change, communication, family, Full House, holidays

How the Car Rides Of My Youth Drove My Ability To Have Important Conversations

I spent much of my childhood being driven around by my parents. This would be a poignant metaphor, but my statement is literal. If my mom wasn’t driving me to piano, singing class, or soccer, and my dad wasn’t driving me to one of several dance classes, I was accompanying my parents as they drove my brother to one of his various extra-curricular activities. Getting home each night felt like the end of a marathon. Though we all sat together at the table to eat dinner, my objective was always to eat as quickly as possible so that I could start doing my homework. And while my parents would try to inspire good conversation —asking us how our days were, what we learned, or who we spent time with—my brother and I were always too tired or too stressed to contribute anything of significance.

Very infrequently, when everyone was tired enough and we were in need of entertainment, my mom allowed us to turn on an episode of some “family show” (basically Full House or The Cosby Show) that we could enjoy together over dinner. My most vivid memory of these shows was that no matter what would happen in the episode, it would almost always end with the air cleared, an honest heart-to-heart between parent and child and some arguably valuable lesson. Though my family witnessed these moments together, they were not ones we replicated. Over time, it became clear to me that this was a distinct difference between my family and the ones I saw on television.

Coming from a culture where emotions aren’t openly expressed or discussed, I was never comfortable sitting at the foot of the bed admitting that I messed up and telling my parents that I loved them while music played in the background. It didn’t help that I was so private with my emotions in general (all my emotions lived in my journal). While I sometimes wished I could be “normal” and have open and honest conversations with my family like the ones I saw on television, I never knew how to initiate the moment, and when I tried, I felt like my stomach was swallowing itself.

So instead, when something really needed to be communicated, I let it fester until the last possible moment, then dropped it into conversation at the least opportune time. For example, the time I told my dad that I failed my first math quiz at my new school and that he needed to sign my notice of “low exam score.” I grabbed him as he was running out the door to a meeting. Choosing such moments allowed me to escape the palpable discomfort of a Danny Tanner teaching moment.

Or so I thought.

This past Christmas weekend, my family and I shared a number of car rides. It had been a while since the four of us were in a car together. We were seated in the same positions we always were in my youth: my dad driving, my brother behind him, my mom in the passenger seat, and me behind her. Our rides were unexpectedly long, and as was equally unexpected, I found myself initiating important conversations. Together, we shared opinions, stories, and concerns (and jokes). And in some ways, despite all that has changed over the years, the comfortable feeling of our sitting together in the car, just like old times, being open with one another, was the real holiday magic. All we needed was some Full House closing music.

The openness of these car conversations reminded me a lot of the ones we shared during my childhood.

What I didn’t realize growing up (and perhaps this demonstrates my mom and dad’s parenting genius) was that we were still having important conversations. They just weren’t happening in the common spaces of our home. It was in those frequent drives to soccer practice or those long drives to dance lessons during which I truly opened up to my parents. To me, car conversations were far more approachable than those in any other place. In a car, nobody could leave the conversation, both parties were focused, there was a definite end to the conversation (arriving at a destination), and no matter where our conversation took us, we were always moving forward.

This time of year can be overwhelming with its influx of cultural and social media presenting people’s picture perfect lives. Much like family television shows of the 90’s, they shed light on how different our own lives are from the ones we see around us. But the power of my car conversations give me confidence that this difference really doesn’t matter. What matters is that you find ways to connect with the people around you in a way that is comfortable for you. Whether that’s at the foot of the bed or with your foot on the gas pedal.


communication, friendship, language, life lessons, Lincoln, linguistics, real world, US Presidents, writing

What Abraham Lincoln Can Teach Us About Choosing (And Keeping) Our Words

There is an adorable elderly man with an ice cream parlor in San Francisco’s Western Addition. His eyes sparkle with authenticity; his smile glows with friendliness. He is the kind of the ice cream server you stop to see, even when your lactose intolerance says you shouldn’t. He is the kind of man who, when he meets your parents, will tell them that he enjoys your visits, but that you don’t visit too often.

No matter how my life changes, this man and his ice cream parlor have been my constant. His eyes and smile always the same. The flavors always the same (but always requiring pre-decision tastes).

Two weeks ago, as I was walked past the parlor on my way to dinner, some thoughtless impulse drove me to stop inside. There was no time, and it was not the time, for ice cream.

“Hello lovely lady. What will it be for you today?”

I immediately recognized the awkwardness of my having entered this sixteen-square-foot parlor with no plans to purchase ice cream.

“Oh, well, I’m just passing by on my way to dinner.” He was unsure how to respond, and looking for ways to fill the silence, I continued.

“What time do you close?”

“Today? Oh! I say, about, 9:30.”

“Okay, maybe I’ll come by after dinner,” I said reflexively.

Somewhat fatefully, I made it back to his parlor shortly before 9:30 PM. As he handed me a napkin, the old man looked me in the eye. “You are a good one, you know. Most people say they will come back but they never do. You stuck to your word.”

“I try,” I said, feeling a twinge of guilt for the fact that my reason for returning was not necessarily because I said I would.

In the days after our encounter, I found myself thinking about the importance of words, and keeping our word, in today’s world.

From texts to email to pings to phone calls to in-person run-ins, most of us are inundated with messages requiring some response. While we may aspire to craft genuine responses back, at some point, for me at least, the queue becomes unmanageable and the ultimate goal becomes inbox zero.

Whether it’s the let’s get together sometime‘s or the miss you‘s I send and receive, I sometimes wonder if we place more value on giving and getting some response, rather than the content of the response itself — in both our digital and physical lives. Are we as deliberate in our word choice in social settings as we are in work email or professional meetings? Or do we just say whatever is simplest in the given moment? “I’ll come back later,” to the man at the ice cream parlor or worse, “We should do coffee sometime!” to that acquaintance on the sidewalk.

It is often said that San Franciscans are flaky. The man at the ice cream parlor has me thinking that perhaps we are not flaky. Perhaps we are just well-intentioned liars. It has come to a point where I, much like him, am somewhat pleasantly surprised when people keep their word.

Like ice cream taster spoons, words are so easy to give away, after all.

Abraham Lincoln on ReligionEarlier this weekend, I read this New Yorker article which describes how language has become a “central subject in Lincoln studies.” Over one hundred years after his death, the words used by and about Lincoln are being explicated and analyzed to help us better understand him as a person. The article’s author argues that “rhetoric and writing were as essential to [Lincoln’s] career as acts and orders and elections.” For example, in the hotly debated arena of his faith, we look to his utterances: “Yet, undeniably, as the war and his Presidency progressed, Lincoln spoke increasingly of God—inserted God, as it seems, into the Gettysburg Address—and evidently had some kind of complicated and rich sense of “necessity” and a supernatural presiding power.”

The article inspired me to think about the words I use in my modern-day exchanges.

When am I using words just to use them? How often am I “maybe after dinner”-ing people? (“I’ll try my best,” when really I won’t or “I’d love to do this again soon,” when really I don’t. “LOL when I’m not laughing at all.)

What do they say about me? Do they say what I intend for them to say? How do they come across to others? Are they authentically me?

This is not to say that I would ever err toward more “truthful” words that could harm another person. It is to say that by being more discerning in my word choice, I can effectively transform these otherwise overused phrases into rare, but meaningful ones (“I miss you like crazy,” when my heart truly aches, or “I would love to see you soon,” when I’m actively searching for a date and time to coordinate).

Though I am certainly not fool enough to believe that my words will still exist — let alone be explicated and debated — in the way that Lincoln’s are today, I am motivated to put more thought into the words I throw around today. To celebrate the words I choose, rather than the fact that I chose words in the first place.

And given the necessity of reciprocity in communication, I would love, it would be wonderful wouldn’t it be nice if I implore you to consider doing the same for yourself.

change, communication, emotions, psychology, real world, San Francisco, technology

Is Online Communication Making Us More Rude Offline?

Stephanie Tanner

Riding home on the metro a few weeks ago, I was one of many San Franciscan sardines commuting after a long day at work. As was to be expected with the abrupt stop-and-gos of the train and the complete lack of personal space, my fellow passengers and I accepted that things were going to get physical. I held a pole for balance while my other arm held an open book in front of my chest. My goal was to take up as little of the horizontal plane as possible.

A quarter of the way into my ride, our train came to a screeching halt between stops. We were thrown into each other then bounced away on impact. Returning from my bounce, I was met with the stern face of the man next to me. His eyes widened.

“Don’t! DO NOT step on my shoes again.”

I looked back at him and then the people around us. Unsure how to respond, I nodded my head and went back to my book. But I couldn’t pay attention to the words on the page. The man’s words had taken over my brain.

How could he possibly have thought I was doing it on purpose? I wondered. It happened onceWhat should I have said in response? 

It wasn’t as much what the man had said, but the way he had said it. It was raw. Rude. And left no room for response. It was as if he had yelled into a vacuum. Except, the vacuum was my face.

His statement may have been better suited for Twitter:

Tweet From Subway Scrooge

Suggested Tweet

Overcome with an irrational desire to reconcile our differences, I finally looked up from my book and back at him. “You realize I obviously wasn’t doing it intentionally,” I said as if we knew each other.

Now it was his turn not to respond. Without acknowledging my comment, he exited the train at the next stop.

The second he did, I looked at the people who had been around us. “Public transit is not the right choice if you’re concerned about people stepping on your shoes,” I said to no one in particular. The no ones chuckled.

At first, I attributed the man’s rudeness to workday stress or the psychology of big cities..

But since that evening, I’ve witnessed countless other examples of unquestionable rudeness in both intimate and large settings, cities, and situations. Time and again — at a church, on a plane, in an academic building, at a restaurant — people seemingly failed to recognize social cues or simply didn’t care that the strangers they encountered were actual people. They said and did things that were completely inappropriate for face-to-face interaction. They were volcanoes exploding with rudeness.

It hasn’t always been like this, has it?

There has been a large body of research to show that the internet leads to antisocial and rude behaviors by lowering our self-control and increasing anonymity.

But given my recent observations, I can’t help but wonder whether the internet is also making us more rude in person.

The same way we unapologetically send off an emotionally charged email, politically charged Facebook status, or sadistically charged Tweet, are we becoming more comfortable with sending off rude comments IRL? Is this miserable social media norm transforming into an offline social norm as well? In a recent national survey, 70% of people blamed technology for the spike in real-world disrespect.

Beyond my anecdotes, there are scientific reasons to believe that this might be the case.

In his expansive research on multi-tasking in tech, Stanford Professor Clifford Nass found that the brains of “high-tech jugglers” may be in trouble. “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.”

Each time we communicate with real humans, we’re switching contexts, likely from something electronic. We’re turning our attention away from our email inbox, away from our Facebook feed, away from the text we’re writing in order to speak or listen to the person in front of us. Most of the time, we don’t turn our attention fully away. It’s a sad fact, but one we can’t ignore.

In our attempts to juggle online and offline communication, we might be bringing the antisocial rude behaviors of the internet into the real world. If we struggle to switch from one online task to another, what’s to say that we don’t struggle to switch from robotic internet communication to emotional real-life communication? Our 140-character lives are affecting our personal character.

While some may argue that rudeness is difficult to control online, there’s certainly something we can do about it offline.

How can we stop the rudeness?

twitter heartThere’s no place to report real people as offensive or block them altogether. However, we can be the ones to lead by example, to take it in stride, and to politely remind our rude community members that we too, are fellow humans. Unlike many of the other problems we face as a community, this is one we can rather easily and effectively solve.

We can consider our platforms and understand our environments before we dive in.

Put another way: Whether you’re communicating online or off, go for Likes.

communication, psychology

“The problem with people is that they’re only human.”

Last week at this time, I was trying to simultaneously edit a research paper, study for an exam, and listen to music (unlike the iPhone, I doubt my ability to multitask is going to improve any time soon). Approximately three hours into my tortuous day, I realized that I had been listening to the same song on repeat (Edge of Desire by John Mayer, for those interested). But I also noticed that I was still being surprised by aspects of the song. How is it possible, I wondered, that I have listened to this song fifty-some times in a row and do not know it in it’s entirety? Considering the month it used to take me to fully memorize piano pieces, maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

In studying human psychology, I have constantly been made aware of how people think but also how people don’t think. Why we do and don’t act the way we do in various situations. And you know, psychological theories seem to have a pretty strong grasp of people. There is so much value in body language, nuances of speech, actions, and seeming intentions. But we humans are complicated. There are just so many exceptions to theories. People still surprise us, no matter whether we’ve just met or played together in diapers. Each of us is a song on repeat.

In an Office episode earlier this season, two characters, Andy and Erin, are each waiting for the other to make the next move. “I can’t wait to see how he tops the drumline,” she says in a monologue, while he comments, “The ball’s totally in her court after the drumline thing” in his immediately subsequent monologue. This ironic scene is a spot-on display of the human condition. To think each could remain oblivious to the other’s emotion is disappointing but so real.

While sometimes the mysteries of interactions are exciting, other times they are a complete waste of time. There is value in earnest communication. In resisting the urge to tip-toe around situations or revel in subtleties. Unfortunately, the only way to know for sure that we’re on the same page is not by trying to catch a glimpse of a page-number but by discussing.

Guessing games are fun, but not when, twenty questions later, you’re still left guessing.

communication, language

Talk Forever Just to Pass the Time

Language is absolutely beautiful. Sometimes it’s the romantic accent, sometimes it’s the way the sounds roll off the tongue, sometimes it’s the chills-inducing meaning of the word. Language effortlessly transforms our abstract thoughts and emotions into powerfully tangible entities. It starts wars, but also ends them. It takes control, steals the spotlight, in every situation. Language, I am your fan.

Despite its immense capacity, language is abused. It is ironic that humans, famous as a species for having created language, are also responsible for its demise. Sure, modern literary works are still comparable to the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer. But modern conversation, everyday language, is fast deteriorating.

My friends and I often joke about what “outsiders” must think when they are listening in on our conversations. They seem so ridiculous. But in the moment, to us, they are hilarious. And I have no problem with this. Nobody says we can only talk about politics and the economy.

I do, however, have a problem with empty words. The whole “talk is cheap” thing. Speaking just to hear your voice. Talking just to say something. Using meaningful words without meaning them. This is what makes language come crashing to the ground (think Jenga).

From contrived entertainment stories to propaganda to purposefully vague public statements to speeches written by some outside writer, in today’s world, every word has to be taken with a grain of salt. People can say whatever they want whenever they want while more often than not, overlooking the effects their words will have on others.

For our slide presentations in my thesis seminar, we get charged 10 cents per word we use on each of our slides. It’s our professor’s way of showing us how sometimes you can say more with less. And by using fewer words with more meaning, you can get more bang for your buck.

I live by the line don’t speak unless you can improve the silence. I can’t say that I always succeed, but I like the general sentiment. Improving the silence doesn’t mean spewing life-changing or philosophically deep musings. It just means that you put just a little bit of thought into what’s about to blow the silence into oblivion. As the Japanese proverb goes, a tongue is three inches long, yet it can kill a man six feet high.