the stop-go patter of subtext

April 22, 2018

how often do we hint, delicately or indelicately, the simple interpersonal signals from simon says: stop! or go!, meaning “don’t [do that]” or “go on, it’s okay”? how little else needs to be said in between the lines really, when you’re on the go and at an intersection?

how much of our preverbal mental map of our social space, our options and our interior evaluations is colored by this black-and-white thinking about momentum, force, collision paths and conciliation moves?

why else hesitate to draw a private conclusion? whose imagined voice urges us to give pause, or urges us on?

what clutter of green and red lights must we navigate in order to find a hearing in our own drawing rooms or in the fractious public conference rooms for any message more substantive and carrying than the everyday patter of apologetic shrugs with which we continually “rub elbows” in the traces, wearing the blinkers we rely on to reproduce routines that make us who we are by paying up our bills?

living with indifferences is needful in the moment, for now if not for always, for the best we hope.

subtext is where we put out feelers for feedback, where our ideas find traction or fail to catch on, and for that they need a conscientious driver-cum-negotiator, not just a demagogue with a corner soapbox.

and yet it is so chock full of primitive, preverbal gestures that no thinking person would want to own up to. hence the disdain of the demagogue on the soapbox for the petty dramas unfolding all around him every day at the intersection.


subtext is like a sodium-gated channel, unreflecting yet influential, receptive to its own currency only and thus easily programmed by marketing gurus who play on our lowest common denominators, and in this way it urges us to habituate to the worship of that invisible and fantasmagorical seat of power from which all riches come in the (e)mail.

subtext finds the path of least resistance and paves it with the multifarious intentions of all comers, part entropy and part inevitability. subtext states the obvious. subtext is what keeps us from stepping on the toes of the elephant in the living room.

and to weather its unadorned insults, we cultivate that wonderfully adult discovery of adolescence – ambivalence.

now consider, what is the positive content of ambivalence?

if not this, that or the other, commitment to what else instead? the immaculate superiority of ambivalence has to come from somewhere. where?

clearly, oneself.

one is flexing and luxuriating in one’s own power of choice when one examines the field of action in an aloof, noncommittal attitude.

ambivalence, then, is the resting state of black-and-white thinking – the diffident “no thank you” that neither imposes or concedes anything. the coil in the spring.

game theory either has or ought to have an equation for it.

Question and answer: nonverbals

April 9, 2018

We say what we’ve been waiting all day to say to someone else, ourselves, God, etc.

We test our luck, probe for a smile, a squirm, a down-ranking, chagrin, c’est la vie.

We flirt, stare, wince, admire, react, flatter, or reach out to help someone save face.

We hold back and release our frustrations on each other, ourselves, or the following person in line.

We ignore hints, insults, being ignored, crime, fear, impatience, embarrassment, or efforts to elicit a smile or a laugh. We ignore pointedly, thoughtlessly, or with apologetic glances indicating that we will be paying attention again in just a moment.

We appease, intimidate, cut down, build up, stereotype and deploy microaggressions with the direction and movement of a neutral gaze.


We score, keep score, watch our averages, count our eggs, lick our wounds, celebrate, or shrug.

We mark time, sustain disjointed rhythms, impose habits on the people around ourselves, enforce routines, train one another to go with the flow, jazz things up, wind it down, let missed beats go, learn to get our lines out in one breath, and get cross when third parties interrogate us before we’ve paused for breath or when our breath was appointed to someone else ahead of them in line, withholding, getting steamed.

We daydream, plan, ruminate, second-guess, people-watch, and chit chat.

We make eye contact, glare, anticipate, let our gaze slide, tighten the muscles between our eyes, cock an eyebrow, squint with pleasure, mock in play, look away, look again, apologize with our  eyes, blink too soon, too significantly, relax, regret, recognize.

We smile easily, less easily, with or without joy, with stage feeling, formally, informally, as if sharing a secret, with familiarity, belatedly, with a sense of compunction, habitually, slightly, ironically, cynically, obsequiously, casually, cheerfully, contentedly, with worry or with warmth.

We turn in, aside, towards, to broadside, askew, away, at once, too abruptly or slowly, too mechanically or aggressively, in embarrassment or in concert.

We move, musically or unmusically, in a certain key or chromatically, gently or not.

Attention jockeying, humor and forgiveness

April 2, 2018

To quote Albert Finney’s memorable quip in A Good Year, and Russell Crowe’s recap of the line in the same film, “Timing” is the secret – to comedy, to success, and I would argue, to persuasive delivery of informative messages, to effective hand-offs, and to common courtesies.


It can be a matter of waiting one’s turn to talk, taking a breath in time to respond punctually to a question, juggling multiple conversations at once adroitly across multiple live channels, or jockeying successfully for attention in the decision-making process when delivering actionable intelligence, complex evidence assessments, or public service announcements intended to compete effectively with the currency of “ad culture” in the media mix.

Humor is a sort of quality criterion in evaluating one’s timing in communication – good timing is sometimes pointed enough to be funny, and never takes the air out of the room, so to speak. And to the extent that attention jockeying is intrinsically rude (politically aggressive in the game theory of the attention economy), the comedic value of good timing elicits forgiveness for having presumed on someone’s patience by having one’s own views to air.

Bad timing is a running joke in 2017’s captivating comedy of errors Easy Virtue, and the ease with which the everyday supplies plausible openings for such errors is charmingly illustrated in the domestic life of this film’s hilariously ordinary aristocratic family. Bad timing, one might say, is par for the course. “Good enough” timing is the difference between leaving shock waves of irritation in one’s wake everywhere one goes, and not having ruffled anyone’s feathers much.

Good timing, in my experience, takes considerable and continuous effort in itself. But good timing, in communication of whatever sort, might be the difference between exercising influence and “pissing in the wind” – between successful networking and lone wolf syndrome – between a recipe for failure and success.

Can “good timing” be taught? Is it a moving target, an index of competitiveness in a “nature red in tooth and claw” attention economy of cultural norms in prosody and panache? I find it challenging but learnable, and believe it is at least somewhat related to perspective-taking and listening skill/effort, as well as strategic breathing habits. I also find it totally contingent, dyadic, multiply inflected with cultural overtones and race/class-conflict baggage, and in tension – all conversations, I feel, boil down to the competitive “question and answer” badminton rhythms of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead on some primal level.


Breathing habits have a habitual character, a performative, musical and mimetic dimension, a personality of their own.  But flexibility and clairvoyance in sensing when it would be best to breathe is surprisingly important in achieving good timing, in practice, especially when there are multiple speakers or conversations taxing one’s attention at once. The breathturn, as Paul Celan put it [Atemwende], helps decide how emphatic, receptive, conditional and considerate we sound when we express ourselves with a given tone of voice, word choice and level of strain/volume/articulation/etc.

The search for one’s turn to breathe, one’s turn to speak, one’s turn to pause, one’s allowance of time to answer a question – this is not a contemplative endeavor, however profound the consequences might be. Everything is now, now, now. Live in the now, we are told. What perhaps we should be told is, choose your timing carefully, constantly, reflexively, and before it’s too late!


Hand-offs as “stand offs”

March 25, 2018

A friend of mine was ribbing me about our awkward hand-offs at work earlier this week and, by a slip of the tongue, referred to them as “stand-offs” – a fitting malapropism, I felt, so I took a moment to write it down as food for thought.


I just finished a grim little paperback about machismo in the narco-banditry-dominated mountains of Mexico yesterday, and the last two chapters really took the wind out of my sails as a vicarious adventurer exploring the bleak corners of the obscure. One endorsement on the book’s cover promised “characters straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel” – but the modern view of those historied mountains was a bit less romantic than a Western novel.

The awkward truth about the drug trade seems to be that it barely pays at all unless you’re really good at killing the competition and stealing their loot – an ugly portrait of the life choices of the hardscrabble growers and dealers hooked on the Mexican version of gangster rap, dreaming of bigger AKs, more terrified girlfriends, and the opportunity to snort a generation’s worth of savings in cocaine while getting most of one’s calories from booze.

I mention this because there were so many real-life Mexican stand-offs to be had in the writer’s journey documenting this wasteland of macho excess and drug-induced paranoia. The writer, in fact, had to be about as charming and disarming as anyone can be, just to keep casual encounters with strangers from escalating into life-or-death confrontations.

Perversely, his story taught me a lot about de-escalation, hospitality and charm. One of his cardinal rules was not to hurry your way into, or out of, conversation with anybody. Exchange pleasantries, keep it informal, play it by ear. Listen. Very carefully. For innuendo, uneasiness, mistrust, any sign of negativity. Always adapt instantly to signs of danger.

This was a journey made possible by the unflinching hospitality of strangers who could’ve been killed for extending their help if their guest had been mistaken for a DEA agent. A journey demonstrative of the extremes in resourcefulness, openness and presence of mind needed to simply put strangers at ease.

In the hospitality industry, hand-offs between customer service front line staff and actual, irritable customers are a lot more likely to escalate into stand-offs than hand-offs among staff members. But that Freudian slip touched on an underlying continuity between these two inflections of interpersonal micro-encounters.

Hand-offs can be defined as moments of workspace-time in which interpersonal encounters take on a tension along the following lines:

A tells B, ‘now it’s your problem, here’s what I’ve done so far’

B looks at A and thinks, ‘do I tell A what I really think, or just shrug?’

And that opportunity to give feedback, ask for clarification, comment on tone of voice, or what have you contains within it a microcosmic battlefield. The politics of the attention economy are the stakes. To ask A (or B) to listen to detailed instructions or respond to a line of second-guessing concerns is to attempt a coercion. Will it work? Will it have consequences? For whom?

I dwell on this because hand-offs are a leading cause of medical errors (intervention research in this area is promising). But these micro-encounters and the attendant micro-aggressions interwoven in the fabric of cooperation, tension, and collegial joking around are layered, fluid, subjective, dynamic – in a word, difficult to dissect.

What is called for on all sides, I think, and not just in the health services, is an ongoing commitment to work on having the presence of mind to be adroit, disarming, considerate, persuasive, and a good listener at all times – not only at work but even in our roles as customers, patients, friends, and in the home.

Machismo, inattentive and blustery, irrational and ingrained in our animal nature, is always going to try to get the upper hand when we’re not careful. But machismo is for dinosaurs and drug cartels and period films – this is not the material a better future is going to be made of. May it come to play a lesser role in our lives.