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Thin skins

[Editor's note: Today's rambling, agonizing and self-serious exploration of the writer's own personal demons hopefully reflects but a momentary lapse in judgement. He has been advised to talk about something more interesting in the future.

[It was also slightly revised at 5:50 p.m. EST]


So yesterday I got a little aggrieved by something I myself had said.

It's amazing what a bad, bad idea it is to ever talk about yourself on someone else's website, I thought. It always comes out wrong. I was going to write something about it here, actually, but (fortunately, perhaps?) I had a few other things to do.

And now I'm not so sure. Do I actually sound thin-skinned in that comment? I just can't tell. (Heh. Certainly not as thin-skinned as I sound writing about it here.) Yesterday I thought that sylloge thought I sounded aggrieved, but now I can't tell that either — it's just like sarcasm: You never know if you're the one that gets it, or the one that doesn't.

Which is a bummer. I mean, take me, for instance. I don't want to be serious all the time, and especially dislike taking myself too seriously. (I just added a new FAQ page, by the way. ;) ) But on the web, you almost can't help it: Things you say about yourself and jokes you make at your own expense always seem to sound self-serious or defensive, and even friendly jokes about other people always seem cutting, when reduced to bits and pixels.

Why is that? I mean, it's not like that in real life. Is it because an unnaturally large proportion of people online are especially competitive, thin-skinned and defensive? That can't be. (Though I'm sure if you were so inclined you could construct some theory to support the claim, perhaps something like, the web attracts people who don't function as well in person and they tend to be insecure, &c. &c. — which is something I don't really believe). The web is such a big place already that I think it's unlikely that it's an effective filter for any particular personality type.

So I think it must be because we are all thin-skinned and defensive, at some level, and we watch for those qualities in others. When confronted with cold, impersonal text, we read into it our darkest suspicions. There's good reason why humans have learned to instinctively give visual and auditory cues that we are happy or serious or honest or threatened or amused when we feel that way: because those cues work — other humans instinctively respond. And, alas, without them, left only with abstract meanings and partial contexts, we seem to get very suspicious very quickly.

Take deadpan humor. It works exactly because it omits the cues we are so used to. And it can be truly great, when you know someone is joking — if they're on a stage, say. But deadpan has an entirely different effect in other social settings, especially if someone talks in a deadpan for too long, until you can't be sure if they're still joking. Many people take it in good humor at first, but it gets more and more unnerving the longer it continues; even if you still think they're joking, the not knowing is jarring and unpleasant. Deadpan is funny because we expect the cues, but it becomes unbearable for the very same reason.

And on the web, all those cues are gone — virtually everything is deadpan. We've invented some surrogates for the missing cues, but even they are ambiguous. Take, for instance, the winky smiley face: ;). Does its use bely a caustic remark, or is it a friendly way of saying, "I'm kidding"? There's no way to tell. The straight smiley is better, I think, but I can't be sure (I mean, what's he smiling about, anyway?). Besides, I generally can't stand emoticons; they get tiresome very quickly. (I was reluctant to use the winky smiley in my comment on sylloge.com, but thought it was necessary; now even I'm not sure if it worked.)

So even your own remarks, if you reread them, can twist around, reverse themselves and reach back and bite you. Even though I know what I meant to say in my comment, I can't tell if I actually said it. And, for all I know, there's even something written here that will haunt me, that other eyes will find other meanings in.

What can we do? Suspicion is a cruel trap, and it doesn't let go easily. So I guess the only alternative is to give the things we read — even those we wrote ourselves — the benefit of the doubt, accept the deadpan for what it is, and read it in good faith. It's a hard thing to do, but it's gotta be worth a shot.

January 25, 2002 10:59 AM

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