Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few thoughts on the display of emotions (and similar topics)

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There is a lot of prejudice around the display (and presence) of emotions, boring behavior, and similar against e.g. the introverted. Below I discuss some issues relating to these topics from my own point of view and with a partial eye at the Tall Dancer Phenomenon from my earliest writings.

When it comes to “emoting” (in a very wide sense and for lack of a better word), there are many things that I do not do, simply because they are too affected and/or manipulative in my eyes. For instance, I talk relatively monotonously and have toyed with the idea, notably after watching Laurence Olivier in “Rebecca”, of going for a radical change in order to have a better effect on the people around me. However, doing so would be a major affectation and it would be solely for manipulative reasons—even if I stopped well short of Olivier.* Indeed, similar affectations in others have often struck me negatively and reduced their success in interactions with me. For instance, some women looking for a favor go at it with such exaggerated smiles, voices, and gestures that it makes me unwilling to perform that favor… They would be much better off just making a neutral request, accompanied with a factual explanation and, for a bigger request, an offer of a something-for-something. Similarly, a woman who starts with five minutes of flirting** as ground-work before a request is unlikely to do better with me than if she had jumped straight to the point. Smiling politicians, executives, sales people, …, leave me cold, because the smile will almost always be calculated and not reflect something worth-while—and I am naturally*** loathe to smile at others as a (deliberate) sign of friendliness, because it seems an affectation even when I am friendly towards them.

*Which I almost certainly would have to: Olivier had many years of training behind him, is highly unlikely to have spoken in that manner without the extensive training, and I suspect that even he spoke differently in private. (If in doubt, because he speaks differently in some other films.)

**If I even recognized it as flirting: Today, I almost certainly would, but in my younger years I could be quite oblivious to flirting, romantic hints and probes, and similar.

***My thoughts (but, so far, not behavior) have changed compared to my natural state over time: Originally, I saw a smile as something that should just happen, making any “deliberate” smile an affectation. Today, I also see a smile as a legitimate means of deliberate communication, just as a hand-shake or a “hello”, while reserving my disdain for more manipulative uses.

However, even spontaneous and non-manipulative emoting can be off-putting to me, when too exaggerated or too undisciplined*. I am not saying that we should all walk around with poker faces; however, some degree of self-control can benefit those around us and deliberate exaggerations (as seen with some women and many children) are really unbecoming. Such negatives in others have also influenced my relative reluctance.

*Notwithstanding the partial hypocrisy: I have on some occasions emoted so strongly while working with e.g. WebSphere that near-by colleagues complained. (WebSphere is one of the most infuriating and frustrating software products I have ever encountered. While the colleagues complained, they also sympathized—having to work with it themselves on a daily basis.)

Looking at the other direction, reading emotions, the situation is similarly often a matter of differing preferences and norms. For instance, if a low and a high emoter do not catch each others feelings, it might well be that the high emoter over-looks the more subtle* reactions of the low emoter, while the low emoter does not catch a true emotion from the high emoter due to all the “noise”** surrounding it. Similarly, interpretation is hard without knowing the baseline of the counter-part, which is necessary to judge how much noise is usually present and how strong reactions tend to be—without it, we can have problems like a low emoter interpreting something in the counter-part as an emotion that is not, or over-estimating the strength of an emotion that is there.

*The difference is not necessarily one of emoting vs not emoting. When actual emotions are present (not just faked), the difference is more likely to be one of strong emoting vs. weak emoting.

**If someone “cries wolf” when no wolf is there, the alarm for an actual wolf might be misinterpreted. From another angle, I have often found the “logical” members of the “Star Trek” universe to be more expressive than the regular ones. Data, e.g., has a baseline that involves very few and small facial expressions—which makes the expressions that do occur the easier to recognize and the more significant. His colleagues move their faces (raise their voices, whatnot) at the drop of a hat—and how are we to know when it was a hat that dropped, and when a bomb?

Then again, if a low emoter does not react (or appear to react) to the emotions of a high emoter, it is not a given that he has missed them. It could also be that he deliberately ignores them (e.g. out of diplomacy, because he sees them as unwarranted or none of his business, awaiting an explicit verbal clarification*, etc.) or that he has reacted while the counter-part failed to notice…

*E.g. whether the counter-part is looking for some particular reaction or to establish whether he is just venting, looking for sympathy, or wants advice.

Of course, some people (including yours truly) have or have had more genuine problems with reading emotions.* By now, I am probably better than most, courtesy of the implicit training from watching so many movies and TV series,** but I trailed my age bracket until at least my late twenties and was disastrously behind during my school years. The effect of training is not to be underestimated and the introverted (even outside sub-groups with complications like autism) are at a disadvantage, because they, unsurprisingly, tend to spend less time socializing.

*More generally, the great degree of arbitrariness in human behavior and the way that most people ignore reason in favor of emotion often left me stumped in interactions. Women (in general) and women in connection with romance (in particular) were especially problematic. Cf. an earlier footnote.

**Starting with a growing awareness through cartoons, where the emotions are usually portrayed very strongly and have an obvious connection to events. As awareness coupled with a more grown-up mind, these emotions became easier to detect, increasingly subtle signs could be read and increasingly nuanced emotions differentiated. (Of course, other sources of awareness than cartoons featured later in life, including own experiences and verbal descriptions.) That actors tend to exaggerate expressions is an advantage during the early learning stages, but can be a disadvantage later on. Combined with the fact that they are acting, this implies that real life observations are necessary too.

Excursion on smiles and changing times:
An interesting development is that people on photographs (and paintings) were a lot less likely to smile in the past than today. In the case of politicians, statesmen, whatnot, the difference is particularly large—many past depictions of politicians show someone (almost certainly deliberately) grim or fierce looking, while bright, artificial smiles are par for the course today. Presumably, a modern politician wants to send a message of friendliness, while those of yore went for e.g. strength, domination, and the ability to face an assault by a foreign power.

Excursion on emotions vs. emoting:
A common misunderstanding is that people with low emoting are also low on emotion. In actuality, emotions appear to be more-or-less evenly divided between high and low emoters, with the groups simply displaying these emotions differently. I suspect that I, myself, am a fair bit above the male average when it comes to emotional intensity, e.g. in that I tend to feel more intense happiness, grow angrier at injustices, be likelier* to cry during a movie, whatnot. I would even speculate that many emotional people deliberately suppress their emotiveness, somewhat like the Vulcans of “Star Trek”, who do not have an in-born emotional control—on the contrary, they are naturally highly emotional and have developed techniques to keep their emotions under control.** Similarly, it is allegedly common for functioning alcoholics to have a facade that leaves other people believing that they have an under-average interest in alcohol.

*Note that “likelier” does not imply “likely”: Most movies with scenes that are intended to have this effect, and often have it on women, are simply too poorly made to actually hit home (e.g. because the scene is too cheesy/exaggerated or because sufficient emotional investment in the characters has not been created).

**However, the Vulcans attempt to control the actual emotions, not just their expression.

Excursion on “mirror neurons”:
A partial explanation for some of the above could lie in “mirror neurons” (or an equivalent mechanism) that trigger some degree of emotional or behavioral “mirroring”, e.g. in that many people reflexively smile back when smiled at. I only very rarely have such an impulse, and tend to just note that “someone is smiling at me”—often with such absentmindedness or (with strangers) such lack of interest that the question of whether I should smile back only occurs to me after the fact… I can even recall a few cases of extremely shy and insecure appearing* girls/women slowly start to smile at me, stop halfway through, and then sadly fade back to not smiling, when I did not reciprocate. Using smiles as an indicator of e.g. friendliness, potential romantic interest, whatnot, is very prone to error when we do not know how the other party tends to behave.**

*Based on e.g. posture, downwards turned eyes, and similar. To some degree the reasoning could be circular, however, since the type of failed smile is a part of the reason for the classification—confident women tend to jump straight to a full smile without “interactively” checking for feedback.

**Also for reasons like the many fake smiles made by manipulators and the artificially friendly.

Excursion on affectation and manipulation:
There are some things that I actually do that could be considered affectations or manipulations. For instance, I do not let my facial hair grow wild and I do so for reasons of aesthetics*. The differentiation towards the above is not entirely objective and I do not rule out that I will change my mind about e.g. altering my speech patterns—the above is not a discussion of why something would be morally** wrong to do but of why I (and likely many others) have not done it. However, there are at least three differences between the facial-hair and speaking-like-Olivier examples: I groom my facial hair at least partially for my direct own benefit (I have to look at that face in the mirror), not just for the indirect benefit through others. The type of grooming I make is sufficiently common that there is nothing remarkable about it (in fact, people who do not groom at all are more likely to be seen as following an affectation, even be it unjustly). There has been no major conscious decision to change anything, but a gradual change of habits until I found something that required little effort while still pleasing me.

*As opposed to practical reasons, which would have neutralized the accusation. (Chances are that if I did not groom, I would eventually be caught by practical reasons, e.g. when my beard landed in my soup; however, such concerns have not explicitly featured in my decision making so far.)

**However, some of the above examples arguably are, e.g. trying to flirt oneself to office favors.

Note that it is conceivable that similar factors played in with Olivier, himself, and it is not a given that his speech seemed remarkably affected to him or his peers (at least while performing)—much unlike a software developer who makes a conscious decision to emulate him in the office. He might simple have started with regular stage English and continually improved himself with an eye on practical stage effect. (Note that while software developers often have cause to speak, is not the core part of the job and what is said should* be far more important than the delivery.)

*Unfortunately, this is not always the case; however, the impact is still far smaller than for an actor, even when the ideal is not reached.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 12, 2018 at 3:39 am

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