Monday, December 16, 2013

Just In Time For the Holidays -- Some Thoughts About the Way Our Families Communicate

There's a short segment in the movie "Annie Hall" that I have used as an example in groups and have recommended in family meetings (I include the YouTube link to that clip at the end of this article). It's perfect for illustrating the cultural differences between what are called high context families and low context. It shows brilliantly and with great humor the kind of family differences that can emerge around the holiday dinner table.

In the clip we see Woody at Annie's family's Connecticut WASP Easter table. Quiet, no one overlaps in conversation, a lot of negative space, one conversation at a time... low context. Soon the screen divides and we are shown Woody's Brooklyn family around their table, much chatter, much conversational overlap and great ranges in dynamics of emotion and volume: high context, high emotional expression.

This range in family communication styles comes to the fore for many of us during the holidays. As families become more diverse in our society, the holiday table becomes more complicated to navigate. We all want to have closeness and love expressed during these, often rare, times of family togetherness, but often find it hard to accomplish. We go away disheartened and sometimes hurt, even when we had the best of intentions. There's a roller coaster ride aspect to the holiday table that makes it difficult for some people to feel comfortable.

I think there is a lot of bias toward low context problem solving in this culture when both are equally fraught with pitfalls and potential relationship dysfunction on a catastrophic level (as opposed to your every day "normal" dysfunction).

I prefer the high context scenario myself, and while that might be a bias, I think more damage is done when people withhold the intensity of feelings that they have and sanitize, silence or pervert them into indirect passive aggression.

Direct, passionate communication is scary stuff for many people from low context/passive aggressively based family systems. Just as many folks from more assertive/aggressive backgrounds and cultures can actually become a little unhinged in a group that is anchored in passive aggressive coping and problem solving strategies.

I believe there are studies that show that passive aggressive behavior is ultimately much more damaging and less likely to be adequately addressed and soothed than behavior on the aggressive end of the spectrum that is easily identified and named, harder to deny. People/families acclimated to it can often be enlisted to be much more readily committed to problem solving and admitting their feelings and shortfalls.

What is thought to be "Yelling" in passively instructed families/groups/systems can be quite mild on the spectrum/range. But avoidance of all conflict that elicits raised voices can be really destructive in the end. Perhaps it would be better to call acting out in passive aggressive ways a kind of yelling as well.

Some people, of course, are simply not equipped to engage in a dynamic passionate manner, and so will not, should not... and often find ways to manage the high emotional states that everyone has in other ways.

It is not so important to attempt to conform yourself or your family to a particular style that appears from the outside to be more "perfect" than your own. The primary strength for each of us, and each of our families, lies in our individuation. In that way, identification of what works about how you and your family function along the spectrum from high to low context can be as instructive and revealing as any plan to change the inherent structure of how your family communicates... especially if the plan is based on one person's judgment and not on some consensus. The holidays are rarely a time to engage in consensus building over anything but who gets the turkey leg or who can have the last of the pumpkin pie... and even that can be fraught with peril!


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Bob Vance said...

It IS interesting how many people have similar experiences in their families. In spite of the degree of privacy and even secrecy that can be employed to protect a family's inherent and on going conflicts (and NORMAL) struggles and ways of trying to cope, strategize solutions, and love in spite of all that, once described even in a rather generic format like this, they ring true... familiar! Thanks for your comment.