27 July 2009

the rub

If each of us carries around a set of criteria by which we judge certain acts as loving and tender or hating and brutal, what may be a loving act to one person may be a hating act to another. For example, one woman may be delighted if her suitor uses a "caveman approach" with her; another woman may think of him as repugnant for just the same behavior. The woman who sees the caveman approach as loving may in turn interpret a more subtle approach as "weak," whereas the woman who is repelled by a caveman approach may see the more subtle approach as "sensitive." Thus behavior even of itself does not directly lead to experience. It must be perceived and interpreted according to some set of criteria...
  In order for the other's behavior to become part of self's experience, self must perceive it. The very act of perception entails interpretation. The human being learns how to structure his perceptions, particularly within his family, as a subsystem interplaying with its own contextual subculture, related institutions and overall larger culture...
  Our experience of another entails a particular interpretation of his behavior. To feel loved is to perceive and interpret, that is, to experience, the actions of the other as loving. The alternation of my experience of my behavior to your experience of my behavior—there's the rub.

I act in a way that is cautious to me, but cowardly to you.
You act in a way that is courageous to you, but foolhardy to me.
She sees herself as vivacious, but he sees her as superficial.
He sees himself as friendly, she sees him as seductive.
She sees herself as reserved, he sees her as haughty and aloof.
He sees himself as gallant, she sees him as phony.
She sees herself as feminine, he sees her as helpless and dependent.
He sees himself as masculine, she sees him as overbearing and dominating.

  Experience in all cases entails the perception of the act and the interpretation of it. Within the issue of perception is the issue of selection and reception. From the many things that we see and hear of the other we select a few to remember. Acts highly significant to us may be trivial to others. We happen not to have been paying attention at that moment; we missed what to the other was his most significant gesture or statement. But, even if the acts selected for interpetation are the same, even if each individual perceives these acts as the same, even if each individual perceives these acts as the same act, the interpretation of the identical act may be very different. She winks at him in friendly complicity, and he sees it as seductive. The act is the same, the interpretation and hence the experience of it is disjunctive. She refuses to kiss him goodnight out of "self-respect," but he sees it as a rejection of him, and so on.
  A child who is told by his mother to wear a sweater may resent her as coddling him, but to her it may seem to be simply a mark of natural concern.
  In one society to burp after a good meal is good manners; in another it is uncouth. Thus, even though the piece of behavior under consideration may be agreed upon, the interpretation of this behavior may be diametrically disagreed upon.
  What leads to diametrically opposed interpretations? In general, we can say interpretations are based on our past learning, particularly within our family (i.e., with our parents, siblings and relatives) but also in the larger society in which we travel.
  Secondly, the act itself is interpreted according to the context in which it is found. Thus, for example, the refusal of a goodnight kiss after one date may seem to be perfectly normal for both parties, but after six months' dating a refusal would seem more significant to each of them. Also a refusal after a previous acceptance will seem more significant.
  What happens when two people do not agree on the meaning to be assigned to a particular act? A very complicated process ensues. If communication is optimum, they understand that they differ on the interpretation of the act, and also realize that they both understand that they differ in its interpretation. Once this is established they may get into a struggle over whether or not to change the act under consideration in the future. This struggle may take various forms:

Threat—Do this or else.
Coaxing—Please do this.
Bribery—If you do this I will do that in return.
Persuasion—I believe it is a good idea for you to do this because, etc.

However, often in human affairs where there is a disagreement there is also a misunderstanding and failure of realization of misunderstanding. This may be deliberate, i.e., a simple attempt to ignore the other person's point of view, or it may be an unwitting overlooking of the opposing viewpoint. In either case a disruption of communication occurs.

Laing, Phillipson & Lee, Interpersonal Perception (1966: 10-13)