Communication on the Streets: Three Examples

As someone who rides a bike pretty much everywhere I go in the city, I get to witness all the ways that the people who use our streets communicate with each other. Getting from A to B on New York’s busy thoroughfares is sort of like a square dance in which you’re constantly moving from one partner to another; a successful performance requires that you not only execute the choreography with each partner precisely and synchronously, but that you also contribute to the group’s pattern of movement around the dance floor by flowing easily from one position to the next. And as with a square dance, navigating the streets safely on foot, by bike, in an automobile, or on any of the other crazy things that one sees on the roads today requires constant visual and aural communication between all participants. Pending the findings from a scientific study on how communication between cyclists and motor vehicle drivers works, allow me to unscientifically highlight three of the communicative modes that dominate NYC’s traffic tango:

  1. The Middle Finger

Ok, so I’m most familiar with this gesture when it emanates from my own hand (and often that of other cyclists), usually directed at a car driver who I feel has pulled a jerk move. Flipping the bird is a form of visual communication, and its counterpart in the pedestrian world is the WTF look, a contorted face accompanied by shoulders and hands raised with palms open in disbelief at the jerk move the driver or cyclist who violated their right of way just pulled. I’ve seen motorists give the one finger salute or pump a fist, but it’s generally harder to communicate visually with them. In fact, even though the main rationale provided for laws prohibiting substantial window tinting in New York seems to be safety for cops,I think tinted windows are a huge hazard primarily because they inhibit that most basic form of visual communication—eye contact—between drivers and all the other road users whose safety depends on it.

  1. The Honk

Don’t expect to see these anymore.

Last year, the NYC Transportation Department took down all of the “Don’t Honk” signs in the city. The removal of the signage, which also advertised the fine for unnecessary honking ($350), was NOT prompted by a change in law, but rather by “an effort to declutter the streets of often ignored signs.”  Like others, I was saddened to know that we’ve resigned ourselves to accept this form of aural communication as a regular part of our streetscape. The way I see it, honking in any scenario besides a potentially dangerous situation is a violent act. When directed at cyclists and pedestrians, it is an aggressive statement of a driver’s greater power to which those non-motorized travelers have little possibility of responding in kind. Of course, cyclists and pedestrians often do respond and engage in plenty of aural communication of their own on the streets. Here we enter the more specific realm of verbal communication, which consists largely of venomous insults about other people’s inability to follow the utopian etiquette for street use that each of us has devised in our heads. What is it about being on the streets that makes us so nasty to each other?

  1. The Wave

Another mode of visual communication, this one comes in many varieties. There’s the one where a driver oh so graciously gives a pedestrian at a crosswalk a hurried wave motioning for them to cross, even when they already have the right of way, though in rare instances it is altruistic. And then there’s the wave of “thanks.” This gesture expresses gratitude to other folks for yielding to them, whether or not traffic norms dictated he or she do so. I am consciously trying to foster this approach more often, hoping that positive reinforcement for good driving behavior will help change habits. During a road trip across the country years ago, a friend clued me in to a similar visual cue in the trucking world: At night, when one big rig is passing another, the driver being overtaken will flash their high beams when it is safe for the passing vehicle to pull back in to the right lane. The trucker who has just passed will then tap the brake lights twice (or briefly turn on the hazard lights) to say “thanks.” I got to engage with this lingo a few times and it felt good to be friendly on the roads! Let’s hope that the path to “ending traffic deaths and injuries on our streets,” the goal of NYC’s new Vision Zero plan, makes us all more civil communicators.

Communication Intensive: What’s the Criteria?

A few weeks ago, I introduced myself to a class that I’m supporting this semester as Communication Fellow at BLSCI. I outlined the support services the Institute provides and specifically the support I will provide to students during rehearsals for their presentations. In the time I’ve worked as a fellow, I have never given an introduction and students did not have any questions. Not only did these students not have any questions, they also seemed reluctant to answer any of the questions I posed to them. I received engaged eyes, but no words to follow the expressions their eyes were emoting. I asked myself: how communication intensive is this course, if the students aren’t comfortable answering simple questions about their academic level or if they have anxiety giving oral presentations?

At BLSCI, we are in a self-reflective process right now, assessing the services we provide and what services we could potentially offer to students and faculty. With a new director at the helm, self-assessment is always key, to see which direction an organization needs to go. I wonder based on the silence I received from that one particular class of students if assessment needs to occur on deeper levels based on the curricula in each course. If most students prepare an oral presentation in courses designated as communication intensive, and they interface with BLSCI specifically for this one presentation, what other opportunities can be made available to students to cultivate communication skills inside and outside of the classroom? What spaces can be made available to students to develop their communication skills in addition to giving oral presentations?

As a doctoral candidate at the dissertation writing stage, the Career Services Center at The Graduate Center offers great workshops on professionalization skills such as developing an elevator pitch, crafting resumes for the non-academic market, and alternative career options. What if students at an undergraduate level looked at opportunities to participate in class as opportunities to cultivate their oral communication and professionalization skills? The silence I received from those students was a bit unnerving, mainly because many students think of professionalization and their academic education as two different realms that only converge during an internship and/or when they enter the labor market. Even at a business school like Baruch, students need help to recognize that these realms are not separate but actually work in tandem with each other. Even if the job they currently hold is not their intended career, cultivating good communications skills is key, and lays the foundation for grooming the elevator pitch for the career path one is truly passionate about. I guess in many ways, I do more than consult with students on oral presentations, I also provide them with tools for professionalization. In the future I will begin my introduction scripts with that.

Principles of Persuasion

At the end of each semester, I always wrap up my management 3120 and 3300 class with a couple of lectures on negotiation and persuasion. Students learn about various techniques of negotiation in the business setting as well as practice using persuasion practically in their day to day lives (one of my students’ favorite topics is when and how to ask for a raise). More importantly, becoming familiar with the fundamental principles of persuasion contribute to communicating more effectively overall.

My task this year as a WAC fellow is to support business policy 5100 students with their final oral presentations by providing advice and individualized feedback. Public speaking is a difficult art to master, but if we narrow it down, successful presentations in the business field share a common element – presenters incorporate persuasion principles! Most of the presentation in business classes put students in a position where they role play as a consulting group to provide recommendations to companies and advise top managers in terms of future strategy and decisions. Students must convince their audience that they are able to accurately predict future outcomes and they are a trustworthy source of information. Two presentations with the same quality of content can have drastically different outcomes in terms of effectiveness, where the difference often lies in the choice of words, team member cohesiveness, and nuances in message delivery. Hence, I believe that students should be introduced to negotiation and persuasion techniques when they prepare their oral assignment.

I gathered a short list of key concepts (adapted from Robert Cialdini’s principles of influence) that I want to go over with the students in order to help them with (1) working with other students in a team and (2) deliver their presentation effectively and convincingly. Hopefully it will be helpful to them not only for their project, but also for other experiences where they have to work with others and present ideas.

  1. Reciprocity

The principle of reciprocity states that people feel obliged to offer concessions to others if similar discounts have been offered to them. This is because people are uncomfortable with feeling indebted to others. I have seen many groups fall apart near the end of the semester because many students do not know how to get their teammates to work together. Using the idea of reciprocity, the team leader or the team members who are more proactive should divide up the work early on, make small sacrifices/concessions first, and then pressure other team members to complete their own tasks.

  1. Consistency

According to this principle, people want to stay consistent in their opinions, especially if they have shown interest in an idea and become committed to the idea early on. Student presenters should hook their audience with information that everyone can relate to at the beginning of the presentation to capture people’s attention, then ask related questions and interact with the audience throughout the presentation to keep everyone interested and engaged. Important pieces of information and main ideas should be stressed and repeated several times throughout the presentation.

  1. Mimetic imitation and social norm

This principle is based on people’s tendency to yield to group pressures and conform to the norm. When working with teammates, team leaders should pressure everyone to agree face to face on a strict deadline to establish a productive norm within the group. During the presentation, students can improve their persuasiveness by introducing real life examples involving well-known companies and events that match their decisions, which will help to convince the audience that the presenters’ recommendations are commonly used by others.

  1. Liking

We are more likely to be influenced by people we like. Likability can be built based on a wide range of things such as similarity in interest, compliments, or personality. Student groups are more likely to be functional if team members first get to know each other and develop a more authentic interpersonal relationship with each other before they have to do work together. If students in a group like each other, the team will work together more smoothly and the presentation will demonstrate better chemistry between members.

  1. Authority and legitimacy

People feel a sense of obligation to listen to people in positions of authority (eg. Pharmaceutical advertisers use doctors to promote their products). There are a few things students can do to improve their appearance of authority:

  1. Wear business attire
  2. Introduce team members as colleagues in a made up consulting firm
  3. Get rid of filler phrases and choose words carefully
  4. Make eye contact, speak loud/clear, and use hand gestures/body language
  5. If possible, bring up relevant prior experiences

Composition Across the Curriculum

Due to our many discussions about Communication Across the Curriculum and multimodal composing at the Schwartz Institute, I became interested in the idea of Composition Across the Curriculum. In particular, I wanted to think through the pedagogy of using writing, speech, and video in the same classroom. What is similar and what is different for students and instructors when it comes to these different technologies of expression?

Below is an interview with documentary filmmaker Sascha Just, who teaches film production and public speaking in Baruch’s Department of Communication Studies. Her short doc Ambassadors – The Native Jazz Quartet at Work has been screened at the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs, CA, the The Queens World Film Festival, where it was nominated for best short doc, and at Woman with A Movie Camera.


1. What kind of assignments do the film production students create?

The students have four assignments. The first one is a dialogue scene. They form groups and pick a scene. We then film the scenes in class and they edit them in the library computer lab.

For the second assignment, they go out and film a chase scene. Two or three people chase each other. It’s a very fun assignment, creative, somewhat adventurous. More than anything, it teaches how to compose a shot and how to create continuity. –How to build a story. We are dealing with structure based on logic. –Basic film language. At this point, most of them could handle [the editing software] Final Cut and all scenes turned out extremely well.

The third project was a fundraiser/kickstarter video for their final project, which was a short documentary. I figured this is a business school and I want to teach them the reality of filmmaking. It’s expensive. A short fundraiser forces you to focus on the essence of your project. The final assignment was 10-minute documentaries.

2. What kinds of writing do the students do during the semester? How does the writing prepare the students for filming or help them reflect on what they created?

For the chase scene, students drew storyboards to ensure that the shot order would be effective, economic, and logical. For the documentary project, they wrote a production plan: a premise of the project and description of what they were going to shoot, where and when. It helps tighten the production, schedule the shoots, plan interviews, and overall tailor production decisions to support the main idea of the film.

The students write a film analysis paper and an exam.  Both written assignments ask students to demonstrate their understanding of film language. This means on the one hand that they use the correct terminology and can communicate with other filmmakers. On the other, it means that they grasp the meanings a sequence of shots can express. For example, why does the filmmaker choose to shoot this scene with close ups? What did she try to convey?

3. Do you see any strong connections between structuring a speech and structuring a doc? –In terms of clarity of perspective, editing (knowing what to put in, take out, when and how to present information), etc.?

Doc films in particular work with reality but they are no more realistic than so-called fiction films. No matter how accurately researched, they always play with reality. The same can be said about speeches and academic papers. I guess, altogether I question the possibility of representing reality.

However, I believe in putting great effort into creating a structure built on logic. That turns out to be one of the most challenging aspects of filmmaking and public speaking. The questions of “does this scene belong here or there, why does it feel right to place this scene here and not there” preoccupy me a lot. It’s a constant negotiation between the style or aesthetics I am trying to create and the content/information I am trying to communicate. Again, the same as with speeches or academic papers.

AMBASSADORS is a very simple story without real dramatic climax, but was nonetheless difficult to structure. The musicians noticed it – I used the songs as a structure. I personally do not like to work with voice overs, but there are many great films that do (REEL INJUNS, a must see). I am trying to keep my own voice out of it as much as possible, because a) I am more interested in what the characters have to say and b) I feel that my viewpoint comes through a lot anyhow, simply because I select, interview, structure etc.

4. Any thoughts on the communication that happens between the documentarian and the subject and between instructor and student? If the same, how so? If different, in what ways?

I hadn’t thought of it before, but I think there are parallels between interviewing and q & a with students. Both require attentive and engaged listening. Waiting till the person is finished. Prompting further thoughts with short follow-up questions. Phrasing questions short and clear. Neither students nor interviewee should spend too much time trying to figure out what it is I am asking, right?

Both students and interview subjects respond much more willingly if they sense that I care. Once I cried in an interview, because what the person (an older, very unhappy Indian) told me was heartbreaking. It turned out to be one of the most meaningful and informative interviews I have ever conducted. So much for neutrality.

We never are objective anyhow, so why would I try that in such heightened situations like an interview or the classroom? It becomes dishonest.

5. Do you have any thoughts about how people’s behavior changes in front of the camera (particularly in this digital smart phone age)? –I ask this particularly in the context of Baruch where we use the technique of taping students and doing an immediate playback so they can experience their vocal and bodily delivery habits as an audience member would.

Even very confident people who believe that they forget about the camera are on some level aware of it. In my opinion, they perform for the camera. Not necessarily a problem. Without the camera, they would perform for the teacher, class, or interviewer. Performing is so often defined as negative = fake. But ultimately it means that students or interviewees pull themselves together, focus, try to make a good impression, and eliminate distracting stories or habits to the best of their ability.

Sascha Just was born and raised in Berlin, Germany and is a doctoral candidate in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Theatre Department. Her dissertation is about the cinematic representation of New Orleans performance cultures. Just’s in-process documentary film Heirs is a music-driven portrait of New Orleans composed of three artists’ journeys into the city’s past: drummer/vibraphonist Jason Marsalis, Mardi Gras Indian Chief Darryl Montana, and theater artist Lisa D’Amour. 

The Ask

I admit to having experienced a slight cringe upon hearing the word “ask” used as a noun recently. The usage to which I’m referring usually takes some form along the lines of “the ask is that you do so and so…” or “the ask is for such and such…” I only started noticing this replacement of “request” (or “demand”!) with a nounification of ask in the last year or so, and had been wondering about this apparently new semantic trend. Then, a few weeks ago, I received an email that reawakened my curiosity about the phenomenon. The message was from someone involved with union work who was asking a favor of his contacts. At the end of the message, he wrote:

To repeat “the ask” (union-organizer lingo for what we’re asking you to do): Please help…

Since I first started coming across ask-as-noun-replacing-request in activist circles, this assertion that “the ask” is commonly used in union talk caused me to speculate as to whether it was part of some leftist conspiracy. There may be some evidence for this. For example, a poster on the timely “Stop Using ‘Ask’ As A Noun”  Facebook page writes that they hear it all the time on NPR, that bastion of the liberally biased media. And, Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state for the socialist Obama administration, purportedly once said:

We’re going to expect more from the Afghan government going forward, and we’ve got some very specific asks that we will be making.

But it appears that use of “the ask” cuts across diverse sectors. For instance, in finance lingo, the minimum price a broker will take for a financial instrument is sometimes called “the ask.” Curiously, a nounified “ask” appears to have infected the vocabulary at corporate behemoth Microsoft in the mid-2000s, as can be seen in blog entries written by more than one frustrated employee. I find this especially amusing considering the fact that the Encarta Dictionary built in to Microsoft Word does not include a noun form of “ask” in its entry for that word. As I type this, I see the phraseology “the ask” appearing throughout this post underlined in cautionary wavy green by Word’s grammar checker.

And this brings us to the potentially irrelevant issue of whether using ask as a noun is grammatically correct in the first place. Along with MS Word’s dictionary, the authoritative offers no synonyms for the noun form. Ah, but the OED informs us that ask was used as a noun as far back as the year 1000 AD (and I don’t mean in its other guise as a noun: an English/Scottish term for a newt)! The OED update from 2005 further cements “the ask’s” grammatical propriety with reference to its contemporary colloquial usage in Australia, where it is usually interpolated by the modifier “big” (e.g. “that’s quite a big ask” [please make sure to pronounce the “k” if you say this]).

Despite the grammatically correct roots of “the ask” in ancient English, though, it’s clear that this form was not regular in modern language. It’s also evident that “the ask” has been making a comeback of late, and that it might be part of a more general linguistic trend that is meeting with some resistance. A piece in the New York Times by Henry Hitchings last year placed the revival of “the ask” in the context of a phenomenon he described as nominalization (the correct term for “nounification”): when a verb or adjective is transformed into a noun. Nominalization (itself a nominalization of “to nominalize”) comes in two types: the first involves adding a suffix and is more common (e.g. “to frustrate” becomes “frustration”), while in the second the same word is simply converted into a noun. The article’s opening paragraph gives a few notorious examples of the second, more controversial type of nominalization (though another NYT opinionator has lambasted academic writing for inelegant overuse of the first type):

“Do you have a solve for this problem?” “Let’s all focus on the build.” “That’s the take-away from today’s seminar.” Or, to quote a song that was recently a No. 1 hit in Britain, “Would you let me see beneath your beautiful?”

As Hitchings explains, this kind of nominalization can be employed in speech or writing to sound edgy or jaunty; think of the currently hip phrase “epic fail.” But he points out that in the case of “the ask” there is a sort of “distancing” or depersonalizing effect. For instance, the expression “the ask is that…” is undoubtedly less direct than saying “I am asking you to…” And I think this is what irks me about “the ask” (or, as a request of me was put in a recent email, “the want”), rather than some obstinate reaction to linguistic change. The role of “the ask” in obfuscating the personal dynamics of a request is perhaps supported by its prominence in fundraising lingo, as established in the title of the 2006 book The Ask: How to Ask Anyone for Any Amount for Any Purpose. (Along these lines, the protagonist of the 2010 novel The Ask is a university fundraiser.) There also seems to be a perception out there that “the ask” is an evil component of corporate doublespeak; many posters on—a site that simply compiles the approximately bi-weekly tweets reaffirming the position stated in the URL—allude to its use in business jargon. Given this popular view, it seems a bit ironic to me that Marxist union activists are claiming “the ask” as their own!

“Here, YOU write this down”

Photo by City Year

During the first several years of my teaching career, like many other teachers, I became very accustomed to using the white (or, in the case of some CUNY classrooms, the black) board to underline key points of lectures and discussions.  A typical class period might have seen me leading a discussion about a particular piece of reading material, periodically turning my back on the students to write out pieces of what they are saying. Although I always liked the idea of visually underlining the knowledge we collectively created using the board, I’ve also always felt a bit disconnected from students when spending so much class time busily taking dictation. Plus, all that writing is tiring!

So, in the past few semesters I’ve started handing off the task of writing on the board to the students themselves. I bring about a dozen dry-erase markers to every class, leave them on the front table, and invite the students to get up out of their seats, grab a marker, and put something up on the board for all to see.  Since I started incorporating this technique into more formalized exercises, I’ve noticed a few immediate, and unexpected, benefits:

1.  First, it loosens things up. With the class divided into small groups, with each group responsible for writing a few notes or arguments or quotes drawn from readings, students become more physically active, moving about the room, and talking to each other. The atmosphere of the room feels more exciting, like a learning laboratory. Rather than acting as a disseminator of knowledge, my role is transformed to that of a guide, helping students along their own path of critical inquiry.

2.  Because of the prevalence of social media, students are increasingly comfortable with the idea of “public postings.”  By duplicating the framework of a Facebook status or a tweet, but layering in a more rigorous and critical element to the production of such writing, I’ve found students to be generally very receptive to the idea of complicated knowledge condensed through careful composition. During a recent exercise in my U.S. History survey, for example, I asked students to imagine that they were administrating the Twitter account of different figures from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. After reading pieces from Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael, and others, I found many students eager to approach the board to attempt to fashion a tweet that accurately reflected the complex arguments made in these readings. As I surveyed a board full of these tweets, I realized that the exercise was really just asking them to draw out the main points of the work; there is nothing groundbreaking about that. But the marker in their hands, along with the form of social media, unquestionably helped many students to make connections that they hadn’t noticed before.

3. While students are writing on the board, I often take the opportunity to ask them about what they are writing and why they chose to put it up on the board. This is perhaps the most unexpected and rewarding element of the exercise.  Since the other students are working on their own readings, I have the time to have a one-on-one discussion with the student at the board, and since so many students are uncomfortable speaking in front of the whole class, I’m able to make contact (and actually get to know) a wider section of my class than ever before.

4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, putting the marker in students’ hands transfers power from the instructor to the students themselves. They are the creators of knowledge, and the recorders of that knowledge, and because they are sharing their thoughts in writing with the rest of the class on the board, aiming for those thoughts to be useful for everyone else, they are forced to become very critical and selective about their writing, and that’s exactly the point.

As I continue to experiment with these kinds of exercises, I’m realizing that I find the idea of students writing on the board appealing mainly because it transforms the classroom into a different kind of space, a more active space, in which the process of knowledge creation becomes the subject of the class itself.

Idealism, Pragmatism, and Evolution (or, Grappling with

I confess I joined for the same reason I joined Facebook:  my friends pressured me into it. There are also, of course, professional and philosophical arguments to be made in the scholarly online community’s favor:  it’s a great way to network and share ideas outside of one’s particular department or the (to say the least) fraught world of peer review and academic publishing.

Intrinsically, idealistically, I love the idea of It is a lovely idea to use a social networking model for furthering academic discovery and sharing. It builds on the essential freedoms offered by the web—free publication, a broad reach, a curated community—and enacts a model I have no philosophical quibble with, one of openness, generosity, and sharing.

All of these lovely ideals, though, come up against the more worrying reality of the academic world and our careers in the material world. I can’t be alone in feeling reluctant to share my work online, disseminating it among people who might be less than scrupulous about citation and attribution. Furthermore, many academic presses and journals will (understandably) only take on previously unpublished work, and our careers are highly dependent on publication by reputable presses and journals. The counterpoint to these concerns is stories like this one, where someone used precisely for its intended purpose:  to share research and gain recognition beyond her institution’s own politics and perceived limitations.

These questions only highlight for me the importance of Like other social media platforms, it doesn’t cause the problems of transitioning into new professional, communicative, and economic modalities, but rather illustrates some of the defining tensions of this transition. I remain reluctant to share my ideas, but this is a consequence of living in the world as it is, where fear of plagiarism and the cutthroat system of peer review and academic publication can stifle creative, original research and a generous, collaborative culture. I hope that is a an indication of where things are going, although at the moment professional pragmatism may still trump a full engagement in this evolution.

What’s in a Name?


What do you think of when you hear that word? Don’t sugarcoat it, everyone is probably thinking the same thing.

Weirdo. Crazy. Doesn’t wear deodorant. Smells funny. Hairy legs. Preachy. Cow-hugger. Hippie.

You may have also rolled your eyes when you read the word vegan. This seems to be a typical reaction, along with the above perceptions. What is it about this word that leads to so many negative connotations? In today’s society, knowledge of the dangers of factory farming for both our health and the environment is widespread. The prevalence of non-meat and non-dairy food options is larger than it ever has been and is continuing to grow, yet the stereotypical view of someone who lives a vegan lifestyle remains far from the norm.

I’ll just come out and say it. I follow a vegan diet. I’m a vegan.


I know what you’re thinking, that now I’m going to try to convince you to become one too. I’m going to ridicule your food choices and tell you you are a murderer and are going to die of some awful disease because you don’t eat like me. Right? Wrong. Yes, there are the crazy, cow-hugging, hippie types that give us all a bad name, but that’s not everyone. In fact, I probably have less interest in what anyone else eats than they do in what I eat.

suicidal-cowsSee, things on this side of the fence are not so much greener for the vegans that are not preachy crazies. When people find out that you are a vegan, you become a table-side circus attraction who people want to convince to “cheat” on your diet, as if you’re on Weight Watchers and might slip up given enough peer pressure. Are you suuuure you don’t want a bite of my steak? The cow left a note, he was suicidal, can you eat it now?

I sometimes find myself telling the server at a restaurant or new acquaintances that I don’t eat meat and have a dairy allergy. I never know what someone will perceive of me if I say I’m vegan. Vegan is a loaded synonym with “crazy” that comes with many perceptions and stereotypes. So, for social purposes I am a vegetarian with a dairy allergy; this doesn’t leave me in fear that someone will spit in my food for being the difficult diner.

At the end of the day, we are all just people and we all need to eat. I might be a vegan, non-vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, caveman dieter, I might have a dairy allergy, a gluten intolerance, or I might just like what I like. Can’t we all just eat what we like? I promise to wear deodorant, shave my legs, and get plenty of protein.

More on Mettā

Last week, Sarah contributed a review of a NY Times op-ed by Barbara L. Fredrickson on the Buddhist practice of Mettā (Loving-Kindness) and its physiological benefits on your vagal tone, “a subconscious process that controls [your] heart rate.”  The post was especially interesting to me as a four-year practitioner of Vipassana meditation and Mettā.  To say these practices have been hugely beneficial for me would be an understatement, and certainly I feel their interpersonal, mental, and physical effects.  When I am actively practicing I am less prone to anger or irritation, my mind is sharper, my muscles are less tense, and I don’t take things as personally.  That research might point to a tangible connection between “physical health” and “mental well-being” validates my own experience.  However, as Sarah also points out, Fredrickson takes a leap when she suggests that electronic devices might “take a toll” on our “biological capacity to connect.”  Here, Fredrickson doesn’t have data to back her up but is alluding to potential results of research in process.

Actually, I don’t doubt that there are biological (and not just social) effects of the widespread use of electronic devices — anything we do with our minds and bodies also transforms our minds and bodies in ways big and small.  So my dubiousness about Fredrickson’s assertion differs a bit from Sarah’s.  Here’s the thing: I don’t know how useful such research questions are.  First, they restate what we already know — in other words they prove the obvious (there’s a mind-body connection!) — as so many scientific studies these days seem to do.  Second, they take as a given (rather than as something to be analyzed) that the spiritual is a pristine realm within us that must be protected from the other parts of ourselves.

The notion that something can “take a toll” on our capacity to connect assumes this capacity is ideal and autonomous rather than ever shifting and embedded within the context of a differentiated and power-laden social world and multi-faceted personal life.  Life is a complex process of loss and gain.  As modes of communication change, so do our skills and physiologies.  Humans are social beings by our very definition; I think it’s impossible for us to lose our biological ability to connect.  It’s a different thing to recognize that we can make choices about how we want to connect, how we want to develop our capacities to communicate, and how we can do that in a manner that prioritizes social justice.  Because that’s the other thing we humans have going for us: we’re conscious beings.

Also, context matters.  To put it anecdotally: earlier this year I was texting on the elevator at Hunter College and a professor made a comment to her student – in a slightly derogatory tone — about how “people’s elevator behavior” would be good to study.  I guess I seemed like one of those folks who had lost my capacity for human connection.  In reality I had just finished teaching and was reaching out to a friend who was in the midst of a painful medical procedure and was feeling really down.  So maybe I’m not such a lost soul after all?

If being an anthropology doctoral student has taught me anything, it is the value of asking research questions that get at the lived realities and nuances of social life and moving beyond polarizing discourses of good/bad and hurt/protect.  In this case, it might mean asking how our minds, bodies, and relationships change with different modes of communication — for different groups of people in a diversity of social/economic/geographic settings — and with what effects.

Loving-Kindness and Your Vagal Tone

In the online OpEd column of Friday’s New York Times, Barbara L. Fredrickson shared the results of a scientific research study which proved that the Buddhist practice of Mettā can positively influence the health of the human heart. According to Wikipedia, Mettā is the act of feeling tenderly and positively toward everyone and everything, even those that we hate; it is “associated with tonglen (cf.), whereby one breathes out (“sends”) happiness and breathes in (“receives”) suffering.”

In her OpEd, Fredrickson has a bipartite agenda. First, she shares the results of her research:

My research team and I conducted a longitudinal field experiment on the effects of learning skills for cultivating warmer interpersonal connections in daily life. Half the participants, chosen at random, attended a six-week workshop on an ancient mind-training practice known as metta, or “lovingkindness,” that teaches participants to develop more warmth and tenderness toward themselves and others.

We discovered that the meditators not only felt more upbeat and socially connected; but they also altered a key part of their cardiovascular system called vagal tone. Scientists used to think vagal tone was largely stable, like your height in adulthood. Our data show that this part of you is plastic, too, and altered by your social habits.

The vagal tone is a subconscious process that controls one’s heart rate. I personally think that this study is a great example of how religion and social science can find some common ground. There is certainly a great deal of social value to meditation and spiritual practice–I wonder whether this and other studies will make those who disparage such practices think twice. This study also bridges a lot of ground between notions of physical health v. mental well-being.

The second part of Fredrickson’s agenda in the OpEd seems to me to be more dubious. She questions whether modern technology such as cell phones can negatively affect our social capabilities. This is the OpEd’s opening:

Can you remember the last time you were in a public space in America and didn’t notice that half the people around you were bent over a digital screen, thumbing a connection to somewhere else?

Most of us are well aware of the convenience that instant electronic access provides. Less has been said about the costs. Research that my colleagues and I have just completed, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, suggests that one measurable toll may be on our biological capacity to connect with other people.

As far as I can tell, nowhere in this brief OpEd does Fredrickson offer any rationale for how her study might prove that electronic devices reduce our biological capacity to connect. She uses the following inference to try to prove her point: face-to-face interaction positively influences social gene expression, therefore electronic communication diminishes our social abilities.

Where's the baby? Photo by Dan Zink.

Laptop time. Photo by Dan Zink.

I think that this is an interesting hypothesis, but I don’t think that Fredrickson’s study really goes very far in testing said hypothesis. What is needed is further study on how electronic communication affects our social capacity and the expression of what Fredrickson calls “the new field of social genomics.” I suspect that there are many socially positive as well as negative aspects of electronic communication, and that different users are affected differently. Fredrickson’s warning to mothers that they “may need to worry less about genetic testing and more about how their own actions — like texting while breast-feeding or otherwise paying more attention to their phone than their child — leave life-limiting fingerprints on their and their children’s gene expression” seems a little hyperbolic to me, at least without the research to back it up. I’m left wondering whether this OpEd, while wonderful and intriguing, also favors fear-mongering over scientific subtlety.