Vignettes of Miscommunication

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the book covers for The Whitsun Wedding and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis’s micro-story “Negative Emotions,” first published in The Coffin Factory in 2012, begins with a simple act of communication—one that will be humorously familiar to anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of unsolicited mass-email from a colleague. The story opens: “A well-meaning teacher, inspired by a text he had been reading, once sent all the other teachers in his school a message about negative emotions. The message consisted entirely of advice quoted from a Vietnamese Buddhist monk.” The story that follows, which is only four paragraphs long, begins by giving a brief summary of the email’s contents: “Emotion, said the monk, is like a storm: it stays for a while and then it goes.” The email includes some tips about focus and mindful breathing techniques; it gives the advice: “If one can identify the emotion as an emotion, it may then be easier to handle.”

The sender’s motivations, or the context in which he sends the email, are absent from the story. What comes to the forefront are the recipients’ vitriolic reactions to their colleague’s advice. The other teachers’ bemusement leads to resentment, and their resentment escalates into defensive anger. Davis presents this escalation in short, subtly humorous sentences: “They resented the message, and they resented their colleague. They thought he was accusing them of having negative emotions.” Davis narrates, with irony, how the teachers deal with their anger, and how, in dealing with their anger, they both disregard and demonstrate the importance of the Buddhist monk’s advice. The teachers recognize their anger and refuse to deal with it: “They told him that it would take a lot of practice for them to get over the negative emotions caused by his message. But, they went on, they did not intend to do this practice. Far from being troubled by their negative emotions, they said, they in fact liked having negative emotions, particularly about him and his message.”

“Negative Emotions” feels as relevant as if it were published yesterday. I love it for its irony, simplicity of language, and narrative control. It’s also a smart choice to compose the angry mob out of teachers, since teachers are supposed to be wise, rational, slow-to-anger: all the things these teachers aren’t. But in addition to its prose-level elegance, the story feels important because of its implicit warning about modern communication. Davis’s parable deftly and disturbingly captures the way we talk to one another and manage our anger and defensiveness, both on the Internet and sometimes in person. If the story’s email sender is a little presumptuous, he’s also well intentioned; even if he’s holier-than-thou, the teachers’ reactions seem to justify his concern. Interesting, too, that the sender has excised himself entirely from the email—after all, the advice is quoted from a Buddhist monk. The sender of the email becomes, for the angry recipients, not a person but an emblem: something to unite against.

What Davis captures so beautifully is that the advice the teachers are reacting against is benign. Their reason for anger is no longer connected to the email or the sender—Davis makes clear that it’s not righteous outrage. The teachers continue to be outraged not for a cause, but because anger feels good—they continue to be mad at the email and the sender because it’s more difficult to calm down.

Davis’s story is short and simple in structure, but feels high stakes. She reminds us how easy it is to react, how difficult it is to reason with angry people, and how pleasurable “negative emotions” can feel. At the core of the story is the idea that electronic communication—especially when an individual is communicating to a group—encourages miscommunication and disconnect as much as it appears to make the process of communication immediate and easy.

Of course, poets and writers have been interested in the difficulties of communication for eons, well before the advent of email. If an individual emailing a group of colleagues is a very impersonal way of communicating, we might assume that two lovers talking is more intimate, and therefore an easier and more honest way of speaking, one less prone to miscommunication. But even this more intimate form of communication is fraught when the larger social context is flawed.

In his 1964 poem “Talking in Bed,” Philip Larkin, like Davis, uses plainspoken language to address the difficulties of communication. The setting is vastly different: the communication is voiced in an intimate space, rather than written in an impersonal one. “Talking in bed ought to be easiest,” the speaker begins. “Lying together there goes back so far, / An emblem of two people being honest. // Yet more and more time passes silently.”

It seems there is some force in the wider world, in the environment of the poem, that seems to have slunk into these lovers’ conversation, making honest speech difficult. After the opening image in bed, the speaker describes the wider world: “Outside the wind’s incomplete unrest / Builds and disperses clouds about the sky, // And dark towns heap up on the horizon.” It’s a naturalistic image: wind, clouds, sky. But there’s something ominous and suggestive about the towns crowded on the horizon. Night’s falling; in bed are two people apart from community, two people at a distance from the “towns.” This sense of alienation is present in the Davis story too—the suggestion of a person held apart from a group, of disjoint within a society.

In the next stanza, the vague sense of foreboding is made explicit, painting the outside world as cold and indifferent to communication. The world described—whether it’s the political, social, or environmental world—seems unfeeling, indifferent to dramas happening on a human scale:

None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

The speaker is unsure why the coldness of the wider world bears upon his ability to communicate with the person next to him in bed. Even though the people talking together are physically close and presumably emotionally intimate—even though they’re purportedly faraway from isolation—still they feel isolated. Speech breaks down—or at least, “true and kind” speech breaks down.

Both Davis’s story and Larkin’s poem are chilling in this way. They both capture a disjoint between individual and community, or individual and environment. Both suggest that speech doesn’t disappear or break down entirely when there’s such a disconnect. Instead, it just becomes difficult to access positive, generous, and honest speech. In “Negative Emotions” the group of angry teachers refuse the breathing exercises, refuse self-awareness. In “Talking in Bed” the two people lament a lack of verbal intimacy they can’t account for. The circumstances are different, but, in each, some vital element of communication has been lost—as have certain ways of being together and seeing one another.