because it is, in practical terms, somebody else’s conversation. The only common participants are myself and John Robison. Read it and do your best to figure out what the conversation is about. (I will link it below – be careful about spending too much time with its internal links – I recommend that you click through just to see what’s there but then resume reading the main entry.)

There is an important implication of the communication theory we are learning that involves the relationship between our talk and social structures. Even though you and I, you and your classmates, you and your family members, you and your friends, and/or you and your co-workers, are having this conversation for the first time, many other people have already had “this” conversation. What we say to each other is, in general, not new in the world. It may be new to us, to me, to you, but as far as humanity is concerned, we are not actually all that special. There have been so many smart people who have struggled with this kind of knowledge, so many wise women and men who confronted these challenges and worked them through, and so many different ways of figuring these things out and saying them. History is full of examples from every culture, each religion, and all imaginable points-of-view. In our time, right now as we live, there are probably (I do mean literally, although my statistical sensibility is weak) some millions of people who understand that they are using a particular skill (we could even call it a communication technology) called ‘nexting’ as a communication tool to change our world (think globally!)

The point is that we are always and forever joining conversations in the middle, and there are a lot of people who want to influence how the conversation turns out. Now, prepare yourself for a big jump without apparent segue. I have one huge problem with the section of our text book on “exhaling” – especially because your replies (which I have only been able to scan through very quickly at this point) reinforce my concern: the material is presented as if there is only one way to “do emotion.” The “way” is actually a very specific cultural form, it is a limited model of a particular socio-economic class, which has historically been composed of a tightly-bound identity group. The material is seductive, I think, because most of us in this course either “come from” social structures that encourage this approach to emotion, or have been exposed to it as a reference point or ideal. In other words, the editor of our textbook has selected readings by authors who share a common perspective on emotion and communication. In my view, the consequence is to ill-prepare you to deal with difference.

I hope John’s book is a corrective. I am not sure if he will agree or disagree if I offer the opinion that he “does emotion” differently than the model championed in our textbook. I am interested to know (and this is your actual assignment, full details in the UMass Course Pages) how John’s different experiences with interpersonal communication give you an alternative perspective on

a) the role of emotion in communication (especially the part that Stewart describes with the metaphor of exhaling) and
b) how you might recognize if your teammates (in the upcoming group project) are ‘doing emotion’ differently than you, and ‘next’ accordingly.

Thank you, by the way, for being such engaged learners. Teaching is a pleasure to me because I continue my own growth and development: I am learning with you. I am grateful for your diligence because your efforts enable mine.

Now, please read Audience: to imagine or ignore, and return here to contribute to this on-going conversation.