A landscape of communication

Previously, on communication as manipulation: “Consensual and Non-Consensual Manipulation,” “All Communication is Behavioral Manipulation,” “All Communication is Manipulation,” “Linguistic Fit,” “Is strategic interaction Machiavellian?” and “ACiM is a Natural Extension of Cybernetic Theory.

Sure, we can bite the bullet that communication is manipulation—but what does that actually look like? We’ll time-travel to the early 2000s, check out a day in Spendo’s life circa elementary and middle school, narrating the day as a series of communications. What is important to watch for is the series of stimulus-response, or cause-and-effect, patterns whereby communication leads to behavioral changes.

When I was young, my mother would wake me up each morning for school, opening the door and saying my name. When I got older, the alarm replaced her. Snoozed by button press or verbal assurance, their follow-ups would nag me out of bed, ensure I was up and dressed. Perhaps my mother would ask me what I wanted for breakfast, and then I would tell her, and then she would either make it for me, or supply the materials from high shelves, so I could make it myself. I would read the cereal box ingredient lists and nutritional charts as I ate, text written to influence purchasing decisions I did not make. Or the stories and puzzles on the back designed to entertain children in “educational” ways, which is to say, marketing for my mother with potential positive knock-on effects for the kiddies. She might remind me to pack certain articles of homework, to not forget binders or pencil packs, might tell me the weather to guide my dressing or insist I wear a specific item of clothing. 

I would get in the car after a five-minute warning that caused me to hurry up, abandon certain activities and expedite others; and then she would drive me to school, watching the traffic lights, the blinker signals of cars around her. Hand-gestures at intersections would cause other cars to cross, while my mother waited, or vice-versa. As we slowed, our tail lights would light up, causing other cars to slow. 

I remember the school drop-off zones were a social market and a political battlefield in one. The usual American queue dynamics—people giving short and entitled, or apologetic and convoluted, stories about why they needed to jump a place in line. Talk and gesticulation, a big public display whose purpose was placating, keeping tempers from flaring. I’d slide open the sliding van door like deploying onto combat frontlines from an Apache, entering the zone of public observation, where actions, choices, taste, mood, the way you held yourself, “meant” something, communicated something, to people whose opinions you felt in your body, people whose opinions altered outcomes you desperately cared about.

At school, teachers would take roll, a process where the teacher said a student’s name, and that student would react with the word “here,” which led the teacher to place a checkmark next to the student’s name on a form; these checkmarks would communicate to a future her—or her assistant, or a school secretary—which absences to mark on the attendance software, later on. We would be told to rise for a pledge of allegiance, and we would rise, and face the flag as we had at some previous point been instructed, and we would say the pledge in sync with the voice on the intercom, as we had previously been instructed. At some signal—perhaps the teacher clasping her hands, or sitting down at a high stool, or addressing the class—the students would sit down. Class would begin, and we would be shown demonstrations, or told maxims, whose purpose was some abstract notion of “learning,” but which concretely consisted of teaching us routines which we would then be able to perform variations of at future dates, be they daily quizzes or later classes or, with skills like reading and basic arithmetic, constantly throughout our lives.

If I did not understand the lesson, I might raise my hand, and this would lead the teacher to either call on me, prompting the question, or to dismiss the hand-raise for another, more appropriate, time. If I prompted her with a question, it would lead her, usually, to answer it. Perhaps she would ask the class a question, and some students would raise their hands, and she would call on them, and they would give their answer, and then she might put a gold star sticker by their names, which cashed out to gummi candies at recess once a month. Between desks, during lulls in instruction, or at recess, students would try out speech, expressive gestures, and propositions on each other, saying something and seeing how the others reacted. We might make after-school plans, coordinating times and places we would meet, activities kept in mind, and if you did not show up, you quickly lost friends, developed a reputation as a flake. 

After school I was driven to swim practice, where I was given sets of instructions from my coaches for stretches, warm-ups, intervals, technical adjustments to my stroke. Each instruction meant I had to change something, and I was given continual feedback from a watching coach, who would change the kinds of things he said, and the way he said them, depending on the behavior I exhibited. His means of communicating, especially with our ears in the water, were creatively vast—elaborate hand signals and jumping routines, kickboards waved in the air or thrown across the pool, banging on the bulkhead with a metal pole making sonic ripples through the water. In long-distance races, lap counters were bobbed and twisted underwater in different patterns and rhythms, trying to jack us up, give us energy but also give either strategic advice or a command, depending how we might conceptualize it. In competitions, we followed the announcer’s voice in mounting the blocks, getting set; would only jump at the gunshot or face disqualification. In practice, we read the digital clock to calculate intervals, which determined when we left for our next set. I would triangulate the line at the bottom of the pool, and the lane line at my right side, and the feet of the swimmer ahead of me, to stay on course, swim straight; I would watch the “T” at the wall to know when to flip-turn or finish. If my pace was faster than the swimmer ahead, I would tap them on the feet, causing them to momentarily slow down, giving me the opportunity to pass on their left.

When we were young, and not in the mood to swim, we would do anything to minimize minutes in the pool, putting on a show of going to the restroom (but really waiting in the lockers) since it was considered a valid excuse, since it meant we could duck out without incurring wrath. Or in the very early morning practices, when I was older, hiding in the jets of the jacuzzi, the sky still dark, so the coach wouldn’t notice my presence.

My father, who exercised at the gym next door to the pool, would come by when practice was out, let me know whether there was time for me to use the jacuzzi, or whether we had to head straight home for dinner, and I would either head to the hot tub or to the lockers, depending what he said. At dinner, I would be asked questions about school, about practice, about my day; if I was too evasive, they might pester me with follow-ups; if I said I was struggling with work, my father would formulate a plan to help guide me through a lesson; if I reported that my shorts were torn, my mother would resolve to buy a new pair that weekend. 

After dinner, I did homework at the table. Perhaps I’d ask for a snack, or hot cocoa, or apple cider, and my father would heat the kettle. The homework was filled with prompts, questions, formulas—series of symbols, which I had to respond to with appropriate symbols, or I would be given low marks, and my parents might be upset, and the teacher would record a low grade for me in the class, prompting a conversation at parent-teacher conferences. Finally, my mother would tell me it was bedtime, and I would brush my teeth dutifully for two minutes as I had been told to, before drifting off to sleep.


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