Małgorzata Majewska, PhD. A linguist working at the Institute of Journalism, Media and Social Communication of the Jagiellonian University. She studies media language, verbal and non-verbal communication, linguistic manipulation and social media.
Do you ever eavesdrop on people?
I do, compulsively, everywhere and all the time. On the tram, in the street, in a shop, in a restaurant or in a pub.
What do they talk about?
Well, the problem is that most of the time they don’t talk at all. They just stare at their phones. And even if they don’t, if they speak to each other, exchange messages and pass on information, they still don’t talk.
This was very clearly demonstrated by the pandemic and lockdown when people were, so to speak, stuck with each other. Before that, they hadn’t talked for years. They had been passing by each other, exchanging information and functioning according to their own set patterns. They had even considered themselves happy. And suddenly it was all interrupted. Being locked up at home exposed their inability to talk about emotions and difficulties mercilessly, causing them to communicate primarily with anger. The mechanism is this, “As long as I’m angry with you, I don’t have to look at my own emotions and what’s difficult in me.” So we get angry with others because they don’t understand us. We look for those to blame for the fact that we can’t get along and talk.
Adam Mickiewicz used to say that “there’s nothing better on Earth, and yet nothing more difficult than a real conversation”. And what is it exactly?
It’s verbal communication, an exchange of thoughts and emotions that is based on understanding and that builds a relationship. Emmanuel Lévinas used to say that if an encounter between two people ends with ‘me’ and ‘you’, there’s no encounter at all. Because it is relevant only when we create some third quality, some relationship. And it’s similar with conversation.
Why is it so hard to talk?
Because we most often miss each other in our narratives. Let’s take a family meeting for example. You say that you have back pain or a problem at work or in your relationship. What will your loved ones do? Deluge you with advice. They will throw in ready-made solutions which will be their strategy for dealing with your helplessness and powerlessness. Or they will simply point the spotlight on themselves and say, “Let me tell you about my pain” or “I have a bigger problem.”
You’ll rarely hear the question “what do you need?”. What is the relationship crisis or the problem with your boss doing to you? How does it affect you, what emotions does it trigger in you, why does it annoy you that you have back pain? Is it because you can’t go skiing? Or perhaps because you have to ask for help?
I used to talk to women with postnatal depression professionally. Quite often I would hear from them not only about emotions related to the lack of a sense of love or sometimes even dislike for their own child. They often talked about how they couldn’t cope with the way their family treated them. Because the family – their mother, mother-in-law or sister – would most often say, “What do you mean you don’t love your child?”, “Don’t exaggerate. Get yourself together and go for a walk with your child.” Or, “It was harder for me. There were no Pampers back then and yet I loved you.”
These women complained about a lack of space to express their emotions. They were informed what they should do and that then it would be ‘okay’. This is not what conversation is about.
Sometimes it would be enough to say, “You have the right to any emotion. It is important. And it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad mother. Many women feel this way.” By naming the emotions of another person, you give relevance to such emotions and, by extension, to the person experiencing them. This is the essence of conversation and the essence of any good relationship.
It’s creating such a space in a conversation that makes the other person feel that they have the right to be the way they are. It’s making them feel that I see and hear not only their social image, but also the parts of them that they’re ashamed of or don’t accept.
So, advice is bad?
When unsolicited, it is a form of violence. It’s like saying, “I know better what’s good for you.” At this point people are no longer equal, because one person places themselves higher and invalidates the other. I have to tell someone what to do, which means that I don’t see them as an adult who can take care of themselves and make their own decisions.
What are the worst phrases that we use in conversations?
“You should”, “you must”, “you have to” and all the remarks related to normality, for example, “every normal woman...” or “every normal person...”.
One of the most important human needs is the need to belong, because from the evolutionary perspective it guaranteed survival. We want to belong. To a family, to a peer group or to a professional group. And we belong when we meet certain ‘normality’ criteria for this group. It’s natural. What’s not natural, though, is that ‘normality’ has become a tool of social manipulation.
“Why can’t you dress normally?”, “Can you behave normally?” – what do these questions tell us? They’re not about dress or behaviour. They are about belonging. They are a warning that if you continue to dress differently or behave in a way not accepted by our group, we’ll exclude you. It’s a very subtle crossing of boundaries and an almost imperceptible violence.
When someone tells me that I’m an idiot, I know that they offend me. But when someone sees me with my daughter and makes a brief comment, “Can’t you be like a normal mother?”, they leave me with a baggage of difficult emotions and a conviction that something is wrong with me and that I deviate from the norm. And we want to be within the norm. We need to be within the norm in order to survive.
Sometimes, however, it’s hard to tell what’s normal. In the past, a ‘normal’ woman would sit at home with her children. Today, a ‘normal’ woman is expected to be a mother and have a job.
The visions of what ‘normal’ is may differ, but ‘normality’ always serves to control.
Do we use it consciously?
I once analysed whether we consciously lower the value of other people. It turned out that we don’t. We do it because that’s what we have imprinted in our heads. Already as children, we listen to what we are supposed to be and what must happen for us to be ‘normal’ and appropriate. At school, but also at home, we often hear messages, orders and prohibitions. Nobody tells us or explains to us why things have to be done a certain way. Nobody asks a child about their emotions and doubts. This is how it should be and that’s it.
So where is conversation in all of this?
This is exactly my point. It’s not there. If you’re asking me why grown-ups can’t talk to each other, well, look at the school system where there’s hardly any talk at all. Quite on the contrary, children are often silenced. Also, look at the childhood of today’s 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds. In how many houses was there time and place for conversation?
I grew up in a fairly traditional home with a rather clear division of roles. Sunday dinners, holidays and all the family rituals. And nobody questioned it. That was simply the way it was, although growing up I felt that I would rather go skiing at Christmas than sit at a table filled with food. Yet, when I gave birth to my daughter, I too started organising these family Christmas dinners in spite of myself, wondering what was wrong with me not to like them.
Only years later did I understand that nothing was wrong with me, but it took me a long time to talk about it and I did it as a conscious person dealing with language, conversation and psychology at work.
But when I was a child, nobody taught me and most of my peers to talk. Nobody showed us what it means to have a real conversation and how to hold it. So, if nobody taught us that, just like nobody taught our parents before us, we don’t talk either. We don’t talk to our boss, we just get angry. We don’t talk to our parents, we just ignore them. We don’t talk to our children, we just give them orders. Finally, we don’t talk to our partners, we just compete with them, fight with them or remain silent.
Or we don’t take them seriously. We say that they “dramatise”, “exaggerate” or “blow things out of proportion”.
This is one of the strategies to diminish another person, to distance ourselves from their emotions and to cut off the conversation. This means that someone doesn’t want to know what’s difficult for us and doesn’t want to engage in a conversation.
What can we do to meet and start talking?
We must start to see and hear each other and focus on the other person without any moral judgement.
I am currently collecting material for a book on how Poles communicate with each other. It’s about alcoholics, people who made various difficult decisions in their lives and parents who used violence or struggled with addictions. Moral judgement often comes easy. But if I start judging, that is if I start talking with certain assumptions in mind, there will be no book. Because when I talk to a woman who has abandoned her child and I judge her and her behaviour from the start, I shy away from seeing her as a human being and from hearing what she has to say. If I compare this person with a standard vision of what they should be, and they don’t match, I will still subconsciously do everything to make them match.
Only after I put away all these ready-made assumptions can I focus on getting to know the other person. Only then is there conversation between us. However, for this to happen we need to be sensitive to what is imperfect and inconsistent in us.
What do we achieve by applying these ready-made assumptions that you talk about?
Well, you don’t have to make the effort of getting to know a person and you avoid a possible disappointment because “you already know everything”. You don’t have to risk anything.
What do we risk in such a relationship?
Our sense of security. A real relationship is precarious. We don’t know what will happen. Think about what people do before they meet for the first time – before the first date, for example. They create various scenarios that will give them a sense of security.
Actually, this is one of the biggest problems of modern relationships. People want to have ready?made patterns that will give them illusory security. But it takes away the possibility of real conversation.
Let’s discuss relationships a little bit more, shall we? People sometimes don’t talk to each other for years because it’s easier that way. But assuming that they do want to talk, including on difficult topics, how should they go about it?
Well, let’s say that they want to talk about jealousy. Jealousy is difficult. We don’t like to admit it and we hate to talk about it even more, although it’s actually a very good emotion that shows us what we lack in life and in ourselves. Of course, what we do with jealousy is another thing. I often ask my students to imagine that their partner leaves them for another person and they don’t know who this person is. I ask them to write a description of this person.
Most of your students end up writing about their own hang-ups, don’t they?
Yes, they do. And they compare themselves to that person. They don’t write, for example, about things their partners mentioned as bothersome, lacking or in need of change. They write about what they hate about themselves, because quite often they don’t even know what lies heavy on their partners’ hearts.
All right, continuing the jealousy theme. Here’s a common situation. She’s jealous because she believes that he devotes too much time to another woman. How should they talk about it?
Well, the easiest thing to do is to take offence, sulk, get angry and attack. But a real conversation would be to sit down and say that when he devotes his time to another woman, you feel irrelevant.
But when you say that you feel irrelevant, you admit your weakness.
That’s one thing. The other thing is that we risk being ridiculed. And finally, we shift the burden of our emotions onto the other person. In other words, we don’t want our man to talk to another woman so that we feel comfortable and we don’t have to confront our difficult feelings.
This is still not a conversation, though. A conversation is when, by talking about these difficult emotions, our partner helps us see what we really have a problem with and what is difficult for us, without necessarily solving the problem and satisfying our need. Because we have to realise – and this applies to all relationships – that not all our needs can always be satisfied.
You said that we use various types of patterns and that we compare ourselves to others. But what will we be left with in a conversation when we stop judging others?
Well, it may turn out that not much and this will be the end of a relationship. Because the relationship was shallow and superficial and when we open up it turns out that there are a lot of unresolved issues. Or there’s nothing to talk about because we have nothing in common.
It seems to me that most of today’s relationships are superficial. They are based on text messages and instant messaging. How does technology affect conversation?
Well, what I have noticed is a significant decline in trust. Ten or twenty years ago, in order to pass information to a third party we had to give an account of a conversation. Today, since a lot of conversations are held in Messenger or WhatsApp, it’s very easy to copy and pass them on. And although it’s sometimes hard to believe, people, especially young people, do it. They scan, copy and share information to make fun of people. This has a huge impact on what we choose to write and to whom. We become less trusting.
We use emojis because we don’t want to give others reasons to ridicule us or because we are lazy?
Emojis are a sign of our times – times of secondary illiteracy. We just type in “xD” and we think that we have achieved an ironic effect, or we send a flushed or furious face and we’re done: we have taken care of emotions and handled the whole conversation. We don’t learn each other’s facial expressions or gestures any more. We don’t distinguish between fine nuances. We don’t learn how to distinguish the literal from the metaphorical.
There’s also intimacy and closeness. It’s crucial in a conversation and it’s missing in all the fast media, short messages and mental shortcuts. Intimacy and closeness can’t be built through Messenger.
“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.
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