Monday, February 3, 2014

Life in America -- Linking versus Ranking

In her endlessly instructive Introvert Power, psychologist Laurie Helgoe talks about the differences between cultures that value deference and those that do not. She says: “In America, deference is a very unpopular notion. Why would you put yourself “one down” when the whole point is to move up? Why would you back off when you are supposed to get ahead?”

This American emphasis on ranking versus linking is something I’ve been extremely uncomfortable with from the time I’ve moved here. I’ve noticed a pattern with some Americans (definitely not all) where the goal of conversation seems to be self-promotion, instead of forming a meaningful connection.

I discuss this with my husband. I mention how I’ve noticed that Americans say “I” a lot more than Indians do. To me and the Indian friends that I have here, this feels like praising yourself. But my husband (who has spent a large part of his life in Canada and America) thinks differently.

Sometimes, it’s just a cry for attention, he says, not self-promotion as such. That makes me pause and think. Also, there’s another thing. Since I come from an Eastern culture, my perception of someone saying “I” is negative. When an American says “I,” it’s usually just a statement of his or her opinion, my husband says. And there is no hierarchy, no external rules about who can and cannot express their opinions.

There is a lot of truth to what he is saying. One of the reasons that I feel uncomfortable with people expressing an “I” statement is because in India, there is a hierarchy when it comes to expressing what you think. For example, children are expected to obey, not question and think for themselves, unlike here in America.

As I mull over all my experiences, I realize that both my husband’s perspective as well as Laurie Helgoe’s thoughts are valid. In some situations, I have perceived an “I” statement as negative even when the other person might have simply been expressing what they think. Then, there have been those interactions that underline that competition is a prized cultural value in America. If you are not one up, you are one down.

As an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person), this is problematic because my primary value is cooperation, not competition. So, separating these two strands in American culture – deciding if someone is being self-promoting or simply self-expressive – becomes very important.

James W. Pennebaker offers some clues on how to do this in this post in Harvard Business Review. He talks about how function words, such as pronouns, reveal people’s personality. He says: “Here’s a simple, pronoun-heavy sentence: I don’t think I buy it. Ooh. You just revealed something about yourself in that statement. Why did you say “I don’t think I buy it” instead of “I don’t buy it” or even “That’s ridiculous”? Pronouns tell us where people focus their attention. If someone uses the pronoun “I,” it’s a sign of self-focus. Say someone asks “What’s the weather outside?” You could answer “It’s hot” or “I think it’s hot.” The “I think” may seem insignificant, but it’s quite meaningful. It shows you’re more focused on yourself. Depressed people use the word “I” much more often than emotionally stable people. People who are lower in status use “I” much more frequently.”

So, using “I” excessively, in mundane conversations, when you are not expressing a specific opinion, is a clue to a person being self-promoting. As HSPs, once we are aware that ranking is happening, we can start figuring out alternatives to handle power-driven conversations. The beginning is hard. Should we act like the other person – playing ourselves up – because we don’t want to feel one down? But such a conversation will feel extremely draining to HSPs, much like a verbal performance. And in the end, we do not get what we need – connection. It feels like a Catch-22 situation.

But it need not be if we start accepting that everyone does not play by the same rules. If the other person is focused on ranking instead of linking, we need to stop blindly “linking.” I can imagine that for many HSPs, this means that we have to start disassociating with merely being “nice,” and start taking care of ourselves in small, concrete ways – like limiting interactions where we feel invisible or unheard. This also means that we stop acting in automatic ways – smiling politely even when we disagree. Taking back power can be as simple as that.

Since values of sensitivity are perceived as a weakness today, many HSPs rank themselves low, while automatically ranking other people higher. If we can reframe our thinking, and understand that everything has a pros and a con, we can see more clearly that rank-based interactions don’t always work.

Although it feels like someone who is always “top-dog” is getting away with it, in reality that might not be the case. Talking all the time about yourself or being endlessly self-promoting is an extremely annoying trait at best. At worst, it means that you lose out on opportunities to understand where the other person is coming from.

As HSPs, linking is what we do best. We need to practice that while at the same time being discerning about which situations actually offer opportunities to connect. This gives us a ground to work from, and we can make a real difference instead of remaining addicted to idealism.

21 comments:

  1. Some very interesting points here. Sometimes, saying "I" is not just self-promoting for another, but for oneself. It can be a sense of power being able to say "I think", instead of just the statement. Having said that, there is a lot to say about someone who is always self-promoting; as you said, that is an annoying trait at best. There is something to say where the sense of equality does come into play when a group of people, be it family or friends, all express their opinions with an "I" where it is your opinion and nothing more. This was a very interesting read!

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    1. Thanks Roopali ! That's an interesting point. Why do you think it gives a sense of power ? I understand that expressing an opinion can make us feel good about ourselves and strong. But do you think it applies to all kinds of opinions, even if they are about commonplace things ?

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    2. Totally disagree Ritu and Roopali ... Just replace 'I' with your name..'Hersh Puri disagrees with you' . now that's self promotion :) #thisisbeyondme

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    3. It may depend upon how important the topic is to you, I guess....Sometimes, even the small things can help.

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    4. Hmm... that's interesting Roopali.

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    5. Haha ,, Hersh.. Now that really would be blatant self-promotion.

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  2. That was a joke Roopali.. now I should ask some serious questions... Ritu out of curiosity--- this HSPs... is it something which is a permanent state ??? or people can start from being HSPs and turn into LSPs ??? what is the body of literature that term has been derived from ???

    And Ranking and Linking... if I understand it correctly--- ranking iis something on the lines of 'one upper' mentality....'Holier than thou...' so to speak... is it ??

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    1. LOL! Hersh...never did see your response until now. And now I see why my statement may make you want to clarify that...whoops :)

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    2. Hersh, yes being an HSP is hard-wired ... Elain Aron has done the pioneering research on this trait ... You can check out her website: http://www.hsperson.com/.

      Ranking is related to power and position, and yes it includes thinking in terms of one-up and one-down and gaining an upper hand, instead of linking, which is basically attempting to form a connection.

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    3. glad you say that... Ritu-- we are Punjabis... you think we converse for linking ? [Nothing eastern about that]--- again ... do u think that's a Aryan trait??[hate using such language..]

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    4. Hersh.. I wasn't comparing India and America, but I get your point that someone can read into it that Indians are all about linking, and Americans about ranking. Maybe I should have talked about it more to make it clear.

      I agree completely - Indians are about ranking as well - maybe that's one of the reasons so many Indians like America ? All the showing off - the social display of wealth - is definitely ranking.

      Thanks for your thoughts! In the future, I'll be more aware of what I might be inadvertently implying.

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  3. I think I know hat you mean... Had invited some friends from Culture USA(Its an NGO) to my church.. post church when we were having lunch... the three of them all started...one was like.. I am gonna be completing my chores... the other... I got to do that today... third one I have to write a mail to this one... after I am done with mails I can help you with your chores...
    and I was like[I thought to myself]... "You guys talk about these things ???"
    But you know what's really funny... There was a week when I would meet them on a daily basis for the play... and one of them would always ask "How was the day??"... and I'd always say... good... busy.. nice.. monosyllabic answers.. by the fourth day I found that they expected me to say something else.. what I did throughout the day.. some story... with the boss.. colleagues...

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    1. All three of them were Americans(I just say.... Its all about the audience!!)... I don't know how much you've read about language... ethics.. post modernism... really interesting stuff...

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    2. Your saying "You guys talk about these things???" made me smile. That's exactly how I feel sometimes. I don't really understand the dynamics yet. There seems to be a lot of talk about specific day-to-day details, instead of the big ideas behind things. I find this boring because for me, there is no depth in the conversation.

      I read on a blog recently that Americans are actually very guarded about personal details. The friendliness is only a way of relating socially on a more superficial level. I wonder if that's true, and has something to do with it.

      I haven't read much. I want to read more on inter-cultural communication. Any suggestions?

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    3. see... I think a lot times you could feel the conversation being boring... but I think its a positive... For someone like me it's nice coz I don't like talking about ME all the time(and that's a way to be guarded)....

      but you have to understand this.... Its not inter cultural communication that you ought to be reading.. culture by definition is ... unique to how a group of individuals relate, communicate with each other.. how they attach meanings to a few words...
      For Example----
      Our family has a culture of putting each other in a box.... In the beginning it was .. sun signs... leo.. pisces.. scorpio.. aries... in different situations zodiac signs transgress to adjectives....

      See all I can say is..... "When in Rome do as the Romans do... " To a few friends who faced an issue of adjusting to Ahmedabad and the church culture out here is said--- "Among the Jew.. I am a Jew and among a gentile I am a gentile.. "(This is from the bible..)... So its more the culture that you are trying to adopt which you ought to be learning about..

      Ritu its really interesting you mention about big ideas.. and mundane things... You see Indians think differently(we reason differently internally and with each other.. we use deductive reasoning or logic)..

      as opposed to a few other cultures.. who use inductive reasoning(this really affects communication)... i'll let you know of some books.. don't know anything now...

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    4. I am reserved too Hersh. I was referring to the fact that in general conversations (just social talk, not personal), the concrete and specific details are focused on, not ideas and the meanings behind them. Or maybe the process of getting to the meaning is different. You are right - it's related to inductive and deductive reasoning. I don't understand it well right now.

      Yes, I do think that you have to adapt and change in certain ways and do in Rome as the Romans do. But a lot of it is not organic to me, so I need to understand it first and then do it.



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    5. Its not organic to most people Ritu... [:)..]

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    6. Yes :) I guess I was just thinking about me. But I think an additional layer is added because I notice a lot of differences and think about what those differences mean.

      Yes, shifting countries and cultures is a huge transition, so everyone will react in a similar way.

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    7. Try and get hold of Social Learning Theory... Its academiv literature... by Rooter

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