The 1980s gave us an onslaught of brilliant comedic shows and movies. I love going back and watching reruns of Friends and revisiting John Hughes films. I still think the writing is fantastic after all these years. This humor only slightly changed from the 1990s through the 2010s. New Girl still makes me laugh.
Now that I am older and have more life experience, even though I still enjoy watching them I see serious issues with what those shows and movies taught us about daily interpersonal communication. One of the things I have learned a lot about in the past few years has been The Gottman Institute's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Today, watching those same shows, I see all four going on every few minutes. And I recognize them more and more within my own friends and family as they dialogue, or don't dialogue, and out in public in general.
One of the common basics of dialogue in those shows is the use of sarcasm. Sarcasm can be unnecessary forms of irony that don't serve a useful purpose; or, they can be carefully crafted forms of irony that tickle the brain. Sarcasm can be great if the intention is to make both parties to the conversation earnestly laugh as a shared positive experience or as a means of showing someone empathy while lightening the mood. However, more often than not, sarcasm is used to express criticism or contempt. A way of correcting someone indirectly when directly drawing a boundary would probably be better. Or, a means of controlling the actions of another when control is not appropriate.
Sarcasm in and of itself isn't bad. It is bad when it is weaponized. When these uses of sarcasm happen, they can hurt. That receiver of the cutting remark has a choice on how to respond.
Negatively responding can be defensiveness, hurling weaponized sarcastic banter at each other; or, stonewalling, shutting down and saying nothing at all. These are forms of horsemen responding to the previous two forms of horsemen. Understandable, but two wrongs don't make a right.
That is not to say that one should never defend themselves. On the contrary. There are times when defensiveness is necessary. This should be done calmly, directly, and thoughtfully, utilizing healthy communication. Hurling insults at each other is not healthy.
Stonewalling might be a useful tool if the person being insulting is simply not worth the effort, not a person important enough in our lives, the subject is pointless, or the opposing party to the conversation is not in a place of listening. In such cases, it may not be stonewalling but more being thoughtful of using personal energy wisely.
Stonewalling is more ignoring or refusing to engage in conversation with someone who is in an interpersonal relationship. In those cases, stonewalling is telling someone who is personally important that they do not matter or are not loved. Or even liked. That can be cruel.
A better way to respond is to calmly, plainly, state the need. Setting a healthy boundary. "I don't know what your intention was, but what you said to me did hurt. Would you like to sit down and talk about what's on your mind? Over coffee?" How about, "I am not okay with where this conversation is headed. How about we take a ten minute break and come back to this topic with clearer intentions we can share with each other."
By the way, that's not stonewalling. That's processing. Walking away with a clear statement of when to return to the conversation and in what tone, and following through with those intentions, is processing. Processing is a good way of giving each party a chance to rethink their positions and hopefully get a chance to see the other person's side as well so the conversation can be more productive going forward. If the conversation does not resume as agreed, then it's stonewalling.
I'm not blaming the shows of the previous few decades of ruining interpersonal communication. We are all in charge of our own tongues. I would like to say that modern shows and movies are moving away from that degrading conversational trend, but I can't. Sometimes I see characters call each other out for it. Yet, the trend seems to continue at the same time.
One positive I often see in these shows that endears them to me is how the characters often let small slights pass without taking things personally. I think we all need more of that. And, they often show people expressing apologies and forgiveness. We definitely all need more of that.
We are all flawed human beings. The best we can do is learn, try to do better, and give each the space and grace to evolve.
Do you have a favorite show that has taught you bad habits?
Thanks for reading!
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Humor In Chaos
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