Communication Breakdown

It’s good to remember that words are but a small portion of communication, which operates in a larger space. Body language, gesticulation, facial expressions, speed, tone, inflexion, and intonation, all combine to convey at least as much. This is why a written document is always lacking. This is why important or sensitive information should be delivered in person unless you are willing to risk misinterpretation.

In the post-covid reality, some people have moved a lot of their previously face-to-face communication to one of the various videoconference services. Infants rely highly on the face, and they express much through the face. Even domesticated dogs have expressive faces. The face conveys a lot of information. This helps to make videoconference a decent means of communication. It is a step up over the telephone for instant communication, but it still falls short. Even over the phone, one can still use delivery speed and pacing. Tone, inflexion, and intonation should be able to be conveyed, but this may also be limited by connexion quality as well as microphone and speaker quality. However, body language and gesticulation are still largely absent. What may be present can be lost over a small viewing screen or poor video quality.

What gets left behind or limited are cues of authenticity and trust. I remember I had a client in Texas who preferred not to speak with my manager and other executives from the New York office. We had all met in person in the pre-Covid world, and the Texans had judged these people as “fast-talking city folks” instead of real down-to-earth people. I may be a city-slicker, but I’m not as fast-talking. One of these men was a great communicator in my eyes, but these are city eyes. As for the other person, he had snake-oil salesman written all over him, but he tried to hide it in all his erudition. He was very book-smart but lacking in authenticity.

mean what you say, and you say what you mean

Allow me to pause for a moment to riff on authenticity. In one way, I don’t believe in authenticity because I don’t believe there is anything to be authentic to. I write about this in many posts and at length. On the other hand, authenticity is that you believe what you are saying—you mean what you say, and you say what you mean. So what you are asking me to believe, you believe yourself.

If spoken communication is so important, why do you write a blog? That a picture is worth a thousand words is telling. In fact, a picture may convey a thousand words, but it’s probably conveying almost infinite words—or it could be. Words typically fail to transmit metaphor and intent. If we want to be clear, we need to add all sorts of additional words to allay confusion. Perhaps we need to include background information, tangential information, context, and whatnot. By the time we include all of the information that would be conveyed by the face and gesture, we’ve probably overwhelmed the recipients with a document that reads like a terms and conditions page—the ones almost no one reads but tick the box at the end anyway.

What is lost or diminished over video is authenticity and emotional content. Of course, a person can convey sympathy, empathy, and compassion over the phone, but to me, it’s like the wire monkeys in the old psychology experiments by Dr Harry Harlow. You get something to cling to—perhaps even a blanket around the wire is better than nothing. If the telephone is a wire monkey, videoconference is the wire monkey wrapped in a Teri-towel. The human element is still missing. We’re interacting with a simulacrum.

Princess Leia Organa

Some people are amazed at the prospect of holograms in the manner of Princess Leia’s grand entrance. “Help me, Obi-Wan.” Indeed, help us all. It is a step in the right direction, but mind the gap.

In the end, we should at least strive to prioritise in-person communication. At least in the movies, when they want to tell a loved one that their combatant or police officer has fallen (read: died), they do this in person. It should be telling that this also convey’s an emotional message to the audience that is often received as intended. It may cost more, but be sure to evaluate this cost against the benefits. Consider the lost benefits as well.

Authentic Authenticity

Although I have written about authenticity in the past, I’ve been wanting to delve deeper for a while. I’ve been engaged in a discussion thread, which has motivated me to accelerate. This acceleration has forced some trade-offs, but I feel I can present a cogent position nonetheless. This segment will be more editorialising than academic, and I expect to short-shrift the historical perspective. Perhaps I’ll expand on these aspects in future.

I expect this graphic to serve as a visual reference to abbreviate some typing. Below, I reference the captions of the cards in order.

Self-Oriented Authenticity

Let’s commence with some definition and exposition.

Self

This is the unadulterated core of a person’s existence. The religious might term this as a soul. For those who favour reincarnation, this is the bit that travels from time to time, body to body.

Identity

Identity is a shell formed around the Self based on environmental inputs such as social cues. It’s about perception. Essentially, the goal would be to mimic the Self. There are several challenges to this notion. I’ll return to this, but one of these is identity composition.

Identity Composition

The notion of identity is that it is a composite of various dimensions, each of which is a social reflection if not actively socially generated. Combined, these dimensions constitute identity. Does one self-identify as athletic, intelligent, witty, gregarious, quick-tempered, altruistic, and on and on. Does one have a certain gender identity? What about sexual orientation? Occupational identity? Identities around affiliations of religion or philosophy? Identities related to personae—a worker, an entrepreneur, a day-trader? Mother, father, sibling, coworker, student…

In the end, the picture illustrates that identity is a bundle of particular identities. Presumably, these identities can shift or reprioritise by time or place. You may choose to hide your Furry identity from your mum and coworkers—or your preference to identify as a CIS male with a sexual orientation toward women and yet prefer to wear dresses.

This brings us to authenticity.

Authenticity

Facile authenticity might be thought of as how well aligned your behaviours are with your identity and your Self. According to the mythos, the perfect trifecta is that these are all in perfect alignment—like Babushkas, Russian stacking dolls, neatly nested. This notion has some practical problems already hinted at.

Authenticity Composition

The first challenge is an extension of the identity composition problem. As Identity is multidimensional, so must authenticity be. If one dimensionalises identity into some array from 0 to 6, then in a perfect arrangement, each of the expressions of these particular identities needs to have a corresponding authenticity pairing. Yet this is unlikely.

Performance

In practice, we need to look at how a person performs and compare that to their self-identity. This creates a challenge. How another person identifies a person may not align with their self-identity. We may have no insights into how a person sees themself. This is the reaction we have when someone we ‘know’ commits suicide. S/he seems so happy. S/he had everything. We see smiling depression.

Assuming we have some magic identity lens, we are left with a self-alignment challenge. A person has no access to their own Self, and others have less access still. This is where psychoanalysis fails practically and succeeds economically. They get paid to divine the Self, but that pseudoscience is for another day.

Regarding the illustration, we see a derangement of performances. This is in a lesser state of disarray because the Self is sublimated, but we notice that dimensions 1 and 3 are aligned, whatever they might be. Dimension 0 is off centre, but it somehow remains within the bounds of identity. But dimensions 2, 4, and 6 are ostensibly inauthentic. This person claims to be a vegan, yet is eating Wagyu beef in a teppanyaki house.

And dimension 5 is absent. This person identifies, say, as a musician, and yet plays no instrument efficiently. Whether s/he claims to be a musician or just feels that s/he is a musician seems beside the point. There is no performance. There is no expression.

Summary

Not even a summary. This was a concise download of my current perspective. I hope that it at least provides something to react to. If you have any perspective to lend, feel free to comment below.

Mauvaise Foi

I find the notion of authenticity interesting. I believe that Heidegger was the first philosopher to promote the issue. As I have a contention with matters of identity in general, the notion of authenticity has no foundation in my eyes. As I don’t believe that the notion of identity is valid, it follows that I don’t ascribe to notions of authenticity either—the question is: authentic to what?

Essentially authenticity can be described as ‘being true to one’s own essence or true self’—whatever that might be. Heidegger presents authenticity as a response to our place in the world. An inauthentic person conforms to society and in the loses their own identity in the process to become assimilated into the society.

Carl Jung had a related concept, individuation. This is where a person strips off all of the ego and superego to get to the core of their being, to unpeel the onion, but to find a centre—and to become that true unadulterated self. This is not what Heidegger means by authentic.

To Heidegger, an authentic person remains true to themself within the constraints of society. As with Camus’ acceptance of the Absurd, Heidegger’ authenticity accepts the ‘real world’ as is it whilst retaining with awareness one’s self, even if this is more limiting than Jung’s individuation or Sartre’s freedom with no excuses.

Sartre’s vein of Existentialism contained within it the notion of authenticity. This is in common with other Continental philosophies. According to Sartre, when people hyper-constrain their identities to preclude their larger humanity, they are operating in bad faith, mauvaise foi (eidétique de la mauvaise foi). A while back, a story from an incident in 2013 was circulating on social media, where a Spanish runner, Ivan Fernandez Anaya, assisted another runner, Kenyan athlete, Abel Mutai, who errantly believed that he had already passed the finish line, so he stopped with another 10 metres to go.

The reaction was split—some praising Anaya for his humanity and other chastising him for not following the rules of the competition. These critics are guilty of mauvaise foi, of prioritising the minuscule for the larger picture. In fact, all sports do this. One might argue that all competition does this, but this is a matter of perspective. I think that Sartre’s scope was a bit narrower than this, but I believe it’s not off-point.

Evidently, I am just typing stream of consciousness, and the stream has come to an end.

And so it goes