The Behavior and the Meaning

So I’ve been reading in linguistic anthropology. I know. Another rabbit hole of ideas. But here’s the thing. Every interaction with another person contains the behavior, whether it is speech or action, and the meanings that behavior carries. The meanings include what it means about you, what it means about me and what it means about the relationship between us. What sometimes happens is that each person is interpreting that meaning in a slightly different way, and that can lead to misunderstandings and bad feelings.

So if you say, “Mr. Jones, can I ask a question?” it tells you something about your relationship with the other person–perhaps he is a teacher or other expert–and it assumes he has some knowledge you do not have. Under most circumstances it represents a kind of respect to use a person’s last name. But that same statement could also be sarcastic, ironic, or inaccurate.

The same perspective applies in parenting. So recently I had the occasion to talk with a parent about how to deal with a frustrated child. With children particularly, people use compliance or “good behavior” as a measure  of the child. If that is the perspective, the adult, parent or teacher, is paying attention to getting the behavior that the adult wants to see. But if you do that with no regard for the way it feels to the child, you define the relationship in an authoritarian way. Even if you are really nice about it.

The difficult thing is maintaining our focus on our own ideals–how we want to be in the world and how we want to treat other people–rather than some external measure such as whether we get what we want, whether the other person agrees with us, or whether things “calm down.” Relationships can be stressful and messy, and that does not always mean there is a problem. People have different centers of motivation and different centers of agency and those differences can feel distancing. But the satisfying aspect of a relationship is coming to know a –different– person well over time. Not a person who is exactly like us or agrees with us about everything. Similarities can feel connecting, but differences can too.

So in a relationship, it is not so much the content of the conversation or the action of the moment, but what we are conveying to each other about mutual acceptance, appreciation, and curiosity. Our emotions get triggered by old patterns and old meanings, and that can make it hard to see the other person clearly. We attribute negative motives to them and we react to our own fantasies of what we are seeing rather than recognizing that our emotional responses are being generated inside of ourselves from meanings that are unconscious and imprinted from our pasts.

Being able to truly see and understand another person requires intentional effort to set aside our own filters about the world and other people and to be open to who that person really is. And as we practice freeing ourselves from the patterns of our own unique past experiences, we enter into the deep pleasure of connecting with another person in a real way.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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