Impersonal Communication

I enjoyed the conference, but I had a sore throat which caused me to get little sleep. I woke up coughing soon after falling asleep. After coming home, my sore throat turned into bronchitis. With each breath I took, my chest would play some tunes. You could hear whistling, rattling, and gurgling. I’m on steroids now, among other things. So, I’m a bit behind in terms of work, but hopefully the steroids will fuel my recovery.

Travelling brings about many impersonal communicative interactions. We park our cars; check our bags; go through security; purchase odds and ends; enter the plane; meet our seat partner; exit the plane; pick up our bags; arrange for our ground transportation; check in at the hotel; and register for the conference. At each step of the way, we interact with people we do not know. Both parties want the process to go as smoothly as possible. We therefore engage in I-It communication. We agree to use each other to our mutual benefit. We don’t want to develop a long-term relationship. Everyone accepts the fact that they will see each other for only a minute or two and may probably never see each other again. Impersonal communication is necessary; we can’t always engage in I-Thou communication.

While I was interacting with people on my trip, I realized that some people were much more skilled at I-It forms of communication. Those who made me feel like a unit–a person whose feelings did not matter—not only tried to get me through the system, but did not care how I felt about the process. Admittedly, I would not want the job of the TSA agent who kept repeating “take off your hats, empty your pockets, take off your belts, and take your laptops out of the case” as I waited to get through the scanning line. How would you like to repeat those rules over and over again all day long? But her impersonal communication was negative. She sent the nonverbal message that we were stupid for needing to hear these rules. Other people along the way, like my cab driver, acted differently. He made me feel welcome and although we were engaged in a business transaction, he made me feel less like an object and more like a person. The TSA agent and taxi driver represented two extremes in impersonal communication. In the first case, I was the object of negative emotions. In the second the object of positive emotions.

The difference between these two kinds of interactions did not depend on the differences between the two jobs. I have seen TSA agents whose job was to keep the lines moving who had everyone laughing. I’ve interacted with retail clerks at the airport who made me wish that they worked at the store in my neighborhood. What did they do? They seemed to enjoy their work, they established eye contact, they tried to be helpful and they often said something that personalized an impersonal encounter.

There seems to be at least two types of impersonal communication. There is the kind of impersonal communication that prioritizes the accomplishment of a task yet involves treating others with respect, and there is the kind of impersonal communication that prioritizes the accomplishment of a task while one party suggests indirectly that the other party is inferior. Maybe we could call the first warm impersonal communication and the second cold impersonal communication.

It is important to realize that both parties play a role in shaping the interaction. It is not the sole responsibility of the TSA agent, the cab driver, the retail clerk, and others to personalize an impersonal interaction. When we interact with waiters, bank tellers, retail clerks, some classmates, etc., we need to show them respect. We should try to say something to personalize the interaction. We need to be warm, not cold. When I’ve tried warm impersonal communication, there have been times where it hasn’t worked. But, most of the time, when I’ve treated the other person as an individual, established eye contact, showed them some respect and said something to personalize the interaction, we’ve warmed to each other for a brief moment. Maybe these warm impersonal communication are I-I relationships. We both accomplished our goals and shared a brief moment where we learned more about each other and found a human connection.

On to grading.

%d bloggers like this: