Drama and socializing

September 28, 2014

Blogging is an important outlet for me, because I don’t often start conversations off-line. I was raised to wait to speak until spoken to, and to keep my answers short and to the point. I now see that upbringing as part of an abusive past, but the habits stick with me. Keeping up in conversation is also difficult for me, possibly because of autistic traits, though it’s hard to parse that out from the way I was raised.

I’m starting to develop an analytical grasp of dramatic rhythm and conversational skill, but only as an outsider looking in. My new job at a restaurant gives me a wealth of “people watching” opportunities to learn from, but when it comes to making conversation with coworkers I rely on a few considerate colleagues who reach out to me more often than the rest and aren’t bothered by awkward silences or blank stares in response to what seem to me to be inane conversation starters. They’re always the ones to initiate conversation, but they don’t seem to mind.

Lately my personal preoccupation with PTSD and other aspects of trauma has led me to feel a little jilted by the way people who don’t have PTSD seem to minimize my experiences in conversation, saying normalizing things about what happened instead of recognizing the gravity of the situation or the intensity of my fears and disorientation. But I’ve come up with a hypothesis for explaining some of those seemingly unfeeling reactions away.

Petty trauma is social drama, and conversation can’t continue without it. Finding dramatic rhythm in conversation involves storytelling, plot conventions, a climax and an anticlimax, and lots of repetitions and role reversals. Everyone gets a routine turn at airing a grievance, something exciting to talk about, an event. Alleging that your grievance dwarfs anyone else’s problem of the day is bad form.

Just getting through the day is supposed to be an adventure for everyone, and egalitarianism is strict in this regard. To be congratulated on your adventure narrative you have to have already slain your dragon and you have to show your scars with pride, not with self-pity. This is part of fitting in – you have to be prepared to minimize your own hardships and to carry on as if it were a normal day, if you want to be respected.


Conversation elevates the trivial to epic proportions on a routine basis, and the price everyone agrees to pay for this glamorization of minor insults is that major struggles are to be trivialized in turn, to maintain the illusion that everything anyone wants to talk about is fair game, to avoid the oppressive self-seriousness of formality and evaluative judgments. This is protective of everyone’s feelings on most days, but extremely demanding for those who are having a run of bad luck.

Compartmentalizing helps ease the strain of equalizing pressures and conformism a little. If you have a health problem, it’s just your doctor’s purview, and talking about it isn’t the same as talking about yourself, there’s sure to be a prescription and if it isn’t perfect that’s one of the ironies of talking about health. Talking about family is another compartment with rules favoring forgiveness and cohesion – it’s bad form to counsel someone against mending fences with family members. Family is supposed to be a bulwark against the vagaries of other social ties, and if you don’t have one to go to there are no substitutes.

But compartmentalizing eases tensions by formalizing social boundaries. Talking about health is different from talking about how you feel, it’s “just” a health problem and you have to be satisfied with the doctor’s solution and leave it at that really. A chronic condition with no cure is still “just” a health problem and you can’t keep talking about it indefinitely, you have to respect the fact that healthy people get bored with illness narratives quickly.

I’m bad at compartmentalizing lately. I’ve become resentful and suspicious about conventional wisdom and informal economics. I’m getting too strident to reason well as a social critic, too emotional. Everything seems related to me, the connections are intrusive and nagging rather than illuminating, and I have a constant feeling of information overload every time I sit down to write.


Part of me wants to become a Marxist and let my personal frustrations be subsumed in an ideological critique of capitalism that has a certain abstract coherence and reasonableness to it. Part of me wants to understand economic theory better than an idealogue would though, part of me is greedy for knowledge despite the information overload. I spend most of my free time with books.

I’m trying to spend more of my free time in conversation. I’ve joined a PTSD support group on the internet and that has helped me resolve the frustration I had with making myself understood when I need to talk about just how dismal I feel. I’ve decided to take up a meditation practice and focus on the concept of friendship when I meditate. And I’m trying to become more self-aware at work, more conscious of how I come across, more willing to do what it takes to fit in.

I want to learn more about dramatic rhythm and conversational form, and in search of a discipline that may begin by “examining listening as an activity” I got a lot out of these passages from a book I read recently about jazz piano playing and “talk” as such:

“Consider the guided hand at the piano .. The finger starts out for a note, then stops, backs off from another note, and then comes back to where it is being told to go.

[.. In time, the fingers needn’t be watched while they work.]

They feel the edges of adjacent keys not as treacherously named places to be avoided but with almost the degree of intimacy with which the fingers feel each other ..

You listen to another person speak in order to say what he is saying as quickly as he says it, repeating his sounds aloud, trying to stay in spatiotemporal touch with his speech, anticipating forthcoming places to second-guess his movements .. Your efforts to repeat involve you in talking when you need to listen still more; it is like trying to follow a dance step with your eyes and feet at the same time.”

I like the analogy between talk and piano playing, because one of my favorite piano pieces is in counterpoint, and it really feels as if your hands are having a conversation with each other to play it.


The author describes how the body ascertains and expresses a natural understanding of math, how we listen, and how we relate to each other as individuals when he describes the uneasy listening style characteristic of modern life:

“You listen to the voice to hear its nervousness.
You listen to identify the language.
You listen to see if you are interested.
You listen to be able to repeat it later.
You listen so as to write a piece of criticism.
You listen to show you are listening.
You listen for your turn to talk.”

Talk’s Body: A Meditation Between Two Keyboards

The analogy to music works for me because I used to study the piano and the viola, and I especially enjoyed the viola because it gave me more opportunities to perform counterpoint in an ensemble, where the instruments seem to talk to each other.

Lately I use music more as an emotional thermostat, and spend more time than I should on YouTube watching music videos and just zoning out.

“…we have developed a series of emotional thermostats as well, by far the most potent of which is television itself. Instead of really experiencing the highs and lows, pains and joys, that make up a life, many of us use TV just as we use central heating – to flatten our variations, to maintain a constant ‘optimal’ temperature.”

– Bill McKibben, The Age of Missing Information

Some days it seems therapeutic and needful, others just a bad habit. I’d rather be relating to my favorite films with a solid critical distance for analytical appraisal. To have a response to film is important to me. But right now I just don’t have the self-discipline to compose a good film review.

That frustrates me – not having anything to say for myself here on wordpress. This is a fandom blog, and lately I’ve only been using fan references for emphasis, not to explore film subjects in depth. I’m hoping it’s just a phase and that I’ll pull out of it before long.

4 Responses to “Drama and socializing”

  1. Lovely post:-) Maybe you think it should have been a movie review, but it is very relatable and clear.

    I really like how you are using your restaurant job as a people study opportunity…

    Now slightly off topic: do you still play music? (I presume that’s what you meant by studied). and how do you feel about singing?

    For me, singing has become great training in intonation and in becoming skilled at using my voice (and silence) to express feelings and establish a better sort of social integration in conversations.

    (Reality check: it only works for some conversations, with people I already know and whom I already feel accepted by. It probably wouldn’t work in your workplace… So maybe my advice is pretty much useless. Anyway, there are situations where it is better to treat conversations as if the actual words are not relevant)

    It isn’t that I magically know better what to say, or say more,
    it is just that I have become better at using non-verbal elements – body language, sound and silence – as part of my communication, so I don’t feel like I need to come up with a lot of words that need to fit the context, but sometimes treat a conversation more like a piece of music which I can listen to or put a few tones in here and there, but I don’t have to. I find that attitude helpful… it calms me down, and as a result of not trying desperately to figure out how to participate, I actually feel more accepted. Or maybe I just accept myself more:-)

    In any case, my point is that I have found singing (and reading aloud) very helpful in developing my voice as a better integrated communication tool, which makes me feel better about my voice in general, and more confident in conversations:-)

    Many years ago, for a long period of time I had a weak voice due to low self confidence (plus I thought my voice sounded loud although it didn’t – I rarely talked at the time, and suddenly hearing my voice sounded very strange)… A therapist I saw at that time gave me the homework to see a singing teacher once a week. Being taught to sing normalised my voice at the time, and I did the singing training for I think a year or so, until my teacher left. The last few years – in a completely different context – I have been singing in a Church. It is this second round of singing for an audience (now practising but not studying) that has affected my voice-self perception positively.

    On another node (he;-): listening to music on YouTube is one of my favourite self-calming/grounding strategies. I find that music very healing, soothing and helpful for mind-body integration.

    I also recognise what you’re saying about compartmentalising. Context silos…

  2. gavinpandion Says:

    I hope wordpress didn’t cut you off mid-sentence there, I don’t know if there’s a word limit for replies or anything.

    Thanks for your comment, I really like your suggestion about singing. And “context silos” is a great phrase.

    I practically never sing, and I don’t play piano or viola any more. I have a tremor in my hands now (a medication side effect) and it makes the fine motor coordination needed to play well a mess. I arrange music in playlists in order to have a creative musical outlet – each playlist has its own theme, and I try to choose good transitions. I’m tempted to try singing in private though, I can imagine getting a lot out of it.

    One thing I’ve recently been thinking about trying is voice acting – reading plays or screenplays aloud, and maybe recording it so I can critique myself and work on doing the voices as a skill building exercise for controlling my tone of voice. I recently raised my voice in anger at a coworker and was surprised at how condescending my own tone of voice was – I hadn’t intended to be that rude, and I’d like to have more self control in that area.

    When I hear myself talk the tone of voice always seems like an accident to me, a matter of random chance. Doing anything about it seems like a daunting task to me, but it seems worth a try – I’m trying to be more invested in appearances in a holistic way lately, and that fits right into the same project.

    I’m glad you mentioned that about using YouTube as a self-calming/stimming outlet. Every time I go to the doctor I notice signs up recommending high fruit and vegetable intake, regular exercise, and no more than 2 hours of recreational screen time per day. My diet is relatively healthy and I do get plenty of exercise walking to and from work (6 miles round trip), but I can’t see myself reducing my recreational screen time to 2 hours a day very easily. YouTube is addictive, and my social life (apart from socializing at work) revolves around internet use. That’s not even counting the time I spend watching my prized DVD collection. Anyhow, don’t they know that good movies are often 3 hours long?;-)

  3. bloodfreak Says:

    I think there’s something to that hypothesis. Very astute observation about the tendency to normalize, or seek some kind of equilibrium, when we touch on those deeply affective issues in our lives in the context of “light” social exchange. In a “fair and equitable” conversation among “peers”, one participant should not have the upper hand on the other(s), not only in the form, but also in the content of the discussion, lest you be stigmatized with the label of “complainer”, “drama queen”, “hypochondriac”, “attention whore” or some other equally pleasant epitaph.

    That said, people are not only or always acting selfishly when minimizing the experiences of others. Sometimes, it is an attempt at soothing (ill-conceived as it may be). This may be particularly the case with individuals who concern themselves more with the form than the content of the conversation, which is often the case when the content is beyond the realm of their personal experiences. Sensing that someone is affected emotionally by some issue that they cannot understand or cannot empathize with, an individual can still sympathize and might try to comfort that person with a “there, there, it’s okay!” Being on the receiving end of such an attempt at consolation is extremely frustrating. “You say you understand, but clearly, you do not!” When I’m subjected to it, I try not to see it as condescension, but rather simple ignorance, and move on from the topic, noting it’s not something to be discussed with that person in the future. (I’ll also re-evaluate how other similar individuals I know might perceive and receive that particular topic.)

    I have a number of friends/acquaintances I spend time with fairly regularly, but we’re not particularly close. I realize that not all topics of interest to me are suitable for all of them, and vice versa (I expect, for the most part), and I tailor my conversations accordingly. Closer friends are more willing to indulge the occasional pity party.

    So, perhaps it’s fair to say the weaker the social bond, the greater the need to establish and maintain that equilibrium. When the bond is strong and *healthy* (as opposed to an unbalanced dynamic, where one participant has more power in the relationship than the other), it should be more tolerant of “excesses” on both sides.

  4. gavinpandion Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I revisited your post on the presumption of decency yesterday and realized I’ve been guilty of the fundamental attribution error quite a lot lately. You make a very good point about how some comments about hardship can seem minimizing even when they are clearly supportive in nature. I’ve been focusing on the negative a lot lately, it’s something I need to work on.

    Your tip about having different social boundaries with different friends makes a lot of sense to me too. I’m gradually getting better at doing that lately, but for a few months there I was just “morally opposed to social boundaries” in a deeply irrational way, trying to avoid compartmentalizing no matter how nonsensical the resulting thought processes were, pursuing “convergence theory” with no evidence but lots of conviction. I think it was a transitional phase for me, where I had to renegotiate so many boundaries at once in my life that I felt like they’d all become irrelevant and started relating to matters of social decorum like they were just so much “red tape”.

    That’s an analogy I might try to develop later – informal economy red tape, the rules of friendship and family patronage and things like that, “soft power” politics as procedural politics. Lots of aspie blind spots for those unwritten rules though.

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