Emotional Appeal

I like people.

People-watching seems a popular pasttime amongst certain, umm, people. I've done it when I have nothing better to do, but I rarely find it that appealing. Rarely do I see any particularly interesting behaviors--say, interesting enough that one might wonder about their origin, or even invent a silly backstory to explain it.

I much prefer "watching" people I know. I was bugging a friend of mine for more details about a major event in her life, and I suddenly realized I was probably way past the line of propriety, and apologized. Fortunately, she wasn't bothered in the least.

I can't say why other people do this sort of thing, or gossip in general. I will say that I've felt the instinct to rubber-neck when going by an accident, but I also know to ignore it. And I do believe in giving other people privacy when they need it.

Many people in the social circles I run in feel that they are very different from most people. Maybe it's just a universal human sentiment.

But, nonetheless, I think that's a significant motivator in why I want to understand people better: so that I can comprehend people better--so that I can better interact with people--because I can't generalize from myself. It's not necessarily to use a particular bit of information I got from someone to help me deal with that same person, but to better understand all people in general.

I've never been good at describing how other people look. I think in one sense I'm just unobservant; I don't notice people's clothes or shoes. My instinct to give other people privacy makes me hold back from studying them closely.

On another level, it's because I just don't care. It's not important to me.

And, of course, there's another factor here. My brain is not particularly bad at recognizing other people's faces; but my ability to articulate that decision making process is limited. I think this is largely universal--face-recognition is a hardwired part of our brains. I can't even really conjure up an image of someone to imagine it, although I can conjure up an image of a photograph of that same person.

Recently I was pondering how I "appeared" to some friends whom I hang out with in a purely electronic, textual forum--a "chat". (Specifically, a hangout for the regular denizens of talk.bizarre.)

Before I could answer that question, I had to consider this one: how do they appear to me? Even if I'm not like other people in terms of what sorts of things matter in judging this "appearance", it obviously provides an important starting point.

And as soon as I turned my attention to the issue, I discovered that it was as slippery as remembering their faces. Each of these people seems unique to me; and each time they "say" something, it adds a little to that layer of pattern-matching that recognizes their speech as "them". If I made a log of a session and changed the names, I suspect I could quite easily identify most of the people involved.

Doing that, and introspecting the process, would probably reveal to me a lot of the things that make me recognize them.

But I haven't bothered to, because I realize it would only scratch the surface, one that doesn't interest me that much.

Different people have different surface mannerisms--even just vocabulary--but that doesn't really have to do with "who they are" as people--at least, not in the sense that I was wondering "who do they think of me as".

Different people have different interests, and those interests would come through and show who they are. Many of us are computer geeks, and discussions of Perl or computer games abound, and could serve to distinguish people on a gross level. A doctor-in-training or a lawyer-in-training often says things that only such people would ever say.

Different people have different skills as well. One person may be a master of web search engines, another might be an English language lawyer (and mad at me for not saying "as whom do they think of me"), and a third might have perfect pitch. Such differences play out often enough to form a part of that person's personality.

All of these things are elements to the uniqueness of the individual and their contributions to the community. And yet, when I think of many of these people, I hardly feel that these things are sufficient to constitute "knowledge of them".

For a while, it used to bother me that if I tried to think of something "deeper" to characterize a friend of mine, all I could think of was an incident in which he got angry for a cause that to me seemed unworthy of such excitement.

Another time, I recalled a similar incident about a different person--a case in which a person got upset about a situation that hardly seemed fair for that person to take personally.

I felt kind of guilty. Who am I to mentally critique these people? I'm surely not perfect; no doubt I am less so, in fact.

In the first few years I was in college, I had a best friend whom I hung out with an awful lot. We both played musical instruments, so we recorded a bunch of music together. This made it important for us to find ways to keep our relationship functional.

After some occasional frustrating incidents that largely involved breakdowns in communication, he and I came to a simple solution. It worked because we trusted each other, and because we were both aware of those problematic incidents.

The rule was very simple. If we came to a point of significant disagreement, and one of us felt strongly but didn't know why, or couldn't determine why, we could simply say, "I'm being irrational." End of story--the other would capitulate.

I don't know which of us leveraged this solution more often; perhaps only I ever did. But it came up extremely infrequently--it was not a tool for taking advantage of one another. Instead, rather than having a long fight in which the "irrational" person attempted to justify an irrational decision with rational arguments, only to have those arguments (justifiably) shot down (increasing frustration and hence level of emotional), we simply cut off the discussion and moved on.

People might find the term "irrational" here a bit pejorative. You might better understand it as simply a synonym for "emotional"--but a synonym that called out the pointlessness of rational argument.

Human beings aren't purely rational creatures. Saying "I'm being irrational" is powerful because it forges a bridge between a rational person and an irrational person--it is, in some sense, the only common language possible. (And no doubt not everyone in an emotional state would find it trivial to realize this, or feel comfortable stating it. I'm not offering this as a universal solution.)

"You're being irrational" doesn't work, because of the pejorative overtone of the term--while it is likely to bring the situation to a close, it is less likely to be a satisfactory solution. On the other hand, between a pair of people who are comfortable with the phrase "I'm being irrational", those overtones are gone, and saying "You're being irrational" can be beneficial--the other person responds, "Yes, you're right, I am." The crucial part of this system is the acknowledgment on the part of the irrational person, and the rational acceptance of irrationality from the other side. It's far easier for a rational person to flex for irrationality than vice versa.

So. If I can be comfortable with saying that I'm irrational sometimes, then I suppose I can be comfortable with the notion that other people are also. I don't have to feel guilty about thinking this of them, since to me (at least) it's not a bad thing--it's just part of being human. And so my self-inflicted doubts about critiquing other people on this basis drops away.

Some emotional responses are universal, as opposed to distinctive. Most everyone finds breaking up with a significant other stressful. A narrowly averted car accident will put anyone on edge; if it is not averted, several feelings are plausible.

Computer programmers often find certain debugging episodes an unpleasant experience, one that evokes loud expressions of frustration.

But these are not particularly distinctive; they do not describe that much character.

I personally, no doubt, appear to get angry when "arguing" subjects with people--although such anger is really frustration, and is to a certain extent a learned mannerism--a bad habit acquired from working with computers.

But that's it. If I were to look through a log in which the names had changed, I think it is highly unlikely I would see evidence of distinctive emotions. The two incidents I mentioned previously are the only ones I can think of, and only one of those occurred online. Different people have different "triggers" for frustration, but this seems the weakest, least interesting sort of emotion.

This lack of distinctive emotionality: is that the nature of the media? Or is that merely the nature of people?

Consider this my appeal: it's ok to be irrational.