On our diminished emotional vocabularies
It seems that everyone today says they feel “good” or “bad” or “sad.” Or they had an “awesome” or “amazing” experience. I say, and write, these words every day too. Or even less. “Have a wonderful day!” “It was terrific seeing you!” In a meeting last week, three friends and I noted this phenomenon and rued its breathless effects on human relationships.
The problem with these words is not that they are devoid of content. The listener (or reader) does get a whiff of meaning. The problems are imprecision and incompleteness. Carried further, we face a stifling of our human selves.
When I ask my daughter how school was, she replies, “Good.” Well yes, I am glad it was good. And as a parent, that reply registers more favorably than “bad.” But parents everywhere surely have received a similar response from a child and come away similarly puzzled. What, exactly, was good? In what way? How did you feel when you left school today? Did anything happen to disrupt that ‘good’ vibe? If so, what and why? Yes, I understand my children are, well, children. I don’t expect a Jane Austen-level dissertation into the deep canyons of their emerging personalities. But, hey, a couple short sentences of description would be nice.
This is a simple example, but this limited emotional vocabulary extends to adults too. We make similar, short, colorless remarks when we run into a friend on the street or chat before a meeting. We do not dig in, either to express more fully our own emotions, or to ask questions which might clarify and intensify our understanding of how our conversationalist truly felt in a moment or through an experience.
This point is an assertion. But I noted that all three of my compatriots in this meeting nodded heartily in assent as I spoke, and then shared their own examples of their – and their circle’s – puny emotional expressiveness. My contention had the effect of a slap our heads moment of realization.
How did we get here? Some ideas come to the fore. Social media, and its algorithmic insistence on brevity. Is social media’s invasion in our lives carrying over into our ability to give fuller expression to our inner lives when we need to?
That contention has the ring of truth, but also of not revealing the entire story. Sometimes I wonder whether our sheer busyness has throttled our emotional encounters with ourselves and others. We feel the anxiety of seemingly crushing busyness, and so do not want (or feel we can) take the time and effort to give voice to our inner workings. In our interpersonal interactions – even among friends – we do not want to, or feel we can, “burden” our friends with our emotional complexities. Perhaps these feelings of doubt have crept deeper into our cultural, and so established norms that people disregard only at their social peril.
Again, I only sense some stirrings from my own life. So perhaps these intuitions carry the air of the worst sort of cheap pop psychology.
But I have felt this lack of emotional awareness and inability to express even a narrow range of emotions with anything approximating precision. Sometimes I wonder what I have lost – and how I might regain my own expressive emotional vocabulary.
Images created by Olivia Lund.