How we get along even when we don’t understand one-another

The emphasis on social cognition or cultural knowledge as a kind of cognition creates all kinds of epistemlogical obstcles to understanding the empirical world. As I have often argued, if it were the case that intersubjectivity or shared understandings were primarily about sharing the same propositional belief states about the world, we would have an enormous amount of difficulty understanding everything from how children learn word meanings (e.g. Smith and Yu 2008, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2271000/) to how it is that the combat advisers I observe make-do on a day to day basis with a group of ANA students whom they know next to nothing about.

I have argued, since my work on military training, that people come to understand one another, i.e. to achieve mutual intelligibility, not simply through high order cognition that makes sense of a flux of social experience, but that it is in the involvement and participation in social activities and interaction that sense of the world is found to exist immediately and transparently to participants. This view, I had taken from Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, J.J. Gibson, Bourdieu, and Garfinkel. In this view, people do create a sense of their worlds, but they don’t do it in a kind of Kantian or platonic state of isolation from the world. Rather a meaningful world is created through interactions themselves. Through interaction with people, things, and relationships, they become visible and sensible to a person (e.g. Goodwin’s work on how meaningful and complete sentences are completed only as a joint production or interaction between conversational participants).

Adam Kendon put it nicely in the introduction to “Conducting Interaction” (1990), when he argued that being involved with people is itself a sensory-motor skill, like driving a car. In this respect perception of social life is direct in the sense that the world already appears as meaningful and we help create that meaning, through involved participation in the world. That is, there is no time out to suck up sense-datum from the world, create mental model of the world in “our heads”, for hypothesis and courses of action, and then act back on the world and blindly hoping that we get right the corresponding map of the world in our head with the way the world really is.

Hanne De Jaegher, a European philosopher, makes the point about how our sense of the world is constituted by social interaction,

“I propose that perception in the social realm acquires the richness and feels as direct as it does because of the mediated immediacy of social understanding through the interaction process. We are so proficient at social interaction that the process gains a transparency that makes perception in the social realm feel direct. By ‘transparent’ I do not mean to indicate that the interaction is like a window through which I see an other – that would lend the whole too much of a snapshot air. On the contrary, the interaction process is transparent while being also a process. Transparency can perhaps be better illustrated by the way a blind person’s cane can be transparent: this instrument is only ‘transparent’ as long as it is being used. It is not a means of perception and the blind person does not see anything ‘through’ it when he simply holds it in his hand. It is only when he uses it, actively and skilfully explores his surroundings with it, that the kerb or a crack in the pavement become ‘visible’ ‘through’ it. And even this does not do justice to the intricacies of the social interaction process of course, because as a social agent involved in a social interaction, I am at once prodder and prodded, and so is my interaction partner. Each of us is capable both of perceiving the other and of changing through the interaction process. This proficiency builds on years of extensive experience throughout development, starting at the earliest stage with infant-caregiver interactions, and continuing throughout life in our daily encounters with others” (Consciousness and Cognition 18, 2009, pg 540).

Of course it is not always the case that another’s intentions are transparent. Sometimes others are a real puzzle and a real source of confusion and conflict. The question is how such puzzles are practically resolved. State another way, why and how do the routine grounds of social interaction sometimes breakdown to the point that we are left at a loss as to what is going on and what to do? Of course as the ethnomethodologists and conversation analysts point out, breakdowns are routine, but members of encounters tend to be highly skilled at saying doing things that “repair” (Garfinkel 1967; Sacks 1972) breakdowns fairly rapidly. For example when we feel a hiccup occur in a conversational exchange we do not engage in a complex set of hypothesizing about the intention of our alter. Rather we know how and when to deftly ask “what do you mean” or to prompt continued conversation through head nods or uttering “uh huhs” in the hopes that indeterminate meaning will be resolved with further context or information. Loss and recovery of mutual understanding and coordination is ‘an ongoing and contingent accomplishment’ that never ends. In fact, the interesting stuff of social life, the subject of gossip, rumors, and advice columns typically centers on the mundane moments in which breakdowns occur and leave persons feeling awkward or exposed.

In observing the combat advisers, here in Afghanistan, I have been surprised to note the following: 1.) members of this unique community do not have a mastery of the language of the community in which they operate daily; 2.) lack of linguistic mastery does not prohibit or even inhibit a substantial amount of social interaction, though it may be said that such interaction can only go so deep; 3.) the combat advisers, on the whole but not in every case, are very good at “repair”. They are perceptive enough to note when coordination has broke down and capable of working with others (including interpreters and non-English speakers) to ask repair questions, point, gesture, pantomime, etc. until clarity is reached or conflict ameliorated; 4.) “good strangers” don’t occur within a vacuum. Based on my interviews adviser are much more likely to be engaged with the ANA if they are surrounded by a group of more mature individuals that can guide them through the engagement processes.  The groups without skilled incumbents to assist in transitioning a new unit in or a group that has no mature engagers of their own, may not automatically develop an endogenous community of skilled engagers.

Adviser, Instructor, Officer, and Interpreter struggle to resolve scheduale issues

So what is it that the advisers are doing? Is that they possess a special cognitive capacity or processes? Certainly a popular answer, in cognitive science (c.f. Abbe 2009 for an overview of the literature), is that individuals who are “open” and can “tolerate ambiguity” are able to succeed in intercultural exchanges.  Often these ‘traits’ are considered part of the ope rationalization of  an “engage” attitude. But what ends up happening in such analysis s is that interactions become mere epiphenomenon of cognitive events and the fact that cognitive events require and feed off of interactions that are more than the sum of the behavior of methodically individual acts disappears. The fact of engagement itself, that it has a order and form, ceases to become important and in fact is considered only as a dependent variable. Yet but by taking interactions between advisers, instructors, interpreters, officers, and students is that how individuals individually and collectively interact shapes the cognitive outcomes for participants, i.e. making available more or less information, guiding the sharing of attention, de-escalation conflicts by face-saving maneuvers, etc. In other words, social cognition, shared attention, joint coordination, requires that people do work that is visible and accessible to participants to an occasion.

This is to suggest that mutual intelligibility is not about execution of theories of mind (T.O.M) but achieved through embodied activity. Linda Smith and Michael Gasser succinctly describe the embodied approach to cognition, “The central idea behind the embodiment hypothesis is that intelligence emerges in the interaction of an agent with an environment and as a result of sensorimotor activity. This view stands in opposition to more traditional notions of internal representation and computation and
in general has had little to say about symbols, symbolic reasoning, and language.” In large measure we can make sense of the world because it is already full of regularities there to be discovered (rather than infered, e.g. Gibson 1979, Clark 2007). In human life, as Garfinkel, Sacks, and others observed, people do the work of ordering and making available stable regularities that are at once structured by human activity and structuring of human activity. In other words, we don’t need complex theories about cognitive capacities for guessing others intentions in intercultural situations, we simply need to look at the detailed work that people jointly do and collectively encounter in order to understand how mutual intelligibility is continually maintained. Moreover, what is important about engagement is that it is a type of exploratory activity and as Smith and Gasser point  out it is through exploratory activity that intelligence (including social intelligence) becomes open ended and inventive.

De Jaeger closes saying, “With regard to direct perception, breakdowns are the place where social perception can be ‘enriched’ the most – and ‘on the fly’: in breakdown the other is opaque to me, but its recovery can lead to a better, richer understanding of the other, and to a change in the ongoing course of interacting and participating in sense-making.” I think this is a remarkably perceptive understanding of the routine grounds of social life. I think the question for myself is what kinds of training enhance “recovery” and “repair” practices can be taught to police officers and service members so that the “opaqueness” of the other does not lead to violence between participants to an encounter.

One Comment on “How we get along even when we don’t understand one-another

  1. I’ve given a lot of thought to the idea of “consideration.” We expect people to be considerate, i.e. to empathize with the feelings, needs, and objectives of others as we interact with them either directly or incidentally as we pursue our own feelings, needs, and objectives.

    Why is it that people will stop their car in a lane of traffic, double park, and retrieve their dry cleaning while 100 cars get backed up behind them?

    Why would someone become so intently focused on which brand of beans they want at the supermarket, that they would inadvertently block the entire aisle and not even hear you say “excuse me” three times?

    Clearly, consideration requires a sense that the other person is a human being with feelings, needs, and objectives similar to yours. It also involves a bias toward egalitarian weighting of these criteria. For example, you might be in a hurry to get to work on time, while another person blocking your path appears to be ambling along without purpose. If you believe the value they place on walking aimlessly is less than your value for passing them by, you’re not likely to react kindly to them.

    Consideration becomes more difficult as the number of interacting parties grows, and also the diversity of feelings, needs, and objectives increases. Too many variables to process at once, or nonexistence of a first-best solution. That’s why most social ills are highly correlated to population density.

    Consideration also requires awareness. To be considerate of others, you have to KNOW of their existence. People often become so absorbed in the gathering of sensory information and their mental processing of that information, they are not aware that another human being is close to them much less what is on their minds.

    In the military, we’re taught to be aware of our surroundings. We use our ears, peripheral vision, sense of smell, and inference to develop spatial awareness. Most civilians have their heads buried deeply up their asses.

    Just walking through a train station is a practical exercise in consideration. People are either going somewhere with a purpose, wandering aimlessly, or are confused about which direction to go. Walking paths are unregulated and therefore unconventional. Some norms are followed: stand on the right side of the escalator, walk on the left; generally stay to your right (like driving); recognize potential collisions and avoid them.

    Body language and empathy plays a key role in communication, coordination, and consideration. When I’m walking diagonally toward the stairs and someone is walking straight down the corridor, we make eye contact, adjust speed, change direction. If we both change in the same direction, we smile and recognize that our mutual consideration resulted in a harmless mis-communication. Of course, the woman walking in the middle of the stairs texting on her iPhone just gets pushed out of the way – she doesn’t seem to care about the people around her, so why care about her? Walk slow if you wish, but please do so out of other people’s way!

    In casual contact, you can rely on body language and intuition about other’s intentions and motivations to avoid negative social interactions. To do so, you must be actively LOOKING for their body language and you must CARE what their needs, feelings, and objectives are. You must place their needs, feelings, and objectives on a level nearly equal to your own and in some cases higher (since you know where you can compromise, but you don’t know where they can).

    In more intimate contact, then needs, feelings, and objectives necessarily become mutually interdependent. Otherwise, there would be no purpose of the intimate contact. It SHOULD be easier to align interests, but it depends on whether the interaction is cooperative, competitive, or a hybrid. When you can’t communicate through language (and even when you can), reading body language is essential to properly gauging and reacting to the situation. Faux smiles, closed postures, poor eye contact, hurried movements, impatience, are all signs of the desire to end the interaction. Understanding your status, position, or power relative to the other person enables you to respond effectively to their verbal and nonverbal communication.

    Recovery and repair depends on your relative position, whether your objectives are congruent, and the likelihood and conditions of repeated interactions. A genuine smile repairs a lot of damage. Breaking bread with someone is a historically significant and culturally universal way to build empathy through the sharing of one of our most basic needs.

    It’s important to remember, always, that some people DON’T WANT to get along with you. That, too, is a situation you have to be prepared for and respond properly to.

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