Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Authenticity, the Mahler 9th, and the Pursuit of Perfection

Bruce S. Zahn Ed.D ABPP

I vividly remember the first time that I heard the Mahler Symphony No. 9, in the early 1970s, with Carlo Maria Guilini conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Guilini was an elegant and distinguished Italian who had carved an admirable opera and symphonic conducting career, and was genuinely beloved by most musical artists with whom he worked. He was a man who conveyed sincere passion and deep inspiration to his fellow musicians. That was brought into sharp focus when I heard him conduct during the performance that I attended.  Guilini accomplished his magic completely by memory - nearly 90 minutes of complex symphonic music written to convey the composer's last musical argument articulating his angst, neurotic doubts, and thoughts about mortality in a world at the turn-of-the-19th century that was changing before his very eyes. I can still see Maestro Guilini waiting for what seemed like at least 30 seconds of silence after the very last quivering note, standing on the podium with his eyes closed, sweat pouring down from his forehead, then turning from the orchestra and nearly staggering offstage in emotional exhaustion.  I was so overcome by the beauty of the symphony itself, Guilini's magnificent performance and the emotion of the moment that I did not have any recollection of how perfectly or imperfectly the musicians had executed the musical notes on the printed score. It was a moment in time that stood frozen forever in my mind and my heart.
During the course of my life, I have been privileged to have heard many subsequent performances of this great musical classic of the 20th century. Conductors I have heard perform it include Levine, Kubelik, Haitink, Bernstein, and Von Karajan.  In addition to live performances, I have collected and heard scores of other performances on CD by conductors too numerous to mention here. But for the purposes of this brief essay, I would like to focus on live performances recorded by two of the greatest interpreters of our time: Leonard Bernstein, and Herbert von Karajan. Both performances were captured live with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and have been issued on CD by Deutsche Gramophone.  I heard Bernstein lead this work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood during approximately the same time his recording was made, and I also heard von Karajan perform it with the Berlin Philharmonic on tour at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The von Karajan performance and recording has been dubbed by critics as one of the greatest symphonic recordings of the 20th century and a true desert island masterpiece.  The Bernstein performance and recording is unique in that it was the only time that he, a Jew, ever agreed to appear in Germany to conduct the Berlin players. The Berlin Philharmonic at that time was von Karajan's orchestra, and they were considered to be peerless among the world's elite symphony orchestras.

When it was announced that the Berlin Philharmonic was coming on tour to the US with a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall, I leapt at the opportunity to get tickets to hear the aging maestro conduct the great Mahler 9th. It was like trying to get tickets to a Rolling Stones concert, with hours and hours of dialing and redialing TickeTron until I finally got through and scored my tickets. When the day of the concert came, people were lined up outside of Carnegie Hall flashing hundred dollars bills wanting to buy tickets from scalpers or ticket holders, as if their very existence depended on hearing that symphony. If you've never heard a concert inside Carnegie Hall, it is truly one of the world's miracles of sound. Wherever you sit, you can hear perfectly homogenized sound with every detail in high relief. It truly is one of the great experiences of a lifetime and an opportunity to hear great music played in one of the greatest venues on earth.  Von Karajan was the epitome of the German ideal of control, precision, and perfection in every technical aspect of musical performance, and he drove his orchestra to produce musical performances that reflected those ideals. If the Philadelphia Orchestra was considered to be the Rolls Royce of orchestras, then the Berlin Philharmonic was the Lamborghini. The combination of hearing this orchestra, with this conductor, at Carnegie Hall promised to be truly an exceptional experience.
Von Karajan was known as an obsessive perfectionist who sought to control every detail of musical performance and production in pursuit of glorified perfection.  His ideals and values of perfection may be seen within the context of the Germanic history of idealization of the ultimate quest for beauty in its purest essence.  In many cases, such demand for perfection might lead to mannered and self-conscious performances that are more reflective of perfection in sound itself, to the detriment of "soul" in the music, but for this conductor, he was often able to combine mastery of sound and beauty of musical expression. That said, I recall feeling a bit let down after von Karajan's performance.  Sure it was perfectly gorgeous, but frankly, it left me more than a bit cold. It stood in stark contrast to Guilini's gut-wrenching traversal for me, and gave me something to ponder for many years about the value of perfection, and whether or not that is an ideal worth seeking at the expense of authenticity.

Several years after the Carnegie Hall performance and subsequent recorded performance from the Berlin's concert hall, the Philharmonie, Bernstein's live performance with the Berlin Phil was released on CD on the same record label. The recording quality is quite different, not as smooth and balanced as the von Karajan, but more noticeable is the raw emotion and lack of technical perfection. It was a gritty performance, full of emotive, heart-on-the sleeve breast-beating for which Bernstein was famous. Indeed, Bernstein used to say that when he was on the podium, he felt as if he WAS Mahler, experiencing all of his pain and ecstasy in the moment. There are some rough instrumental attacks and jagged entrances-not at all the type of pretty, yet somehow emotionally sterile playing from the very same orchestra that von Karajan elicited. It was Bernstein at his best, an exhausting performance of emotional extremes, dragging the listener through the composer's personal torment until he reaches reconciliation with death with breathtaking glimpses of the horizon beyond earthly life and ultimate peace.
What is the point of this musical treatise and performance review, and what does it have to teach us about psychology?  First of all, it goes without saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that perception is everything. I am only expressing my personal views about these performances and the meaning that I extract from them. That said, I think that it can tell us something about the advantages and disadvantages of demanding perfection in our own lives and activities, and give us something to consider when we are trapped by our efforts to desperately pursue the illusion of perfection at the cost of authentic self-expression in the here and now. For sure, the more that we pursue perfection in our lives, the more likely we are to be disappointed by its slippery nature.

Unlike conducting a symphony orchestra, not all of the variables at our disposal are usually under our complete direct control. Human error is part of our daily experience. We live with imperfection in every moment, yet the more that we tell ourselves that it is a requirement in order to validate our worth, the more frustrated and depressed we may be. On the other hand, living in the moment and expressing ourselves without self-consciousness can be incredibly liberating, albeit challenging. There is a direct parallel here, in my mind, to the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.   Steven Hayes, in his popular workbook, Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life[1], articulates that ACT is about developing a willingness to embrace every experience that life has to offer by feeling emotions completely, based on personal values that matter the most to each individual.  These ideas were also expressed many years ago in a book called the Inner Game of Music[2], which many conservatory musicians have been exposed to in order to mediate the conflict between seeking the perfect performance AND emotional authenticity. In essence, the take away from this book and the training that it promotes is that the more that one strives for perfection, the more one becomes self-conscious and self-critical, and less free to maximize self-expression, risk-taking in the moment, and emotional authenticity. Ironically, striving for perfection opens one up to a greater possibility of error, as one remains distracted by hypervigilance! The willingness to take risks and the willingness to embrace the possibility of one's imperfection actually enhances the experience of being in the emotional moment, increasing authenticity and self-esteem. A fascinating paradoxical byproduct of this is that technical performance can be enhanced.

So what lessons can we take away from these observations? Surely with the emphasis today on technical expertise, precision, and outcomes, many of us strive for the ideal of perfection. However, this does not necessarily equate with satisfaction, self-esteem, self-confidence, and genuineness in self-expression. The ability to live in the moment, knowing that at any time we might hit a wrong note, make an awkward entrance, or even be a little sharp or flat, elevates our experience and enriches our interactions as authentic beings in an imperfect world. And that should be music to almost anyone's ears!

[1] Hayes, S. & Smith, S. (2005).  Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.  New Harbinger Publications.
[2] Green, B. & Gallwey, W. T. (1986).  The Inner Game of Music. New York: Doubleday.
Bruce S. Zahn Ed.D ABPP- "Celebrity" Guest Blogger. Professor and Director of Clinical Training in the PsyD in clinical psychology program. He is a former trumpeter, having studied with Seymour Rosenfeld, second trumpeter with the Philadelphia Orchestra, during his youth.  He is an avowed classical music and opera fanatic, with a penchant for the music of Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner, among many others.  Students are invited to swing by his office almost anytime to catch a daily concert when he is not in meetings or engaged in class preparation.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

You, Me, Myself and I: Candy Crush Saga is “ruining” our lives!

Petra Kottsieper Ph.D.

I never thought it could happen to me, until the sister of a close friend offered me a little taste of it.  Sure I had known about it, seen other people do it, but I thought I was immune, until that day, that day when I was handed an iPhone and told to play a game of Candy Crush Saga.  Now I find myself absently staring at my phone, will forgo a new episode of a real life crime TV show, and sometimes sneak in a game before my first cup of coffee. I am in need of help, and apparently so are 15.5 million other users who play this game multiple times a day to reach or crush one of the game’s 385 levels.  My hairstylist in level 60, the receptionist on level 90, and one of my girlfriends who I never thought would touch an iPhone game is in level 30.
If you are not familiar with the game, I suggest you read this brief article published through ABCNews[i], which does a great job describing the game and outlines two main reasons why it is so attractive.  The first, the game has tons of built in social aspects; you can link the game to Facebook, compare your scores to your friends’ scores, and also get your friends to give you extra chances when you have run out (in lieu of waiting). The second, the game is fun and challenging, exploiting our natural tendency for pattern recognition in a cute puzzle matching game.

Perhaps what is really most ingenious about this game is that it is both “ethical” and “unethical.” Apparently the game’s creator King, stated that the game could be played in it’s entirety at no cost.  But in order to do this, you have to be either really, really good, or you have to have PATIENCE with a capital P, which is where the “unethical” part comes into play!  This is because at each level of the game you get 5 chances to get it right and if you do not, the game locks you out.  Then it gives you the option to a) buy more levels, b) get them from a friend, if you play the game via Facebook, or c) WAIT.  And it not only makes you wait, which confused the hell out of me when it happened the first time, but  it varies the wait time, sometimes it is 30 minutes, sometimes less, sometimes more.  This can become a minor crisis when it is 12am and you are super close to finishing a given level. You barely missed it on your last try, and now what?  Do a load of laundry and then continue?  Grade some papers? Play with the kittens? Go to sleep and try again the next day……….. , right!
What is even worse, when you are ready to move to certain levels, for example 36 or 51, you cannot.  Some levels have additional barriers built into the game.  Now, again, if you do not want to buy yourself to the next level, or rely on friends for extra chances, you need to play “3 mystery quests”, in order to be able to continue.  However, as I recently learned doing this, you can only play 1 quest PER DAY.  Talk about needing P.A.T.I.E.N.C.E. now!

Apparently there are enough people, who are not willing to or are unable to wait, and handsome amounts of money are being made on an ostensibly free game.  Which seems fair, given someone created this game, and keeps developing it; and most things in life made for our entertainment by other people cost money. However, what is “unethical “about the game is that the developer so expertly exploits several aspects of our human condition, including some behavioral principles that we probably all recognize from our undergrad intro to psych class. (Of course, I am also open to the interpretation that I am just annoyed that someone is getting rich on what we psychologist research and teach…….but that is another blog post.)
Initially, you will most likely be pulled into the game because humans have an innate need to perceive or see patterns, a basic function of perception to order, sort, and make sense of incoming stimuli.  Once you are playing, learning principles and possibly some of your personality traits/tendencies start operating on your behavior.  The early levels are not too easy as to be unchallenging but are still relatively easy.  Your interest is kept up, because at each level some type of learning is involved, given you have to figure out the specific objective of each level.  This requires some slight variation in your strategy via insight or trial and error learning.  When you meet a level, even if you need many attempts, you are reinforced by your experience of success aka a bit of a rush of your dopamine system (accompanied by little mini explosions on your screen and all sorts of other cutesy things).  The dopamine spike occurs, because you are activating your brain’s “pleasure center” by having met a goal and unlocking another level of the game. In these situations extra dopamine is your friend, as it will give you pleasure, which in turn makes you persevere to and through the trials and tribulations of the next level.   I am sure that when a friend of mine, who was apparently stuck on a level for 3-months (!), finally succeeded, her dopamine rush, was a bit like the Niagara Falls.

The game also has an element of “chance” and unpredictability built into it.  When you crush some candy, new candy appears.  The candy’s type and color is variable and seemingly unpredictable, which can make a big difference to your particular game.  It is the polar opposite from an experience we may have all had: the refrigerator experience.  You open the fridge, there is no ice cream.  You open it again, still no ice cream, you might open it again, but eventually you stop and resign yourself that it will not magically appear.  Your behavior is extinguished.  Not so in candy crush.  Here your crushing behavior is sort of intermittently reinforced on a micro level.  You are merrily (or desperately) crushing away, and every once in a while the King game god's gives you the right candy you needed just in that situation. It has been known for a long time that intermittent reinforcement works best when you have already established a behavior and want to maintain it, in other words this will keep you crushing away….. pop and pop and pop.
Levels become progressively more challenging, but now you have also build skill and hence this game appears to perfectly illustrate the concept of “flow” first outlined by M. Csikszentmihalyi.  What this means for gaming was outlined nicely on a blog written by Sean Baron in March of 2012, where he noted that Csikszentmihalyi found that when a person’s “skill is too low and the task too hard, people become anxious. Alternatively, if the task is too easy and skill too high, people become bored. However, when skill and difficulty are roughly proportional, people enter Flow states.”[ii] Baron went on to outline four conditions that help promote a flow state that game developers should consider, and consider them they have- in Candy Crush Saga.
But to go back to my original point, flow or rather the ability to experience flow, is interrupted in this game on purpose at many different levels. And that brings me to back to the “unethical” part of the game, except of course I say this in jest, because we all get manipulated knowingly or unknowingly all the time.  So Candy Crush Saga is exploiting our need for reinforcement, for mastery and for flow….. Is it also addictive in the true meaning of the word?
How many of you have stayed up until 3am and had to get up at 6am and were subsequently sleepy and unproductive at your job all day?  Have you used the money you were going to buy a birthday present with to purchase additional games?  Oh, you are exaggerating you may say reading this.  You may say, psychologists and mental health types always have to diagnose everything.  After all, buying additional levels in Candy Crush Saga is “relatively” cheap and therefore can be easily excused, at least by people who can afford a $5 special coffee several times a week.  Spending a dollar here and there is hardly going to ruin most peoples’ lives.  However,  the mechanism underlying your need to buy the next Candy Crush Saga level instead of waiting , are not all that dissimilar alas probably less intense and less life shattering than urges to keep gambling, or even using substances.  It has been found that gaming indeed can be addictive, just as gambling, sexual activity and internet use. Preliminary research indicates that in individuals who are addicted to online gaming the same neural substrates are utilized as in individuals who have a substance abuse addiction (Ko et al., 2009). Of course, the operative descriptor here is that this study used individuals with a gaming addiction.  I am absolutely not saying at all that the 15.5 million people are who are playing candy crush saga several times a day have a gaming additction.  What I am saying is that some of them might be, or might become addicted.  I am also saying that maybe those of us who fall into the non-addicted but definitely impulse control challenged group should not be so quick to judge people who do become addicted to certain behaviors, or substances.   We might also want to learn about how we are manipulated and why this work so well!
Finally, the game can teach us a very important albeit possibly unintended lesson, which is how much patience we have, and how to delay our gratification.  A whole host of positive outcomes are associated with our ability to self-regulate and delay gratification, and maybe therein lies one of the biggest gifts of this game. But wait, before I go into that, I just gotta cram in one quick game…..
Note: If you think you, or a loved one, is addicted to online or other forms of video gaming, please read this paper for a review and treatment options. Also please contact a mental health professional, who is qualified in the treatment of these types of behaviors.
Griffiths, M. D, & Meredith, A. (2009).Videogame Addiction and its Treatment.Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy.

Ko, C.-H.  ,  Liu, G.-H. ,  Hsiao, S.,  Yen J.-Y., Yang, M.-J., Lin, W.-C., ….. Chen, C.-S.(2009). Brain activities associated with gaming urge of online gaming addiction. Journal of Psychiatric Research,  43,  739–747.

Monday, July 22, 2013

What Does Global Warming Have To Do With Therapy?

Stephen R. Poteau, Ph.D.

Bipartisan politics aside, global warming is an empirically-based reality. Given psychology is empirically-based, we should not dismiss the empirically-based realities of our natural world since it has consequences for our discipline. Specifically, global warming can have far-reaching implications for aspiring clinical psychologists in that a new population in need of psychological services has surged in numbers.

Climate refugees fall under the umbrella of environmental refugees, who are displaced by natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc.), but include refugees who are displaced by the global warming effects of human activities. It has long been noted that the environmental implications of our carbon footprints are largely impervious to our psychology. We are not psychologically predisposed to appreciate the dire, global consequences of our present behaviors given the stimulus and response in operation in global warming are temporally discontiguous. Any behaviorist text will attest to the necessity of proximity of behavior and consequence for learning to take place in the operant conditioning paradigm. This is true of behaviors detrimental to not only the world, but also the self. That is, smokers may smoke because it is reinforced/rewarded relatively immediately (the reward system is activated a mere 10-20 seconds after inhalation), while the punishing aspects of smoking (i.e., cancer) are removed temporally from the act enough that punishment has no pull in terms of behavioral modification. Similarly, our unabated use of precious natural resources is temporally removed from rising sea levels in some parts of the world, droughts in other parts, heat waves, and extreme weather events, which have all contributed to the creation and plight of the climate refugee.

The Environmental Justice Foundation has projected upwards of 150 million climate refugees by 2050,[1] and also noted that they are afforded no legal protection.[2]Climate refugees are not seeking refuge from persecution nor are they necessarily seeking refuge in another country (more often than not, they are internally displaced, which can be as equally devastating as being externally displaced). Furthermore, there may not be a single cataclysmic event forcing a mass exodus, but instead, a slow and steady degradation of the land forcing people to be displaced over time. The term ‘climate refugee’ is a recent addition to our vocabulary that holds zero legal international recognition, and therefore, confers no protections. Several nations, including the United States, have deemed climate change and climate refugees as issues of national security.[3]

 Lest you think that this is a problem germane only to places like Darfur, Maldives, and Bangladesh, think again. There is evidence that we are now facing the nation’s worst drought since the 1930s Dust Bowl that forced nearly 2.5 million people out of the regions of Texas, Oklahoma, and the Great Plains,[4]there is an alarming rate of 25 square miles in Louisiana eroded near the Mississippi delta every single year which, in turn, leads to a higher likelihood of storms like Hurricane Katrina due to the loss of wetlands,[5]and there is Newtok, a small village in Alaska, where exile is all but assured for its natives due to flooding and erosion wiping away hundreds of feet of land in a single year,[6]to illustrate a few local examples. 
These environmental tragedies come as a package of multiple tragedies enveloped within one another: agricultural, economic, political, cultural, and psychological. If one’s culture is threatened to the point of extinction, as is the case in Newtok, Alaska, the psychological consequences are far-reaching and profound (e.g., anxiety, PTSD, etc.) (Salzman, 2001). If the agricultural and/or economic fallout of global warming results in a competition for scarce resources, real-world examples and several psychological studies have demonstrated that intergroup violence and potentially elimination of one group at the hands of another group are likely outcomes (McPherson & Parks, 2011).

 In this globalized world that Al Gore (2013) refers to as ‘Earth Inc.,’ the agricultural, economic, political, cultural, and psychological ramifications of global warming cannot be measured only locally. Instead, an appreciation for the interconnections between all corners of the world is necessary in order to comprehend the gravity of the situation and to formulate a befitting countermeasure. Short of building floating cities (a French architect has seriously proffered this as a remedy to the climate refugee crisis[7]) or fairly imposing carbon-capping systems, we, as psychologists, can at the very least prepare to treat this population that will be the host of symptoms extending well beyond traditional refugee psychology.[8]Just as an appreciation for the world’s interconnectivity is indispensable to grasping the mechanics of global warming, an appreciation of the interconnectivity across empirically-based disciplines is also necessary for psychologists to adequately redress the afflictions suffered by climate refugees. You can’t serve the underserved if you don’t know of their existence.

 Gore, A. (2013). The future: Six drivers of global change. New York:  Random House.

 McPherson, S., & Parks, C. D. (2011). Intergroup and interindividual resource competition escalating into conflict: The elimination option. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, And Practice, 15(4), 285-296. doi:10.1037/a0024938)

 Salzman, M. B. (2001). Cultural trauma and recovery: Perspectives from terror management theory. Trauma, Violence & Abuse, 2(2), 172)

[1]Some claim this estimate is based on older data. Estimates based on new data are even higher at 1 billion climate refugees by 2050 (
[2]The 1951 UN Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which was crafted after World War II, presents legal safeguards toonly those refugees fleeing their countries of origin in fear of persecution (
[8] See for a discussion on the unique psychological threats posed by climate change

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Toddler or Scientist?

Jessica Glass Kendorski, Ph.D

Director of the Hayden Planetarium and 'rock star' astrophysicist, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson has been speaking out lately regarding the math and science achievement (or lack thereof) of American students. He attributes America's lagging in the math and sciences to the way we respond not just to our school-age children but to our toddlers. Dr. Tyson proposes that this downward trend in achievement is a direct result of parents training-out the curiosity of children rather than nurturing this curiosity.

What happens, the kid goes and plays in the mud. "Don't play in the mud; you'll get your clothes ..." There's bugs in the mud. That's kinda cool. They turn over a rock. "You'll get dirt on your clothes." There's millipedes under the rock. Let the kid find the millipedes. Plucks the — off the rose — "Don't break the rose like that; that's a rose." No, they want to see what's inside the rose; it's kinda interesting. The middle is not the same as the outside. Let the experiment run its course. (

He has a point. If you look at typical toddler behavior and developmental milestones, you will see a striking resemblance to a scientist employing the scientific method. Specifically, the principles such as observation of a phenomena, generation of a hypothesis, testing of the hypothesis, and replication (toddlers love replication)! This is experiential learning, a particularly effective way to garner knowledge. We learn by doing, and we practice this early on.

From a cognitive development perspective, toddlerhood is rife with cognitive advances in problem solving, defining objects, and understanding of the world around them. If we look at a typical toddler, we can see a young scientist exploring a novel situation to determine the rules and predict what will happen next. Everything is novel to a toddler. The questions abound. What will happen when I dump this cup of milk? Let’s try it and find out. What is hidden in this mound of dirt? Let’s start digging! Or in the case of a toddler I recently observed, what happens when I try to grab this bumble bee? (I guarantee this experiment will not be replicated)!

Toddlers are little scientists. A geologist digs to discover components of the earth. A particle physicist will occasionally destroy objects to explore the tiniest units of matter. An experimental physicist observes and conducts experiments in an attempt to understand physical phenomenon such as gravity. A behavior psychologist studies observable behavior in an attempt to predict the future behavior of others. See a resemblance?

The question arises, how can adults nurture this curiosity in toddlers while simultaneously keeping them safe and minimizing destruction? First, we can allow toddlers to experience things that are safe (not necessarily touching a bumble bee) and allow them to replicate these findings. As Dr. Tyson points out, allow them to play in the dirt, dissect a flower, and dump their milk. They are conducting the important business of figuring out the world. Instead of saying 'no' immediately, wait and allow them to experience. In science the more data points the better; however, maybe for toddlers we employ the three data point rule. A toddler can take apart only three roses in the rosebush and adults can support the learning of what is inside. In addition, adults can encourage appropriate areas with which to conduct experiments. Instead of dumping milk to determine the laws of gravity, how about an area outside to dump water. Whatever the rules, the most important aspect is to allow and encourage hands on exploration of the environment and nurture this innate curiosity. Supporting the curiosity and creativity of a toddler requires some creativity from adults, so in essence toddlers can make adults nurture their own creativity.

If parents and teachers begin to view toddler behavior through the same lens as a scientist, then there may be a shift in the nurturing of this curiosity instead of a propensity to shut it down. Toddlerhood is not the "terrible two's" but rather a time of amazing cognitive, social and language development. Children do not need to be taught curiosity; they just need allowance and encouragement. Allowing a toddler to be curious may be more work for parents and will most certainly require more short-term cleanup of messes. Yet, the benefit of allowing this unbridled exploration of the environment and curiosity will long outweigh the short term benefit of a perfectly ordered environment.

Curiosity is the inherent motivation to learn. Motivation to learn is perhaps one of the most important factors in educational success throughout the school years. It starts early and we all can help cultivate it. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

I Am Irritated That You Are Irritated: “I cannot believe she just asked me that”.

Petra Kottsieper, Ph.D.

I recently was part of a conversation where one person told of having been asked a “rude” question, which by extension, seemed to deem the person who had asked the question as rude.  The thing was, I did not think that the question was inherently rude at all.  It made me think about how many times a day irritation, arguments, ruminations, stewing, and the slow demise of relationships ensue due to a question or comment we might have thought innocent, but which was taken as offensive.  And to think this through even further, if communication can go so wrong between two people from roughly similar socioeconomic backgrounds, countries, ethnicities, interests, you name it, what happens when we step outside our comfort zones, (which we increasingly do through the internet, globalization, media, and travel)?

To this end, a plethora of advice columns exist just to help you deal with these situations, and what or what not to say in response.  Usually, what we do is locate the blame for the incident squarely with the other person, hopefully with some kind of witty or snarky retort that does not only occur to us hours later.  By this time we have judged the utterance itself, and often, judged the person as well, based on the utterance. And then we often sashay away with our head held high while wallowing in moral superiority or disgust over what kind of creatures we are forced to inhabit the planet with.  Yet, how many of us stop and ask why we were so offended in the first place?

Well, why are we?   Interestingly the topic of politeness has been studied in the field of pragmatics for about 30 years.  However, impoliteness or relational insensitivity (my new favorite term) has not been given the same research attention, but has gained tracking in the last 10 or so years.  And while there is apparently a scholarly debate occurring over the semantic similarity or differences between impoliteness and rudeness, most of us would probably agree that intentional rudeness or impoliteness is uncool and often an act of aggression and/or display of power.  Yet herein lies the first problem. How to we infer “intent”?
Intent is a very important aspect of human behavior and state of mind. Take for example its role in law, where it is needed to differentiate if something was a planned crime, a crime of passion or an accidental act, with the former being punished most harshly.  Sometimes intent is clearer to infer than at other times, for example, when someone says something to you that clearly violates some culturally accepted social norm.  Someone saying to you “Well, I saw that one coming, you are just not smart enough” seems to clearly have some intent to hurt the receiver of the communication.  If this communication is truly intended by the speaker as hurtful, of course, still depends on a number of contextual, cultural and social variables. Specifically, the relationship the speaker has with the receiver, the cultural norms they share, the event, and so on. All things being equal, however, calling someone stupid would be a hurtful thing to say to someone.  
How about a situation when you infer intent and it was not intended?  Research shows that even communications that are not indented to be rude, and are known to the receiver as largely unintentional, can still be perceived as hurtful as others, as outlined by Jonathan Culpeper (2011).  Culpeper argues that intentionality is likely perceived on a dimensional scale (from weak intentionality to strong intentionality) and its “strength” is perceived by the presence or absence of a number of factors such as a “ desire for certain effects, a plan of action, ability to carry out the plan, responsibility for the action, foresight of consequences”.  So when someone asks you if I you have gained weight, the person asking may not have planned to be intentionally rude to you, but the consequence of you being upset by such a question might have nevertheless been foreseeable.  Now again, Culpeper points out that how upset you are by this question, might depend on the relationship you have with the person.  Obviously if you know the person well and he or she knows that you struggle with weight issues you may find this comment more offensive than if it was asked by a casual acquaintance you had not seen in a while.  Or conversely if you have a very honest relationship with a good friend you might expect or want her or him to say this to you, but would not from someone you do not know very well.

Well, where is all of this going and what are we to learn from this research? 
First off, it is important to remember that communication is a complicated business and we infer and judge and interpret the meaning and significance of what is said constantly.  Sometimes we are right and sometimes we are wrong, and often we will never know how something was truly intended, because we either do not ask, or we do not get honest answers if we ask.

There is something I think we can do, however, in situations where someone says something to us that we think is rude, maybe because we perceive it as an invasion of our privacy, or an uninvited comment on something we are sensitive about.  The first step would be to refrain from inferring intentionality immediately when it is possibly not present.  Maybe we can “choose” not to see the incident immediately as intentional when it is likely not.  Even though we might still be hurt we can look at ourselves and ask why this really hurts us, or why something really rubs us the wrong way.  In other words, you can be hurt and offended, but recognize that this is your issue to own.   

On the other hand we can educate the “offender”, letting him or her know that their choice of words is hurtful, and, if you dare to be vulnerable, why.  Then this person can choose to become more aware of how their words may have impacted the other person, or what they signify to this person.  Then the speaker can make a choice and has the opportunity to change their behavior, especially given they might have not truly meant their words to be offensive or hurtful.  

Or preferably you can do both, although we all be a lot busier than we already are, but I think that would be worth it. For the person that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this would have meant looking at why a question.

Culpeper, J. (2011). Impoliteness: Using language to cause offence, Cambridge University Press.
Culpeper, Jonathan (2009) Impoliteness: Using and Understanding the Language of Offence. ESRC project website: