Posts Tagged ‘communication’

1. Assertiveness is not the same as decisiveness. Some of my friends disagree with me on this one, but I actually feel very strongly about it. Sometimes the most assertive thing to say in a situation is “I don’t know.” Maybe you need more time or more information before you can form an opinion or make a decision. Not being assertive would mean allowing someone else to push you into a decision before you are ready, possibly in the name of “decisiveness.” Assertiveness also doesn’t close the door on changing our minds, which is something else I feel strongly about.

2. Assertiveness is stating your opinion and showing yourself to the world. Even though you might be wrong. Even though you aren’t perfect. Even though people might not care or want to hear what you have to say. Even though everyone won’t agree with you. I think the courage to do this in a strong but balanced way comes from a sense of self worthiness.

3. Assertiveness is asking for what you want/need. Even when doing so is scary. Even when it might make the person you’re talking to think less of you, or not like you, or feel emotions. Maybe especially then.

4. Assertiveness is being okay when someone says no. Which, if you’re asking for what you want on a regular basis, is definitely going to happen. Emotions might happen when someone says no, and that’s fine…as long as you don’t act on them and instead deal with them in a mature way that works for you.

That is one assertive apple. (Photo by Fernando Revilla)

5. Assertiveness is gathering information. Maybe some people aren’t okay with you being assertive. Maybe some people repeatedly say no, don’t do what they say they’re going to do, or behave towards you in ways that you’re not okay with. This sucks. But it’s good to know so you can make decisions based on reality instead of what you wish was true. The kind of fabulous people you want in your life aren’t going to be trampling all over your boundaries all the time like it’s some kind of sport.

6. Assertiveness is allowing other people to have their own feelings and their own issues instead of taking those on as your own. The more I pay attention to this, the more I realize hardly anything that happens is actually about me. It’s about the mood someone else is in, or they’re worried about xyz that has nothing to do with me, or they want something so much they’re not even paying attention to me, or they’re behaving in this bizarre way because of some childhood trauma or the way they were raised or because they’re been compelled to do so by the power of Cthulu. At a certain point, it doesn’t matter why. Our job is to take care of ourselves by asking for what we want, sometimes saying no, and dealing with our own emotions. Our job is not to take on everyone else’s stuff.

7. Assertiveness is embracing the awkward and the uncomfortable. Change is sometimes awkward. Saying no can be awkward. Being honest can be awkward. Being vulnerable can be awkward. Letting someone know how you feel can be uncomfortable. Letting someone know they’ve behaved in an inappropriate way can be uncomfortable. I’ve grown very skilled at making people feel comfortable over the years, which is fabulous when you’re teaching voice lessons. However, assertiveness sometimes requires allowing those awkward moments and uncomfortable silences to happen instead of smoothing them over.

8. Assertiveness is respecting yourself. There is that old truism about how you can only truly help other people after you’ve taken care of yourself. I completely agree with this statement, but I also think it’s a way to dance around the truth so people pleasers might actually listen. That truth? Respecting and caring for yourself is inherently important and valuable. It means you have healthy self esteem and can go rock the world with your own personal brand of awesome.

A year and a half later, and look at the Backbone Project go!

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A couple of weeks ago, I was reading over some of my older blog entries. When I’d finished, I sat back and thought, “Huh. That was actually kind of personal.” At least, more personal than I had remembered.

There’s a place where the personal and the important intersect. And we who blog are then called to make a decision: how important is so important that I can’t stay silent about this? In my case, that means I often end up blogging about issues related to people pleasing and boundaries (and occasionally feminism). I know there are lots of people who grew up in dysfunctional families just like I did, who have similar issues, and I know how helpful it can be to know there are others out there in the world dealing with the same kind of thing you’re dealing with. It’s too important for me to stay silent.

This trade-off was brought strongly to mind during this year’s Worldcon, where I was lucky enough to spend some time with Jay Lake. For those of you who don’t know who he is, Jay is a prolific SF/F writer of some note. He also blogs. For the past few years, he has blogged in an unusually open fashion about his difficulties with cancer. He blogs about disease, about mortality, about what he feels his cancer has stolen from him. He blogs about determination, depression, despair, and joy.

He told me he gets more fan mail from his cancer blog than he does from all his published fiction.

Me and Jay at Epic ConFusion this January. Photo by Al Bogdan.

And he pays a price for being personal. I spent time with him at several points during the convention, and every single time, we were approached by people who expressed their sorrow about his health, or asked about it, or gave him their good wishes that he would recover. On the one hand, it was beautiful to see this outpouring of support from the community.

But I looked at him at one point, late-ish in the evening, after a particularly long stream of generic good wishes, and I thought, “This must get completely exhausting.”

And that is the price. Not everyone will be able to look past the cancer and see the man. Because he has blogged so openly about his disease, he can’t necessarily create a veneer of normalcy for himself when at public events like Worldcon. Part of his public identity is linked to his cancer.

But he pays the price with grace, and I admire him so much for doing so. Because it is too important to stay silent. We need to hear about cancer, about illness, about mortality, and about the physical and emotional struggles that come with these oh-so-human things. Our society tends to have dysfunctional attitudes around illness, around death and dying, around grief and loss, and part of changing those attitudes is talking about these things in a frank and open way. And people who have cancer, people who have other serious illnesses, people who have loved ones who are sick, many of them are helped by Jay’s blog, where by writing authentically about his own personal experience, he puts words to so many other people’s experiences.

So I think about this blog, which is perhaps a bit more personal than I had originally intended. And then I think about Jay. And I’m glad to have written about what I think is important.

I’m in fabulous company.


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A couple of recent articles about what to say and not to say to chronically ill people reminded me of an essay I’ve been wanting to write for a long time: an essay about what to say and not to say to grieving people.

This is not that essay.

Instead I’ve been thinking a lot about the fundamental difficulties in communication. Those articles I linked to have excellent advice for how to support people who are ill, and yet… implementing that advice is no easy matter. It can be hard to be supportive, and it can be hard to be supported.

One way to be supportive

I’d love to think that having gone through the experience of losing my own mother would make me some kind of expert when it comes to grief. But it hasn’t. I still find myself at a loss for words. I still don’t always know the best way to support someone experiencing grief. Because people are different, and they need different things.

The reason I wanted to write that essay is because of some profoundly stupid and upsetting things people said to me about losing my mother (both during and afterwards). But I recognize that some of those things that grated against my raw skin would have been comforting to others. So if you don’t know a person extremely well, how do you know? How do you know what they need to hear? The answer is, you don’t. You do your best to be thoughtful and caring, and you listen in hopes of hearing what they need.

Of course, some responses are simply a bad idea. Pushing our religions and religious ideas onto others who don’t share them in a time of grief is shockingly dense. Comparing one grieving person with another one unfavorably is also completely out. (Julie lost her mom last year and is doing great, so why are you such a mess? Ugh.) Continuing a conversation normally as if we didn’t just hear someone tell us about a recent loss? Completely inappropriate. (And yes, these are all responses I received personally.)

But beyond that, some people want alone time, while other people never want to be alone. Sometimes it’s nice to pretend like everything’s okay, and sometimes another minute of pretending seems completely insupportable. Sometimes people will want to talk about it, sometimes they’ll want to cry, and sometimes they’ll want to play video games. Some people will want to talk religion, some will be experiencing grave doubts, and some will simply want to avoid the subject as much as possible. And the relationship between the grieving and the dead will be different in each case as well. But somehow in the aftermath of death we forget this and make assumptions that aren’t always correct.

Our society teaches us to tiptoe around grief. What this often means is a flood of well wishes right after the death of a loved one, followed by…resounding silence. No one knows if they’re supposed to pretend nothing is wrong or if they’re supposed to inquire after you. People don’t know how best to support you. Those who grieve are not always encouraged to figure out what they need or communicate those needs to others. Sometimes they are too upset to have any hope of doing so.

Because this is not that essay, I don’t have any nice, neat conclusions for you. I don’t have definitive answers or a list of ten things you should do to help your friend who is grieving. What I try (and sometimes fail) to do myself is to be compassionate, remember that the other person is not me, and pay attention. I don’t feel like it is enough, but it’s all I’ve got.

If you’ve ever lost a loved one, what kind of support did you need/want? What things did people say to you that were particularly helpful (or unhelpful)?

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Conventional blogging wisdom for fiction writers is that we should avoid talking about politics and religion. (Science fiction writers are perhaps the exception to this rule; see John Scalzi, one of the most prominent examples, and on the other side of the American left-right fence, Orson Scott Card.) The idea is that such views can be unnecessarily divisive and that by talking about them openly, we can alienate potential readers.

I have, for the most part, followed this advice. I don’t talk about religion on this blog or anywhere else, really. I rarely talk straight politics, although I couldn’t quite suppress my concerns about habeas corpus. But feminism keeps creeping in through the cracks of this blog and in the material I choose to share on the internet, and isn’t feminism at least partially a political issue? It certainly is a touchy one.

One result is that I’m been forced to rethink the conventional wisdom. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that it is easier not to blog about religion or politics or social justice. And I can understand the choice not to do so when it feels like a livelihood hangs in the balance of what we allow ourselves to discuss. Plus some of us find conflict to be very unpleasant. But at what point does talking about matters of importance become more of a question of conscience?

Does blogging give you a voice?

I’m not talking about being safe here. There’s this trend that happens in the science fiction blogosphere, wherein a few of the really big bloggers share their opinions of a current issue, followed by a quiet ripple of smaller bloggers chiming in with “Me too”s and “basically exactly what has already been said about this issue in almost the same words.” Because when we follow in the footsteps of the big guns, then we’re relatively secure. I’m not saying it’s bad to offer a show of support, but it’s not the same as pushing the discussion forward. The conventional wisdom is consunmately safe.

Let’s talk about danger instead. If, as a writer, we develop a greater reach, then we have to decide how to use that reach. We have a greater ability to help, and an equally heightened ability to harm. We can set the topic of conversation instead of merely echoing and reacting. We can affect the way people view the world, often subconsciously, through our stories and our words. We can decide whether to point something out as problematic or whether to be silent and let it float on in obscurity. And whether we like it or not, these abilities come with certain responsibilities.

We don’t have to blog about politics or religion, not if we don’t want to. We can choose to communicate exclusively through our fiction. But at some point, I think every artist has to ask, “What am I really trying to say here? What do I really need to say about human experience and about the world? What might I be saying by accident that I don’t actually want to be saying?”

But sometimes, we might be compelled to blog about something risky, about something uncomfortable. And sometimes we are willing to pay the price for having a voice. In which case, that conventional wisdom can go right out the window. There are times when safety is not the most important goal.

What do you think? Do you ever talk about politics or religion on your blog or over social media? Are there issues that you feel compelled to talk about, even though they lack an approved-for-fiction-writers (or approved-for-polite-conversation) stamp?

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People like to find a scapegoat.

Recent articles link the rise of loneliness in modern society with the use of social media, and although I have explored the idea before, I have become less convinced. Isn’t it convenient that we can blame technology, that behemoth with which we traditionally have an uneasy relationship, for the lack of connection we might feel? And yet, even if, as some figures suggest, Americans are now lonelier and have fewer confidants than in the past, there is still little data to show this trend is being caused by social media.

I agree with Dr. Grohol, who states: “[Using social media] doesn’t stop me from having those in-depth, face-to-face conversations, or put them off. I’m under no illusion (or delusion) that having a social networking circle of hundreds or thousands makes me more social.”

Instead, what social media allows us to do is maintain, in unprecedented volume and frequency, our weak ties. What is a weak tie? Someone who we don’t know very well, an acquaintance, if you will. By fostering so many weak ties, we are able to continue to expand our social networks and have potential reach to larger numbers of people, many of whom we will never directly meet or communicate with.

Obviously this is a major boon when we are, say, trying to sell something or build a reputation for ourselves or looking for a different job. But it can also be valuable because of the different insights and opinions we are exposed to, the potential actual friends we might meet, and the recommendations we might receive. Not to mention the benefits of being able to keep in touch, however superficially, with friends and family who live far away.

However, it’s not hard to see how social media might appear to make us lonely, especially if used as a kind of social substitute that it isn’t. If I am already feeling lonely and then I hop onto Facebook, the odds that spending half an hour reading my “friends’” status messages will make me feel any better are fairly low. But I have noticed a certain irrational expectation in myself that seeing all those photos and clicking “Like” a few times will magically pick up my spirits. Note to future self: that doesn’t work! Go out and see someone instead.

It’s interesting to watch ourselves learning how to deal with so many weak ties at once, a feat about which we are only now gaining experience. I like to think of social media as a party: a few of your really good friends are there, which is especially awesome. Then there’s those people who you’ve been seeing at these parties for years, and that’s the only time you talk to them. And there’s the newcomers, the people you don’t know so well but it’s interesting to chat with them for a few minutes. Except this is happening all the time on your computer, not just for three or four hours at a scheduled event.

And just like at a party, most people are trying to present their best selves. Many of them will keep their dirty laundry and deeper troubles mostly under wraps. A few of them might have embarrassingly public meltdowns. We’re surprised when  the perfect married couple announces their impending divorce, when that vibrant woman turns out to have been suffering from a life-threatening disease, when bits and pieces of messy life burst unavoidably out into public view.

And social media is very much the same. We are presented with a smooth and managed facade, and sometimes we forget the facade does not always reflect what’s going on under the surface. All those people in your social media networks who have perfect lives with adorable children and exciting jobs and exotic vacations? Maybe her child vomited all over the living room this morning, or that exciting company is going through a round of layoffs, or that exotic vacation meant forty-eight hours of pure, unadulterated suffering from food poisoning. Some people show this underbelly of their lives, but many choose not to. It’s the way weak ties work. And as depressing as all this seeming perfection can occasionally be, we mostly find it depressing because we are not used to weak ties; we haven’t internalized the knowledge that these public statuses are only a small percentage of the whole. We believe, often without question, the stories people choose to tell about themselves.

The societal shift we are experiencing is certainly not without its difficulties. But social media, and the internet as a whole, are just technological tools like all other such tools. Sometimes we use them skillfully, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we lack the understanding of how such tools work or for what they work best. Sometimes we’re not very interested in trying them out at all.

But I suspect loneliness arises much more from our physical environments and the strong ties that we either have or don’t have with other people. Strong ties that are fostered by face-to-face interaction, video chat, phone calls, and the exchange of letters and emails. Blaming a tool meant for developing weak ties for any trouble with strong ties seems misguided at best.

What do you think? Do you have less in-person conversations or strong ties because of the advent of social media? Have you been able to develop strong ties as well as weak ties through a social media service? How much does face-to-face time matter in your close relationships?

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I really miss e-mail.

Before you look at me funny and silently consider whether I’ve gone off the deep end, let me add that I don’t miss all the e-mail I actually get: various sales communications from any store I’ve ever bought something from online, e-mail list digests, appointment reminders, notifications from Twitter, Facebook, Google+, WordPress, and let’s not forget bills and bank statements.

I miss the old days of e-mail when I didn’t get any of the above, and each e-mail I did receive was an electronic letter, worthy of excitement and anticipation. You can express so much personality in an e-mail. When I read a good e-mail, it almost feels like its writer is in the room with me. And the one-on-one nature of the communication means that e-mail builds relationships in an intimate way. These words were written for my eyes only–there is value in that.

I got my first e-mail account when I went away to college. My mom would print out the e-mails I sent her, and then she’d write a response and send it through snail mail. I tried my best to stay in touch with those friends who also had e-mail addresses. Those that didn’t…not so much. Mea culpa.

That first year, visiting the computer lab across the way to check e-mail was an event. We’d head over in our slippers in friendly camaraderie until we sat in front of those old glowing screens, at which point our focus was entirely on the act of checking e-mail. I spent so much time marveling at the wonder of e-mail, I made one of my best friends of freshman year in the computer lab.

E-mail was often my lifeline when travelling alone. I’d be meeting new people every day, but still spending hours at a stretch by myself. I learned how to eat by myself at a restaurant, but it was never a particularly joyful experience. When I got too lonely or felt too detached from anything permanent, I’d find an internet cafe and write to the friends who had become, whether they knew it or not, a kind of anchor. They reminded me of what it meant to have a home.

Nowadays I rarely receive this kind of e-mail. My inbox becomes clogged with messages that feel like work. I stay in touch with people via social media, a kind of communication that, while efficient, can also be impersonal. People “like” my statuses, but we don’t have the sort of conversations we’d have if we were discussing the same topic over e-mail. And too often it feels like the friendship is being held in stasis instead of being actively developed.

I do have one friend with whom I e-mail regularly, and it’s just as good as I remember. It’s also something of a miracle that we both managed to continue the correspondence, especially in the beginning. But I’m glad we did. If we had merely stayed in touch via Facebook and Twitter, we wouldn’t know each other half as well as we do now. We would only see the edges of each other’s lives instead of being able to go deeper. We might not even be friends at all.

Yes, I miss the golden age of e-mail. Do you?

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This week I have a Neil Patrick Harris quote stuck in my head:
“I feel like it’s important to have three lives. Your professional life, your personal life, and your private life.”
He goes on to talk about how these lives relate to the entertainment industry in particular, but while I think the distinction may be more relevant for public figures (including many artists), I was struck by how the same could be said of all of us.

The professional life: This is our most public face, the life in which we are focused on our career and the image we want to project to the general population. We live this life when we’re at the office, at professional events (although these sometimes blur into the personal and private), and doing public tasks associated with our roles. For instance, a mom attending a PTA meeting, a writer sending a query, and a businessperson attending a party for the primary purpose of networking could be said to be living their professional lives.

The personal life: This is still often a public part of our lives, but it is focused on a life outside of jobs, careers, and professional-related goals. This life includes such things as friendships, relationships, family, and hobbies, although only to a certain depth. It might also involve your religion (particularly if you attend church, thereby making your practice more public) and certain groups or communities you may belong to (while others of these will be private). Information (non-work-related) that you feel comfortable divulging in casual conversation with an acquaintance probably lands in this sphere. What you post on Facebook or Google+ often also falls into this category, unless you’ve made the decision to use these tools for strictly professional purposes.

The personal life can be an important component of professional relationships. We are often expected to have hobbies and interests so we appear well-rounded, for instance; there is also the stereotypical example from the ‘50s of the ambitious young man who is expected to get married (and perhaps even start a family) in order to receive the coveted promotion. The personal life plays a key role in the new trend of authenticity–allowing your audience inside your life so they gain the impression of really knowing you.

The private life: Most people do not want this life to be public. It includes the deeper aspects of relationships and friendships, facets of ourselves that we think we will be judged for, and certain stories from our pasts. If there is some part of your life that you do not generally speak of, or only to a carefully chosen few, that falls into your private life.

Everyone has different comfort levels and therefore different boundaries that constitute the private life, but we have certain societal norms for what we tend to share and what we don’t. When someone doesn’t share these norms or has parts of the private life come unexpectedly to light, the result is often scandal and/or controversy: for example, when Penelope Trunk tweeted that she was at a business meeting and in the middle of a miscarriage, or when a politician’s unconventional sex life becomes headline news.

The secret life: According to Kim Stanley Robinson in his novel Galileo’s Dream, we have seven secret lives as well:

“We all have seven secret lives. The life of excretion; the world of inappropriate sexual fantasies; our real hopes; our terror of death; our experience of shame; the world of pain; and our dreams. No one else ever knows these lives.”
I would add another to these secret lives: the unique experience of being the person we are. No one else can completely understand what it is to be Amy, just as no one can completely understand what it is to be you. Empathy can help us in our quest for understanding, but it falls short of complete experience.
Can you divide your own life into these parts? Where do their boundaries fall for you?

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I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about art: how art can be defined, what its possible purposes are, what I am trying to accomplish personally as an artist. This exploration began many years ago when I was a student musician: a singer, a songwriter, and a composer.

In my music program, we spent a year on music theory that looks beyond the standard Western tonal palette. Our curriculum began with late 19th century composers like Wagner and Debussy, which I very much enjoyed studying, and then progressed to atonalism, serialism, and other 20th century classical music (including John Cage, Philip Glass, etc.). We also spent a quarter studying 20th century music history.

After I finished this course of study, I went on to take a few composition classes and seminars and began to consider more seriously the question of why. Why do so many cultures include music as an integral component? Why do so many of us like to listen to and/or produce music? What was I trying to achieve with the music I was writing?

The answer, I decided at the time (and it still holds true for me), is communication. Music is a way of communicating to others; of evoking a response, often emotional; of taking something we’re familiar with and translating it into something new, or of exposing us to something new that is outside our own frame of reference. Music can tell a story, something that happens especially frequently in vocal music (my other focus at school) but can also happen in purely instrumental music (listen to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique for an excellent example of programme music). Music can make us feel a certain way: when I’m watching a suspenseful TV show, it’s often the music that makes me jumpy before anything has even happened on-screen. Music can share universal experiences or distill unique experiences in a way that are more relatable. One of the reasons I adore musical theater as much as I do is because it combines the dramatic potentials of theater with the emotional resonance of music, while remaining accessible to a more general audience than opera often does.

Unfortunately a lot of the music composed in academia, the new Classical music of the 20th century, didn’t seem to me to be very accessible at all. In fact, at the time it baffled me because the goal of communication often seemed very absent from it. Indeed, serialism in particular seemed like a game played with numbers that had very little to do with actual sounds at all. I realize now that I wasn’t seeing the complete picture; I believe even the most experimental pieces were trying to communicate. The problem, for me, was that they were communicating with only a select group of people who were educated enough in music to be able to understand them. I was in that group, yes, but what about everyone else? Imagine the equivalent of throwing out an old common language and writing in a new language; you will only be able to communicate with the select group also versed in the new language. So what we are talking about then is the question of audience. If art is communication, then considering a given piece of art’s intended audience becomes very important.

I also approach writing as art, and therefore as an act of communication. But in pursuing that line of thinking, I realized there are many forms that written art can take. We have the obvious: novels, short stories, plays, poems. But we also have the slightly less obvious (at least to me): letters, blogs, Google+/Twitter/Facebook. Am I saying everyone’s Facebook account is art? I’m not sure if I’d go quite that far (although feel free to make a case for it in the comments). I’m saying it can be art; it has the potential to be art. I’ve certainly created art through letters/emails, in which I create an idea, a vision of who I am and what my life story is. And then on the flip side there are the banal and mundane emails that are just a recital of facts or a quick way to make plans.

I’m in love with this great art project, in which a photographer traveled around the country taking photos of people’s refrigerators. I think about this project all the time because I am just blown away by the coolness of it, showing the stories of these random people through one photo. To me, this is art—it turns my assumptions around, it evokes emotion in me, it causes me to see the world around me in a different way.

So then is this blog art? It certainly tries to do those same things. Some of you will think I’m being pretentious by labeling my blog as art, but isn’t it interesting to think about? I like to think of each essay being a small piece of a greater mosaic—I wonder what it will look like when it is complete. I wonder what picture I will have created. I get excited just thinking about it.

What is art? Is it in the eye of the beholder, the creator, or both? Is it about intention or execution? What does art mean to you?

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