Communicating one’s emotions is a bitch.
And the potential for failure is high.
We can be misunderstood, we can misunderstand, we can even successfully communicate and still fail to achieve the desired result. We can let non-linguistic things get in the way of our language performance; perhaps we are shy, or communicating via text instead of in person, or are interrupted, or afraid to speak or hear what needs to be said or what is said. We often don’t ask clarifying questions in emotionally charged situations in the same way we do in the classroom or at work, we become restricted by social constructs such as gender roles or the spoken and unspoken ways that power is negotiated in our human relationships, or the knowledge that rejection and loss are a very possible and probable outcome. These factors have nothing to do with our competence or knowledge of language but rather the consequences of a change in social status (maybe in perception or in reality) or possible loss of friendships and more intimate relationships.
A few weeks ago, I started writing this with the idea to explore why ‘honesty is always the best policy’ can fail pretty hard when it comes to human emotions and reactions to honest discourse about interpersonal relationships; or in (one of) the specific situation(s) I reacted to, a lack of a personal relationship. Putting oneself out there, as we colloquially describe the phenomena in English, inherently exposes vulnerability. There are a variety of domains where we might find ourselves willing to be exposed in this way; and that’s exactly what it is, an exposure. As with sun or wind exposure, the result can be pleasant, warming, and welcome. Also as with sun or wind exposure, you can be burned. Badly. However, we know (I think we know) that sometimes it is worth it. The notion of honesty, as an objective concept seems great on paper. In general, as humans, we often desire truth and seek knowledge, curious creatures that we are. However, the truth of something like whether or not the pizza place on the corner is open until midnight, although potentially devastating after an evening of drinking delicious barleywines, doesn’t carry the same lasting impact as the truth or knowledge of rejection from an employer or friend or lover or even a potential such person.
In linguistics we call an utterance or sentence with performative function a Speech Act. We use the act of saying something to try and change our audience, our listener. Performative function, more clearly, is the concept of speech not only to communicate but to make and action or change of state occur. The speaker must have the authority or ability to actually affect the change; for instance, saying “I sentence you to ten years in prison” doesn’t do much unless you are a judge capable of sentencing criminals and you are in the setting of the court. As a participant in discourse with friends or co-workers we have a little more room for agency and the ability to affect a change of status or behavior. What we don’t always have is the knowledge of how the other participants feel. This becomes increasingly muddy when a history of contrary speech events and speech acts is in place. Exchanges such as flirting or comedic bluntness can be misinterpreted or understood either too literally or dismissed when they are serious.
The philosopher of language J. L. Austin is known as the developer of this theory of speech acts which captures the idea of locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts. Locutionary acts are the actual utterances performed. Illocutionary acts are what the speaker meant. Perlocutionary acts are the actual effects of the speech act. Some speech acts make very clear and unambiguous the expectation of speaker and hearer. For instance, a speaker who says “May I borrow a pen?” will have little trouble being understood as meaning that they wish to use a pen from the hearer and (assuming the hearer has a pen to lend) the act is very likely to happen that a pen is passed over to the speaker for use.
It’s a little more confusing when some information is left out or an utterance is vague as to the specific even the speaker wishes to address. A speaker who looks across the room to their roommate and says, “Oh, it’s Thursday!” might mean something beyond the literal exclamation of where we are on the calendar. Perhaps Thursday is the night the trash needs to go out and the speaker has forgotten up until then. This illocutionary act, the meaning of the speaker’s utterance will hopefully prompt someone to take those old pizza boxes out before they sit another week unmoved (the perlocutionary act).
Thankfully, forgetting to take the trash out or asking your roommate gently or with some slight ribbing about their tidiness habits isn’t likely to cause any lasting harm to your relationship. Misinterperting the illocutionary act in the workplace or with that person you’ve been flirting with for weeks might. And seeking clarification isn’t always easy. Asking indirectly might go unnoticed. Asking directly might be viewed as too forward and the dynamic of the relationship changes.
Even still, I am (and I suspect many others as well) compelled to remain honest about my emotions and what I want in the world. Restricting my expression of emotion and thought is easier, to be sure. I wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with rejection, or feelings of inadequacy, or how to avoid being super awkward after such an encounter, because let’s face it, I am super awkward about 87% of the time. But then again, I wouldn’t be able to experience the joy of getting to know people better and developing strong friendships and intimate relationships.
Having to rely on the grace and kindness of a person I share my feelings with is always an exercise in trust, both of my interlocutor and myself. Rejection is a little easier when the blow comes kindly; and when I treat myself kindly. I’m bound to fail here and there and certainly I will face more rejection moving forward. I’m not going to get every job and promotion I apply for. There will be people who won’t like my personality, people who won’t want the same level of friendship or intimacy that I do (or maybe they won’t want it at the same time as I do). There will be people I won’t want these relationships from myself and I ought to be clear and honest and kind in responding to those advances. Silence and avoidance are even less effective than an uncomfortable conversation.
I’ve been told, more than once, that I’m too much. Too loud, too aggressive, too bossy, too assertive, too busy, too smart, too unapproachable.
It’s easy to question and doubt myself and consider changing or toning down the way I approach my employers, my friends, my lovers, and those who may potentially enter into these roles in my life. It’s easy to want to censor myself to fit in, to make things easy, to avoid the pain that comes with rejection and being left behind. I’m willing to change, I am willing to compromise, but I am not willing to sell myself short or accept less than I am worth.
Maybe I’m not too much, maybe it’s that they aren’t enough.