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My eye was caught by a BBC article on email greeting etiquette on Friday. It strikes me as a nice way into the concept of introjection. Introjection is the process of taking in something uncritically; usually in the form of messages and rules about how things ‘should’ be. Introjection means swallowing something whole instead of chewing it over.

Fritz and Laura Perls were originally psychoanalysts. Through Laura’s experience of breast-feeding their children, she developed the theory of dental aggression. The central idea in this theory is that when children start growing teeth, they naturally develop the ability to bite and chew. This marks the transition from having to either swallow mother’s milk or regurgitate it (introjection and rejection), to being able to chew over food, swallow the nice bits, and spit out the unpleasant bits (selective assimilation). The point being that before developing teeth, the baby can only swallow whole or reject whole; with teeth comes a level of discrimination over what enters the digestive system.

In gestalt theory, this gets expressed in the idea of introjection. Without teeth, the baby can only introject. With teeth, baby can now chew things over. Laura Perls thought that this transition in the baby’s relationship with food brought about a correlating transition in its relationship with nourishment in general, ie knowledge, culture, information. Teeth become a metaphor for critical evaluation which is reflected in the English language; when we talk about chewing things over, we are referring to critical evaluation. In its simplest sense, critical evaluation is making up your own mind about something.

The question the BBC’s article forms around is the pressing issue of how one should open emails; a contemporary issue of concern to us all. How and why, you might think, would I make a connection between milk teeth and opening an email with ‘dear’, ‘hi’, or ‘hey’?

I think the article shows in microcosm the ways in which etiquette in macrocosm supports, controls and commits violence upon the individual in society. It’s an example of an individual’s developmental history playing itself out in the here-and-now.

When I consider the three ‘case study’ contributions, I have three very different responses. Experiment suggestion:

Read each of the contributions (Jean, Dan, and Katie) in turn. As you read them, be aware of your response to what they write. What emotional and physical responses do you have to what they communicate? Do you agree or disagree with their viewpoint? On what basis do you agree or disagree? Is there any split between the person you feel you want to agree with and the person you feel you should agree with?

For myself, I notice I feel restrained and controlled when I read Jean’s piece; I feel vaguely patronised by Dan’s piece; and I feel warm when I read Katie’s piece. Each approach manages to embody, in writing, something of the character of the writer. However, it isn’t that the character of Jean is restrained and controlled; Dan’s patronising; and Katie’s warm. It’s that my contact with that writer is restrained and controlled; patronising; warm. You might experience Jean as appropriate and respectful; Dan as friendly and business-like; Katie as overly affectionate.

My point being, contact is co-created between writer and reader; it doesn’t and isn’t caused by one or the other. In order for someone to come across as restraining or cold or respectful or boundaried, there has to be a person perceiving and a person perceived; both have to be present at the same time. It simply doesn’t make sense to say that it’s the writer causing me to perceive them in a certain way; it also doesn’t make sense to say that it’s purely my perception as a reader. It’s both of us creating that perception in relationship; in this case, mediated by text.

Notice that, whilst each of the three contributors take a different stance, they all present a rule for governing email interactions. My feeling is that in each case, an introject is being projected onto the activity of writing emails. The clue to the introjection-projection dynamic is the lack of relationship; it isn’t ‘I want people to do this’, it’s ‘people should do this’. The projection of an introject will often take the form of an appeal to some independent, objective, theoretical entity; etiquette is just such an entity.

Jean “If you’re sending a business e-mail you should begin “Dear…” – like a letter. You are presenting yourself. Politeness and etiquette are essential.”

Dan “In fact we have a policy about e-mails. “Don’t write anything that could be misunderstood.” Irony and sarcasm never work. And don’t think that adding a smiley and three trillion exclamation marks will help. It just makes people think you’re an idiot.”

Katie “The rule is, address your reader as you would in the context with which you are replacing the e-mail.”

‘Politeness and etiquette are essential’, ‘we have a policy’, ‘the rule is’; in all cases there is an abstract theoretical entity, external to the person, that acts as an authority in this case. So, the rule has been introjected, and the self now has alien material to contend with. Projection is the self’s attempt to eject the alien material; if that rule isn’t organically me, it must be coming from outside me. Yet when I apply some critical thought to this idea, it strikes me as odd to claim that something like a rule concerning the opening of emails can exist independently of the people sending those emails.

To bring out the projective part of the dynamic more, I’ve translated the above into subjective terms:

Jean “If I’m sending a business e-mail I should begin “Dear…” – like a letter. I am presenting myself. Politeness and etiquette are essential to me.”

Dan “In fact I have a policy about e-mails. “Don’t write anything that could be misunderstood.” Irony and sarcasm never work for me. And I don’t think that adding a smiley and three trillion exclamation marks helps. It just makes me think you’re an idiot.”

Katie “My rule is, address my reader as I would in the context with which I am replacing the e-mail.”

As a new experiment:

Compare the first statement by each person with the subjective version, and notice how you respond to each. Try reading each statement out loud; do you notice any bodily/emotional/thinking responses?

what I notice for myself is that I am much more engaged with the writer of the subjective statements than the projective statements. I disagree with all three of their positions, incidentally, but when they state them objectively, my hackles raise (‘don’t tell me what to do!’). When they are owned and stated subjectively, I become interested in the difference between our viewpoints (‘oh, that’s interesting, my opinion is…’). Contact is possible.

I titled this post ‘etiquette: support, control, and social violence’. What is etiquette? Etiquette in the Cambridge Online Dictionary is ‘the set of rules or customs which control accepted behaviour in particular social groups or social situations’. Though I prefer the more concise ‘prescribed behaviour’ of the Online Etymology Dictionary.

The prescription and control of behaviour can be supportive. The newborn baby drinks milk because that’s all it is equipped to deal with. What I feel often goes missing in gestalt discussion of introjects is that baby makes a transition from needing to introject to needing to chew. Carry that metaphor into new social situations and the potential support of etiquette becomes clearer; it answers those awkward first questions of ‘how do I do x, y and z?’. To a certain extent, we need to introject until we have sufficient knowledge (our metaphorical teeth) of the situation to begin chewing. It is at this point that etiquette becomes controlling if it is used to restrain the active questioning and experimentation of inquisitive individuals, rather than support the unfamiliar and unsure in becoming part of the whole. Etiquette becomes a force for social violence when it is used to actively exclude (etiquette can not exclude; only people can exclude).

Of course, maybe there are situations in which it is appropriate to use etiquette in these ways. Dan’s policy is an organisational attempt to control employees’ email communication for the greater good of the company maintaining a certain reputation. And ultimately, using etiquette to exclude could be just another way of describing anti-social behaviour, and express a need for society to protect itself by rejecting damaging behaviours.

At the heart of gestalt theory is a belief in organismic self-regulation; the belief that if we relax our attempts at self-controlling behaviour, we will spontaneously respond to our needs in a manner that is harmonious with our present situation. This isn’t incompatible with etiquette all the time etiquette represents an abstracted and owned version of ‘how things are usually done around here’; this is just an articulation of the acquired preferences of a particular field, a kind of communal personality. And it isn’t incompatible with an etiquette that states ‘this is how things must be done around here’ all the time each individual professing that rule is owning it as their own.

And that’s because all the time we own the rules we govern ourselves and others by – that is, we state them as ‘this is the rule I have chosen to live by, and I demand that you live by it too’ – contact between you and me is possible. I can say, ‘I disagree with your rule’ and we can have conflict about it (resolvable or otherwise). Or I can say ‘ok, I choose to obey that rule too’ and we can have agreement. But all the time I say ‘the rule is this and we must obey it’ I avoid contact with others because ‘the rule’ doesn’t exist; there’s nothing to make contact with, so I deflect your attempt to make contact with me onto a theoretical entity out there in the void. And if you say you agree or disagree with the rule, it has nothing to do with me; there is no connection between us.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed over the years that when I detect I’m projecting an introjected rule, if I state it as ‘my opinion is….’, I often discover that it isn’t my opinion after all; it’s an opinion I think I should have. Or I discover that I do agree with it, and suddenly feel less of a need for other people to agree with me.

The irony being, the less control I exert over myself, the less control I need to try and exert over others.

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