In his new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, actor Alan Alda delves into a topic that has become an occupying passion of his: Communication. It’s an accessible and engaging read that may cause you to evaluate how you interact and speak with people in your life — I know it did for me — but it also sparks a big question that is particularly relevant in these times: Is anyone really listening?
In a lengthy chat with Alda, we discuss social media’s impact on that question, the need to drop our preconceived notions, and how listening and truly reading people can help in your marriage and work lives. And because it’s never not a timely subject, we also discuss political polarization and why we should all be willing to have our minds changed.
Uproxx: Why do we sometimes forget that the most important thing, when communicating, is to be understood?
Alan Alda: I know. It’s not only one of the most important things for us as a group of animals. I mean, we’re a social species and we rely on communication to socialize and explain that… we don’t excel at it as well as we should.
In order to get civilization done, or get a marriage working, or a parent and child explaining the world as they see it to one another, you need good communication. But what’s, to me, even more amazing, is that we have built-in functions, we have built-in abilities to do this. And we often don’t pay attention to them. Like, reading the other person. We’ve got the ability to do that. We don’t do it enough.
Twitter, Facebook, all these online interactions that are not necessarily replacing face-to-face contact and on the phone contact, but which are obviously a presence — is that part of why we’re struggling to connect with each other? And also, do you think that you can really have a real connection with someone on the internet?
That answer your question? (Laughs)
It does. (Laughs) But it’s an interesting thought. Would you agree that you can still read people with that kind of online conversation? It just takes a different skill set.
Yeah, to a certain extent. After a few emails with somebody, you can recognize whether they’re able to absorb three thoughts in the same email or if you can only hope to catch their attention with one, for instance. Or how they address you and how they sign off. You get a sense of who they are and how you can reach them. You have to go to some effort to do that. You have to realize that you’re reading the other person. It’s not an automatic process because we move too quickly.
For some strange reason, we don’t pay attention to this really important part of our lives.
To jump back to the social media thing for a second because it’s kind of enabled this in that it scratches this itch to be heard… but not necessarily understood. Do you think that’s part of the problem: that we’re desperate to have all of our thoughts and all of our feelings heard while we don’t necessarily focus on the impact of those thoughts?
It’s an interesting point. I think you’re right to point that out. There’s sometimes… The first thing they list on Twitter is how many impressions you have. Really, it’s like saying, how much confetti will fall out of a window during a parade? The question is how much of it landed where you wanted it to land? How much of it was noticed? Did you actually have a communication with somebody or was it just on the screen available to them? There’s a lot of misleading numbers associated with it. And everybody’s trying to get a lot of likes and a lot of impressions. It’s hard enough to communicate with even one person.
Labels have something to do with it too — friends, followers. It’s not just partners in conversation, it’s your “followers.” It makes you feel like you’re delivering proclamations from the mount.
That’s true. And what the book is about, really… It’s pointing us toward the idea that even when you’re facing somebody, it’s possible to “make proclamations from the mount.” And there’s more of a tendency to do that than to talk spontaneously and with vulnerability to somebody. And that’s how communication takes place, as far as I can tell from all the work I’ve done on it.