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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sincerely, Backpacking Dad

There's more to communication than the words you choose.

A professor of mine once described the brain like this: "Imagine that you have covered every inch of the exterior of the two towers of the World Trade Center with windows. Now stack television screens in those windows so that every inch of window pane reveals a television screen behind it. Now, imagine all of the individual pixels on the individual screens behind all of the individual windows on every floor and every side of both of the towers. That is how many neurons we are talking about when we talk about the brain."

Every one of those little puppies fires, on or off, inhibitory or excitatory signals, and the tubes (axons) they fire along are of varying sizes and connected to hundreds and thousands of other neurons.

A thought is a pattern of activation across those neurons and axons, from layer to layer in an insanely complex dance.

When we write we approach the world as though it were handicapped, capable of receiving information only visually. Chronic writers, no matter how talented in metaphor and simile, still approach the world as representable purely linguistically. Words on a page.

Words in your ear are something else. So many more neurons in their little neural communities are involved in hearing spoken words than in reading written words. So many more are involved in feeling the breath on your neck or seeing the look on a face when you speak directly to someone.

It ought to be unsurprising that the thoughts elicited in direct communication are more complex than those elicited by the written word. Not better, just more complex, involving more transitions.

But with this increase in complexity, and an increase in our ability to sift through that complexity with practice we lose something, or gain something, when we transition from writing to speaking. Writing is excellent for conveying honest thoughts, but sincerity is best conveyed in person.

Sincerity is honesty with feeling. And our feeling-detectors work much better face-to-face. It's difficult to be sincere in writing, because all of that feeling of sincerity you have while you write is going to be diluted by the starkness of the written word. Writing is almost an impediment to conveying sincerity. Your reader has to be able to put him or herself in an emotional state that isn't built in to the words themselves; there are no triggers, so you just have to hope that your reader has that kind of empathy. In person we can take advantage of those more subtle tools of communicating sincerity: eye contact, head-angle, light touches on the arm or grasping hands, tone, rhythm, and cadence.

And if you are speaking with someone and they fail to take advantage of these extras that come with speaking in person you experience something like the Uncanny Valley: a point at which the person seems less genuine, less of a person, uncanny, and disturbing. Alcohol and other aids to lowering barriers often increase honesty at the cost of sincerity. The ratio favors the uncanny valley, and turns the drunk into an honest non-person.

Honesty is important. Erin will learn how to be honest. But sincerity is even more important. The difference between charm and cheese is sincerity.


Backpacking Dad.


Mommy Melee said...

I always feel like a tool when I write something really sincere and heartfelt. It usually comes across really bland.

It's hard to communicate without swearing for emphasis.

Whit said...

What you are saying makes sense, but I don't know that it's any harder to be sincere one way or the other. I find that I tend to be much more sincere in writing than speaking (in general conversation anyway- and I'm never dishonest just very sarcastic).

Perhaps the argument is that it is harder to recognize sincerity in writing than in the spoken word.

Robin said...

huh? ;-)

Ilina said...

I think people are so snarky and skeptical these days that real sincerity is often misinterpreted as a ploy. I'm guilty as charged, for sure.

Danielle said...

well written, BPD. Well written.

or, sincerely written?

but not cheesy.

Maybe a little cheesy. But sincerely charming.

Wait. huh?


mandy said...

An interesting post, but an odd comparison. I agree with you that people can be misinterpreted through the written word as the reader brings his/her own emphasis or bias to the piece.

However, in f2f meetings, why compare sincerity to cheese? And if someone doesn't seem one (ie sincere), are they automatically the other? Perhaps things like social anxiety or mannerisms that we don't like are misinterpreted by the other. Does that make the other party automatically "cheesy"?

It seems almost like you are writing a post in response to a situation you were in or observed. Fair assessment?

MereCat said...

I love this post!




Forever In School said...

I have to agree with Robin on this!

Christy said...

I think you present an interesting view. I think someone's writing can often be misinterpreted when their tone can't be conveyed or received (I think email is the worst in that way.) But I also think that sometimes it's possible for a writer to be more honest and sincere than in person if they have an easier time conveying their thoughts through writing as opposed to speaking them.

Does that makes sense? I've confused myself...

kateanon said...

Few people can come across as sincere and genuine all the time. Others just inherently have those qualities.

Melanie @ Mel, A Dramatic Mommy said...

First time commenter, I've been lurking for a few days. This was too deep for me, well written, but my neurons just aren't fast enough today.

for a different kind of girl said...

Interesting post. In person, I think I come of very sincere, and have the give and take of another person in that vein. Perhaps there's a curse in this, though, in that I am also ragingly sarcastic. Not in a "I want to cut you to the core" manner, but in a "cut the ice/protect myself/find my footing" manner. It's that that makes me struggle a bit when I want to write something that is heartfelt and passionate to me, which is what I'm doing tonight. I took a break from that effort to come here. I can convey the personable, heartfelt sense of who I am easier in a face to face setting than in writing. Or maybe I've just not tried that angle enough to know.

Backpacking Dad said...

mommy melee: me too.

whit: yeah, the point was really just that no matter how sincerely you write, there are elements of sincerity that are not capturable in writing. So unless your reader luckily slips into the exact frame of mind needed your sincerity will be lost a little. Not really a contrast between how sincere we are in writing versus in person, but in how much of that sincerity can be conveyed through both mediums.

robin: yeah.

ilina: word. but suspicions can be allayed easier in person than through writing, I think. If the tools are used properly.

danielle: ah, leave me alone :} What do you want for a 5 minute spelunking session into my mind?

mandy: fair indeed. :} But I'm not comparing sincerity to cheese, I'm comparing charm to cheese. What's the difference between someone who comes off as charming versus someone who comes off as manipulative? It's the sincerity you feel from them. That's the communication skill that I think needs to be taught. It helps avoid that uncanny valley in face to face meetings.

merecat: that makes one of you :}

forever in school: yeah. Not the best thing I've done.

christy: that does make sense. And the point wasn't to compare a really good writer with a really awkward "in person" person. But to compare the depths of sincerity that can be conveyed in either medium, and to note just how much more powerful face to face encounters are for transmitting sincerity.

kateanon: now that is certainly true.

melanie@mel, a dramatic mommy: mine are pretty slow right now too :}

FADKOG: A heartfelt post from you is going to be awesome.

My_Dog_Is_Better said...

You lost me at neurons.

The Flirty Girl said...

Spot on post!

I agree simply looking someone in the eye when you speak to them can often convey the intent of your message better then the written word..

I recently drove 2 hours to have an unpleasant conversation with someone who had deeply disappointed me. An email would have been more convenient but I feared would also be perceived more harshly then if we met face to face. Which felt a bit odd. One would think confrontation would be less awkward in writing, but I knew that it was important to face them as it was the only way I could know that things between us would be ok after and that they wouldn't mistake my disappointment for anger. If I didn't like and care about them as much as I do I would have sent an email.

Speaking in person vs. writing doesn't at all change the level of sincerity of what I'm saying, it simply increases the odds that the person I'm communicating with will recognize the true emotion (be it positive or negative) that I'm attempting to convey to them.

I think sincerity is a direct product of empathy, and empathy is best learned at a young age. Erin is lucky to have a dad willing to take the time to teach her such an important life lesson :o)

CaraBee said...

Very well said. I haven't read all of the comments, so I might be reiterating. I do think that conveying your exact message in writing is more difficult than in person because you lose the human element of tone and inflection. Which is what makes good writers all that much more valuable.

Badass Geek said...

I'm not sure I can come up with a witty response to this one.

Reading it hurt my brain.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Deep stuff. I'm definately more sincere - and honest in the written word. I've poured my heart out in letters rather than having to guard dance around it in person.

Redneck Mommy said...

I agree with you and I disagree with you. I know, I know, get off the fence and quit vacillating.

You see, the problem with this is for years I faced a situation that 98 percent of the population never will deal with.

How do you communicate effectively with words when there is no body language? No eye contact, no soft touches on the arm, no soft breath on the neck, no animation in the face.

So, for me, words are the truest form of communication and I tend to lean towards cutting out the body language and ignore it...out of habit...out of necessity.

Written word carries far more weight with me, by nature of this, but as you pointed out, unless you are in that person's head, their frame of mind is easily lost and misinterpreted to cheese.

I'm done hijacking your comments now.

But I'll never be done with the cheese. Wink.

Backpacking Dad said...

my dog is better: sorry. I'll talk about crazy labs next time, just to keep your attention, sis.

flirty girl: that's right.

carabee: even the best writer drops something in the writing, unless their reader is also psychic.

badass geek: I believe you.

that girl: ah, so you give away too much in person. That's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about when I talk about sincerity. It's like reading someone's "tells" in poker. We all have that talent to some degree. Of course, if we interact with people as we would in a poker match then of course we're going to want to mask those tells. But that brings you closer to the uncanny valley.

redneck mommy: one exception proves the rule :}

kittenpie said...

True, tone is totally lost, as are those other visual and body language cues. Hence the trouble with email...

Anonymous said...

All that brain stuff is way over my head. (Get it? Over my head? Ha?)

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

(crickets chirping)

Backpacking Dad said...

kittenpie: word. emoticons help a little, but will never be enough.

bejewell: ha ha ha hardy ha ha. :} Sorry it took me so long to get around to this one again. Believe me when I say I am cracking up right now, though, especially reading the sequence that you left.