All of us want to feel valued. We have a need to understand that we have value to ourselves and to others as we move along in our very complex and uncertain lives. In order to feel this value we tend to compare ourselves to some cultural standard of value that has emerged over time and that we personalize in our own unique ways. In our time, the standards of value to which we compare ourselves seem to have become increasingly unattainable. Senior managers are supposed to be able to foretell the future, we’re supposed to be wonderfully fit, eat all the right foods, have great balance in our lives, lots of fulfilling relationships, give to charity, and all the while make enough money by age 55 to retire and travel anywhere we want.
Almost all of us are failures to some degree by these standards yet they are insidious and constant and grind away at our need to feel valued. It also seems to be insidious and constant that one of the ways we deal with this need to feel value in ourselves is to lower the value of others. Finding ways to portray and perceive others as ‘less than’ so we can feel ‘more than’. While there are many overt ways of doing this, perhaps we have become so adept at this that we engage in very subtle ways as well.
Norbert Elias, the eminent process sociologist pointed out that part of the civilizing process was the learning we do to interact with others effectively. We need to learn this because we are increasingly dependent on others to live our lives. We need others, even for things as basic as food, and thus need to interact effectively with others. Many of the things we learn become unconscious to us, simply normal modes of behavior for the times and cultures we live in.
Some of what we learn is the appropriate use of language and when the use of language becomes unconscious it is very easy to not see the impact our language can have. It is this subtle and mostly unconscious use of language that can play out in making others ‘less than’ so we can feel ‘more than’.
As an example of the subtlety of this, imagine you were looking out a window with someone and you said, “Hey that’s a nice view out there isn’t it?” An accepted response would be for the other person to express their opinion of the view being observed. They may say, “Well I don’t think it’s very nice at all.” Nothing out of the ordinary has happened in this interaction but there is a subtle emergence of meaning that one person is wrong and the other is right. We express our perceptions as right or true, making a different perception wrong or false and this has the effect of helping us to feel better, more right and thus we feel greater value.
If we look at this exchange through Mead’s ‘conversations of gestures’ framework we would also acknowledge that in order for this potential positioning of right and wrong to occur it would need to be both people together coming to this meaning. Just as we express our perceptions as right we tend to hear those expressions the same way. What we say and what we hear tend to emphasize the same dynamic and language too often becomes an invisible dance of positioning ourselves as ‘more than’ or defending ourselves from ‘less than’.
Imagine if, after hearing ‘Hey that’s a nice view out there isn’t it?’ there was a pause, maybe silence and a different response. “What do you mean? What are you seeing?” to explore what that ‘nice’ might be from that other perspective. It changes the exchange from one of ‘positioning’ to one of exploring.
Over the past number of weeks I have really tried to observe this ‘positioning’ dynamic occurring and it seems to me that it happens very, very frequently. It creates interactions that are more about a dance of offense and defense than exploration and I think in these particular times we need much more exploration with our interactions.
Author – Tom