Have you seen the movie Being There?
It’s an old film, released in 1979, starring Peter Sellers of Pink Panther fame and Shirley MacLaine, who starred in numerous films going way back to the 1955 Hitchcock film, The Trouble with Harry.
Sellers played the role of Chauncey Gardiner, a simple-minded man, whose entire life had been spent tending a garden at a wealthy man’s penthouse. Chauncey knew little of the outside world beyond what he saw on TV. He had never left the house. When his employer died, Chauncey was kicked out of the house by a lawyer closing the estate. While wandering the city in search of food, Chauncey was accidentally hit by a car driven by MacLaine’s character, Eve, the wife of a wealthy political power broker. She took Chauncey to her home for treatment of his injury.
The humor of the movie springs from how people misinterpret what Chauncey says and does. When he says he is Chauncey the gardener while wearing a tailored suit he borrowed from his employer, he is mistakenly named Chauncey Gardiner. When he talks literally about plant growth and trimming in appropriate seasons, his words are taken to be a profound metaphor about the economy. Chauncey meets the President of the United States and later lands on a talk show where people admire him for his straightforward approach to complex problems. He is pursued sexually by Eve in a Clouseau-like romp under the bed covers. When he tells her he likes to watch, meaning watching the TV that is on, she assumes he means something else.
Chauncey’s pricey old-style suit suggested that he was wealthy. He grew up in a wealthy home, so he picked up on the mannerisms of his only role model, his dead employer. Once he was (inaccurately) perceived as an educated, wealthy aristocrat, people interpreted what he said and did as if he were a powerful, thoughtful, articulate, wealthy man.
We are all a bit like Chauncey Gardiner. We constantly send nonverbal messages, but those messages represent only a small sample of the ambiguous signs reflecting who we are. Like Chauncey, we are largely unaware of many of the messages we send and how they are interpreted. We are also a lot like Eve. We make assumptions about people based on our limited impressions of them. While we would soon figure out that Chauncey is no prophet, we tend to make people fit our molds rather than trying to create new ones. We don’t like it when people don’t fit easily into our preconceived ideas of who they should be.
Chauncey totally lacked interpersonal communication skills. Interpersonal communication is largely about making connections, i.e., developing relationships with others. It involves being sensitive to other people’s interests. Saying things in ways that accomplish mutual goals is at the heart of this kind of skillful communication. What little Chauncey learned about human interactions, he picked up from TV. Unfortunately, he could not even care for himself, much less make strategic choices in how he spoke to others. He was child-like. Before he left the only home he ever knew, he had no human contact beyond the few people he lived with.
While it’s funny in the movies when other people’s assumptions lead them in the wrong direction, the humor arises because it reflects a basic truth. We don’t really get to know many people. We generalize instead. Our interpersonal communication skills are most useful, perhaps, for engaging with those we don’t know well. They are a little like practicing good manners. They help us navigate down paths we don’t really know more than they help us travel down well-worn trails. These skills help others to trust us as we embark on our relational journeys. They help us learn from others so we can figure out the ambiguities and challenges on the path ahead. It is true, however, that interpersonal skills can help us smooth out the bumps with people we love. One useful application of interpersonal communication skills is maintaining the good relations we have with those closest to us.
Having good interpersonal skills won’t keep us from going astray, but it will help us travel more securely. While interpersonal communication skills are other-focused, we also have to be aware of the need for us to do our best to be ourselves. We won’t make much progress in our relationships if we do not appear to be who we are. We need to correct misperceptions, even when they are positive ones. Our nonverbal messages must align with our verbal ones. We have to Be Here, living in the moment, sharing who we are and communicating in ways that show we care about others.