What we tell others

Dedicated to xiao mi mi

The term “ivory tower” describes a kind of academic and elite point of view, represented by a disconnect from the practical world. Some might say, for example, a tenured philosophy professor would be in an ivory tower because her or his day-to-day doesn’t truly reflect the world outside of that bubble. Depressing ideas from dead writers can’t really be turned into wheat, so to speak.

In a conversation with a close friend (we’ll call her Mia), this very term came up. Mia was told by (let’s call him Cham) that based on the way she speaks and reasons, she comes off as if she is in an ivory tower; effusing theoretically sound, but perhaps realistically detached ideas. Knowing her well, I initially reacted to the concept in defense. But considering the perspective of meeting her in the last year or so, I can understand where Cham is coming from.

The problem is not in the realm of identity, but in the nature of context. In the hopes of being clear, I’ll define context as the set of all circumstances that describe a situation. If life is a play, context is the scene. Context is set by every piece of information that you take in.

My contextual understanding of Mia is framed around an early college experience, with fiercely opinionated conversations. There were a ton of shared milestones, and I feel like I’m close enough to know the “real” version of her. But I don’t. I only know her in my context, and I am attached to that so I bias everything around it.

There is only so much you can relay in a conversation[1]. And within any given conversation you are going to act differently with different people. A very easy and explicit example is in a work interview. Even though nobody acts like they do in an interview all the time (unless they are psychopaths), both the interviewer and and interviewee engage in a social contract that includes jumping through hoops and thinking “Hmm… impressive” or “Oh shit, I hope they think I’m impressive.”

In every conversation there is a lot going on besides the transcript of raw words passing back and forth between two or more people. Only 10% of the conversation is verbal[2]. I don’t know of many umbrella terms for nonverbal transactions, but I like the term “meta information.” I’m sure there is better purpose for this term, but here I mean every single thing that happens in an interchange outside of words organized with grammar.

Meta information includes timbre and tone of voice, it includes the sweat you smell in-person and yes, it includes body language. There are a myriad of points that could be considered meta information. The key elements here are ones that you can manipulate.

Back to the job interview. Many are aware of the “right” things to do for (most) job interviews: fluff your résumé up before you apply, dress business casual, maybe practice with a friend for a particularly difficult one. People find it completely okay to consciously manipulate their persona for one single context. We do this in personal interchanges as well, it’s just not conscious.

When Cham talks to Mia, they both enter a shared context. All the meta information they send to and fro encapsulates that context. Their voices, body language, gestures, tone and speed of vocalizations coalesce into an orchestra of context defined by meta information and the conversations itself. Cham knows all that about Mia, and has come to logically sound conclusions in that very specific context.

If Mia wanted to change Cham’s mind on the situation, she could slowly introduce evidence contrary to his “ivory tower” claim. It might be manipulative to do so solely with meta information. In some ways, it’s more honest to modify the meta information rather than go into a detailed counter-argument that might be flavored by personal bias.

So what is the best way to change the meta information that you send? I’ll give my answers in my next post.

[1] Or really, any number of conversations. I imagine if we sat with a stopwatch to measure every minute spent in each relationship we have, the numbers would be lower than our estimates. A year is only 8,760 hours. If we’re being generous and say that we average 7 hours a night of sleep, the total waking hours equates to 6,205. Take away about 2,000 hours for a 9 to 5. How long do you really spend out of that with friends?

[2] I just made that up, just like everyone who tells you that modes of communication can be broken down into percentages. How would you measure that? Number of blinks to words spoken? Number of known sex signaling gestures to phonemes? I like to believe someone is writing their PhD thesis on that right now.


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