The Reptile Brain
I’ve had one or two further thoughts about Deborah Cameron’s ‘Good to Talk’ article.
And the relevance of this to the subject of conversation is that intimacy must be created and sustained to a large extent through a particular kind of talk, involving continuous mutual self-disclosure. The modern cliché ‘they just couldn’t communicate’, proffered as an explanation for the break-up of a marriage or other significant relationship, does not imply that the parties never spoke or that they found one another’s conversation unintelligible. Rather it implies a lack of honesty and emotional depth in their exchanges—a failure by one or both individuals to share their feelings openly and express their true selves authentically.
This is all true, and good stuff, but there’s a further aspect Cameron doesn’t go into (at least in this article). Why is self-disclosure and the authentic expression of our true selves purely emotional? Why is it only feelings and emotions that we’re supposed to reveal, disclose, express, communicate, converse and talk about? When how and why did we decide that the true authentic hidden-until-expressed self is purely emotional? Why aren’t our thoughts and ideas part of our selves too? Why can’t self-disclosure be cognitive as well as or even instead of emotional?
It’s interesting to note, for one thing, that if we did understand the self that way, the tacit or covert preference for the putative female style of communication might disappear.
The main premise of the ‘Mars and Venus’ literature is exactly the one restated by BT—that men are far less at ease than women with self-revelation and the verbalizing of emotional states…But in a culture that places emphasis on self-reflexivity and the creation of intimacy through self-disclosure, it is entirely logical that the (real or perceived) asymmetry between women and men should come to be apprehended as a serious problem. It is also logical that the problem should be seen to inhere primarily in men’s behaviour—for despite the efforts of authors like Deborah Tannen to present the sexes as ‘different but equal’, comments like the one quoted above from BT suggest an implicit common-sense belief in female communicational superiority.
If women are boringly and claustrophobically assumed to be better at communicating their feelings, men are perhaps assumed to be better at communicating about ideas. All too often that is seen as a flaw – a sign of how emotionally crippled and stunted men are compared to honest, open, in touch with their feelings women. Well that’s one way to look at it – but then, another way is that it’s women who are crippled and stunted, unable to get their heads out of the boring egotistical sludge of their own personal feelings and think about something more important.
When how and why did we decide that feelings are better than thoughts? And not only better but also somehow more real, more honest, authentic, internal, of the self? I wonder if it has to do with benevolent impulses toward egalitarianism and inclusiveness. Perhaps we’re afraid that not everyone has much in the way of thoughts and ideas, but we’re pretty sure that anyone can have feelings – it’s simply a matter of ‘getting in touch’ with them. So we convince ourselves that the core of our being is emotions, and that thoughts are some sort of aristocratic artificial overlay, an external frippery and decoration that disappears when the going gets tough; and then we convince ourselves that the core is the part that counts and the overlay is a slightly suspect sophistication or adulteration or pollution. So we end up coercing each other, with the best of intentions, to distrust the cognitive and overtrust the emotional. We get atrophied intellects and hypertrophied feelings. There are some drawbacks to that arrangement, I think.