Values We Negotiate When We Speak

Context

We enter the door to the Halloween party in Winnie the Pooh and Piglet costumes that took me two days, 5 brown paper bags, a dash through Walmart (you may judge), and 2 rolls of duct tape (you may really judge) to construct. With ears the size of my body, full face paint, and a cardboard pig nose attached with strings tied behind my head, I sneak a glance around the room desperate for familiar faces. With my illness, I don’t get out of the house very often; when I do leave my house, it is not typically after 7pm. But here I am, festive on my favorite holiday, and my stolen looks at the creatures around me and the few returned glances reveals two devastating things: I knew approximately four people in attendance, and none of the visible people sported a costume as hand-made as the ones I had made for us.

At that realization, the costumes I designed with pride that week — and, let’s be clear, they were true works of art — became painful marks of how out-of-touch with the rest of the world I had grown in my sick absence. David (Pooh), oblivious to the disaster that I had brought on us, made his way to the room with the most food and embarked on his evening of fun partying. Meanwhile, I pawed (literally, the costume had paws) out the shawl I fortuitously stuffed inside my bag earlier in the evening, draped it around my shoulders, and clutched it closed in front of me with my fuzzy pink mitten-trotters. Mostly “invisible” in my vibrant, flowing hippie shawl, I tucked my chin to my chest and drew up my shoulders to my real ears to hide my large piggy ears in a pose that would make my YouTube yoga instructors cringe. Another quick look around the room revealed an empty nook on the stairs that advertised, “room for one person only,” and promised the solitude I needed to compose/pep-talk myself until I could face the other humans.

So, of course, I hustled to the nook and started reading a book on my Kindle app, pep-talk forgotten. And, of course, someone promptly sat beside me on the stairs and initiated conversation. I want to be sassy about this moment and complain about the nature of other people who clearly can’t read social cues, but honestly, I think that person saved the evening. He correctly read my behavior as “I am uncomfortable and feel out of place,” and responded with behavior that said, “let me make a place for you to feel comfortable.” He is one those friends who doesn’t know how many siblings I have but still somehow knows my life in a “deep sense of knowing” way, and he definitely didn’t care if I looked like a home-made, knock-off, duct taped version of Reese Witherspoon’s “House Bunny” in Legally Blond. 

Determined to ignore his kindness for what it was, I fired back at his polite questions with uncomfortably thought-provoking ones… and he rose to the occasion. Pretty soon, I forgot that this party was a me-vs-society affair and engaged him in genuine conversation about the inanity of modern political discourse — not a subject I typically visit.

Values

This post is about negotiating values in conversation, so why the narrative?

As soon as my friend and I entered our conversation, each moment leading up to it became part of our individual and shared contexts: every value we hold, at stake for negotiation – including the values we placed on ourselves. Our Halloween conversation about political discourse, in effect, functioned as a means of gaining or losing our personal value as social participants.

When we see conversations this way, each ‘negotiation’ is a big deal (not to be melodramatic)! At the party, this conversation was a chance for me to redeem my value from ‘girl who wore the worst costume to the party’ to ‘highly intellectual conversationalist.’ So, I put my best ideas forward and bartered not only the value of those ideas, but the value of myself for holding those ideas.

I actually proposed this very idea in our conversation when my friend suggested a feeling of defeat when someone with a different ideology refuses to hear his ideas or even feel heard themselves. My friend, I learned, prides himself on his ability to be a good listener and truly see things from others’ perspectives. Thus, when he engages someone with opposing views and the person continues to feel conversationally threatened, my friend perceives that the conversation served no real ideological purpose.

adore a good debate, so I can certainly understand where my friend is coming from – even if I, myself, am not as proud of my listening skills… So, when I tried to comfort my friend (again, a value exchange to move myself from “worst Piglet costume” to “good comforter”), I proposed that he and the other person might unknowingly employ the same process of negotiation in the conversation. The opponent negotiates their social credit by holding the conversationally examined values and will cling to those values with surprising (and surprisingly emotional) force, lest they relinquish their own worth. Similarly, my friend negotiates his self worth by placing value on his ability to listen and “loses” that worth as the person appears to feel more and more unheard. In effect, as both parties attempt to rescue their own worth, the value exchange in the conversation falls to the wayside.

Social credit is certainly not the only value we exchange in a conversation. We also exchange values of different “weight.” In the context of morality, Richard Beck frequently refers to the psychological differences between liberal and conservative individuals. In one post, he offers a fairly concise summary of the differences:

“Liberals tend to emphasize Harm and Fairness. Conservatives, by contrast, often appeal to Authority and Purity. This is not to say that liberals or conservatives restrict themselves to these warrants, but they do display moral tendencies with some warrants being used more than others or some warrants held as more vital than others.”

If Beck’s moral psychology holds, I may say, “That’s not fair!” when my sister gets the pick the popcorn flavor first, but my argument will sound trivial to my mother if she values authority more than fairness.

While hiding from the Halloween party, my friend and I considered this idea of “moral weight” in conjunction with exchanging the value of self, and decided that we were not surprised that political conversations appear meaningless. We incorrectly weigh values presented by the opposition in accordance with our personal measuring systems and then effectively discredit the proposed values in our response – even if the response is a genuine question. The opposition, seeing their own worth devalued in conjunction with the discredit of their stated values responds emotionally, shoring up their values and their worth with their own weighing system, and responds accordingly.

In these conversations, we each have a tendency to think of others as if they are trying to tear our self-value apart rather than assess the stated values in a logical vacuum. Yet, we ourselves are much more focused on building up our own value rather than tearing the other person down. My friend and I decided that, when you argue with someone in political discussions, you argue about whose self is more “right,” more acceptable, and more valuable. And no one is willing to let go of their self-value without a fight. It is laughably ego-centric and paranoid method of conversation.

Re-Evaluating

Great. So, we really have conversations with ourselves, for ourselves and all conversation is moot.

Well, not exactly. Conversations that distance the exchanged value from the social value of the participants tend to be less ego-centric and less emotionally charged. A good recourse in serious discussions and social events is to acknowledge the values we use to determine our own worth and then partially disconnect those values from the discussion at hand. (Easier said than done.) This allows you to listen agreeably with someone who is defending their own value as well as their values, effectively increasing your “value” in their experience, and thus your merit to present your own views… perhaps at another time.

Additionally, we acknowledge that, when people ask us questions about our views, they are likely “trying on” that view for themselves to see how it jives with their own sense of self-value, rather than trying to strip us of our own sense of self. Again, our most “threatening” conversations feel like they are about us while the other person simultaneously feels like the conversation is about them. It may help to let the other person “wear” our values for a few seconds and see how they feel about the values – and about themselves. This requires awkward amounts of patience, but it is usually worthwhile.

Finally, we can be honest with each other. If we know we are exchanging the value of ourselves in a conversation, and we know that others are likely doing the same thing, we can verbally acknowledge this system at play. If we suggest that we do not judge the worth of the other in our values exchange, we help them feel safe to express their ideas without fear… and hopefully with more openness to “trying on” our ideas and offering their own ideas for us to try.

Shameless Plug

Now that I have offered up part of my own social worth in the form of my ideas on values negotiation, what do you think? What did I forget to consider? What ideas did you try on from this post, and how did they feel? Leave a comment and let me know!

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