Communicative Immediacy

I lived and worked for two months with a three generation Italian family. To my sensibilities it seemed that everyone was screaming at each other all the time. No one ever communicated something in a normal tone of voice. Even a simple request was delivered as if the person should have already done the thing.

The slightest slights produced enraged screeches, howls, and the word “stupido”.

I felt it as a culture of full-time verbal abuse. I was very judgmental. Until I got mad. I became silent and then I walked out of the kitchen and abandoned my duties.

But I watched myself through their eyes, and realized that this must have seemed very strange to them. Also my absence was far more punishing and costly than a shriek.

It forced me to consider the emotional difference between my “quiet” way of withdrawal, consideration, and later soft-voiced confrontation, versus an immediate unfiltered reaction.

I see that immediacy imparts a form of emotional security. You always know exactly what’s going on with everyone. Whereas the silent method leaves people in the lurch, wondering what’s wrong.

It also allows everyone to be fully present. It validates everyone’s every feeling and reaction, manifests and witnesses them, and everyone moves along promptly. Whereas the Commonwealth style of communication encourages people to suppress their reactions. We all know that too much of this causes volcanic destruction.

I’ve been taught to tolerate as much unpleasantness as I can, to only to speak up when it’s “too big”. Of course, being adjustable creatures, we put up with too much and then we want to get away.

The conflict-resolution system I use states as it first premise that people want to be in relationship, so communication should serve that. It goes on with a system dependent on self-reflection and negotiation. It takes time to use it. Italians are in a hurry. When they are displeased, they scream at one another and then someone backs down. Then it seems to be over.

Because a childhood of abuse left me so averse to expressions of anger, I tend to stay so calm that even California-style therapists have advised me to speak up more quickly. Hesitant to use words I may regret because “communication is irreversible” (according to David, who has PhD in it), I am more comfortable using animal sounds. These function as boundary alerts. They are able to stop the action and open a space for mutual investigation.

In truth I find Italy far more foreign than I anticipated, far more foreign than the other parts of Europe I’ve visited. The graciousness is a veneer for strangers. One morning after everyone had screamed at me over some aspect of breakfast I realized “well, now they are treating me like part of the family.” A few days later I noticed that I responded to a slight with a raised voice. I recognized that I was adopting the culture. I reflected on how it felt. Indeed the affront itself more quickly slid out of relevance, but I was left with the reverberations of my own reaction.

If I carry unexpressed anger, I can decide how to manage it. I can decide to speak later, or that my anger was wrong. If I react immediately to everything, I give up that control, that cycle of self-reflection, responsibility, and care. I no longer do the work of contextualizing events and conflicts.

The need for contextualization is because staying in the relationship is my choice all the time. In the New World there are no longer any constraints beyond voluntary commitment, which is a pretty insolid thing. If we are displeased we wander off, unconstrained. So if I want to get myself to stay, I must work to contextualize each conflict into the encompassing desire. I decide to stay silently, to leave, or to initiate a negotiation.

The Old World of relationships put the extended family and community in an enclosure. Those walls have become more permeable, but they are largely still there. In order to co-exist for a lifetime, confined, each person must continually defend their needs and guard their boundaries. Intimate relationships are then full of forcefulness – not my romantic fantasy. And yet when you take away the walls, the nature of the threat only changes – from force to abandonment.

As the Italians are desensitized to an abusive verbal style so am I desensitized to persistent loss.

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