Saturday, March 14, 2009

On the Edge: Fulfillment and Disappointment in Communication

When you interact over a period of time with another person whether in a job, in a classroom or in any other formal or informal social situation, you develop a bond. That bond can be meaningful or perfunctory, depending on the value you and the "other" put on the interaction.

When I work with a person, whether we knew each other prior or not, whether our meeting will achieve the lofty heights of friendship or not, I feel like a slice of my life is being set before the person, and a slice of that person's life is being set before me, and that we each have a certain responsibility to "take care," to treat each other with respect. I feel that we need to pay real attention to each other if we want to demonstrate that our various encounters are worthwhile.

This is especially true when I meet a student in the classroom. I really don't walk into a teaching situation with the attitude that "you student, I teacher," "me great, you not." I don't adopt a pose that pits me "above" the students I work with, that sets me as their superior. I see each individual in the classroom as a vital member of a novel social situation; I see each person there as another living being who walks the earth just as substantially as me. I might have information and skills to share, sure enough, but I am also there to learn, to be invigorated, to feel alive. I also find it amazing that we have met at all, given the number of people who have inhabited planet Earth over the stretch of human history. In this sense, each teacher-student meeting is fateful.

And when I work with that student, as we communicate in class or via web communications, I feel the process has greater value than our individual contributions, that the laughs, smiles, sighs, ideas, achievements (and even certain disappointments) ought to take on significant meaning for each of us.

For this reason, when I encounter someone I've worked with or am working with in a class *outside* of class, on a sidewalk, in an eating place or mall or in a university hallway, and when in that situation, the person *consciously* ignores me, I'm invariably shocked. In situations such as these, it appears that the prior interactions we have had (especially in a course focusing on communication) were merely a mirage. It seems like "we don't know each other" and that we have never known each other after all.

And that bothers me. It makes me feel that I have wasted my breath, that I have wasted precious time, and that I have not had any effect on that person. It puts what we have shared into question. Suddenly, the attention given to me in class seems to have been feigned, faked, and for naught. Suddenly the effort I have made, whether in the form of asking and answering questions, telling stories, explaining concepts or areas of confusion, responding to blog posts or making comments on research reports and other assignments, seems to have been for one purpose alone: adding to the student's transcript & CAP.

Okay. Maybe I'm expecting too much. Maybe I'm too sensitive. Or maybe I'm just naive. But shouldn't the energy and time we've expended nurturing the bond between us mean that when we see each other beyond the classroom, we should at the very least acknowledge each other's existence?

What do you think?


Wee Siong said...
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Wee Siong said...

Dear Brad,

I do agree with you that when meeting someone we know outside of the class or workplace, the very least we could do is acknowledge each other's existence. It is not that we expect to have a lengthy conversation with every familiar person we meet. A "hi", a wave of the hand or even a simple nod will do. However, as you mentioned in your post, sometimes we won't get an acknowledgment from the person we meet. It is really depressing especially if we acknowledge the person but the person completely ignore us instead. This has also happened to me several time and I can empathize with you in this matter. It really sucks when someone you know treats you as part of the scenery.


P.S. I do hope I am NOT one of the people mentioned in this post! :)
(edited post)

Brad Blackstone said...

Thanks, Wee Siong, for your comment. (And no! You aren't a person who would act in such a way, it's clear.)

You're exactly correct stating that "It is not that we expect to have a lengthy conversation with every familiar person we meet. A 'hi,' a wave of the hand or even a simple nod will do."

Of course, there are cases when two acquaintances don't see each other, or one doesn't see the other. But those cases when they do see each other and yet one party "pretend like don't know" are the ones that can be aggravating.

yuka said...

Hi Brad. I can empathise with you on the frustrations you experience. However, it seems like a pretty common phenomenon among Singaporean students, at least to me.

I think that this is due to the inability of these people of breaking out of the teacher-student relationship. Whatever interaction that has occurred between them and their teachers may have mostly been purely academic. That's probably why they find it difficult to switch that teacher-student mode to a more friendlier and less casual one.

This goes for the same between two students. In fact, I was a little surprised that even university students do not acknowledge each other at the hallway even though they might have worked together or taken a same course. What used to be an interaction based on an academic partnership quickly dissolves into nothing when that academic partnership is no longer required. Sometimes, people are just too practical.

I find this really sad:(


Terry Ho Chao Jin said...

Dear Brad,

I hope you are not referring to me. I remembered seeing you at the walkway between lt 25 and the science library last friday. I tried to wave to you but you seemed to be engrossed in a conversation with another student. Personally, i feel that it is rather rude to interrupt during a conservation. I do have similar experience where the other party do not recognise me. However, i would just give them the benefit of doubt that they are too focus in what they are doing.

Brad Blackstone said...

I'm not referring to any particular current student. This sort of thing has happened now and again, but usually only after the semester is over. (I would only write about it because when it does happen, it is way too obvious.)

yuvraj said...

Hi Brad,
In my opinion, this ignorance may be due to the way our other lectures are conducted. There are about 300 students and there is no form of bond between the lecturers and students.
However, I totally agree with what you are trying to say since the ES2007S class is indeed very small and there is lot of interaction. I do not think you are being too sensitive with it. I have experienced this type of attitude a lot with ‘friends’ I took other courses with. I know that everyone is very stressful in NUS but a simple wave of hand would not harm us. Instead it can make us happier if we meet someone after as long time and have a little chat.

Anonymous said...

Hello Brad,

This is a rather depressing sight quite commonly seen in Singapore, not just in our campus. I must admit I have more than just “a few” encounters in that kind of situation, when I meet someone down the street and we obviously knew each other. But strange enough they rather choose to avoid eye contact and ignore my presence, leaving me wondering what have I done to disgust you so badly?

The same thing happened to me just 2 days ago, when I was attending a friend’s wedding party. We were all seated and breaking into small talks with each other when another friend arrived with his wife. They sat at another table opposite ours and did not bother to come around to say ‘hi’. There were a couple of times where we had eye contact, but they looked away immediately.

Personally this is what I feel: if you have seen someone a distance away, chances are they have too noticed you. So no matter how cranky you feel or how deep in thoughts you are at that point of time, it is still extremely rude and annoying to not acknowledge the other party’s presence for no reason.


Shi Wei said...

Hello Brad,

AWW. I totally sympathize with what you’re going through, because it DOES “sucks” to be literately ignored by people you know. It happens very often (sadly); a lot of times when I bump into a friend and this friend is with his/her friend (who I know or don’t know), I’m truly taken aback when that friend chooses not to acknowledge my presence at all. I may not know you but come on, isn’t this how we make NEW friends? Sometimes I’d come up with excuses to console myself “they are probably just shy.. Maybe they’ve had a bad day..” I really hope so, or rather is my face so obnoxious that those people cant even bare to look at me. I mean seriously, it barely takes any effort to smile, why not make other people’s day?

For me, I’d just smile or say hello when I see them. This is more like a challenge; to see how long/how much initiative on my part does it take to break the ice. What I can say is being persistent is the key to victory, so far this theory works for me=)

Ok or maybe the uni should make an EQ module compulsory for everyone.

Crackpot said...

Hi Brad,

This is the second time I've heard this situation happen to a teacher.
The first time being in my secondary school. A teacher (her lessons being english language and communication, what a coincidence?!) expressed the same amount of disappointment when one of my classmates walked passed her treating her like a stranger on the road. She never mentioned who the student was. Since the incident happens again I so hope its not me!

However, there used to be times when I would seem like looking at a person or at a thing but actually be lost in thought. As a result I've had my friend or my mom nudge me to quit "staring" at the person.

Thus the fellow student's brain could have too busy thinking about the assignments due today night or tommorrow and failed to recognise the person walking past by him/her.

However, I hope you wont be disheartened by this and continue the good work in class.

Anonymous said...

Dear Brad,

Do not feel down. I guess what you have just mentioned is the downside to teaching. Personally, I have once thought of being a teacher myself but the fact that students come and go so frequently totally discouraged me. I think if I have to make new bonds with new people every semester and watch it disappear once the semester is over, I would be too jaded to continue. I am that sort of emotional person.

What I do, though not a good suggestion at all, is that I do not allow bonds to be formed. I see bonds as something which brings us sufferings. Thus, most of the time I interact superficially with people and people tend to think that I am superficial. However, it is really through experiences that I've come to this conclusion.

Hope you will feel better Brad. You are not alone. And if you do find a good solution to this problem, let me know too! (:


Brad Blackstone said...

I don't feel down when this sort of brush off happens, just disappointed. I should also say that the benefits of teaching far outweigh occasional disappointments such as the one described in this post. So please don't feel sorry for me. This post wasn't supposed to be a cry of pain but a complaint about some silly behavior. That's all.

As far as someone being so disenchanted with social interaction they they "do not allow bonds to be formed," well, that seems a bit extreme to me. I actually relish the bonds, and all the variation in experience that those bonds bring me. Social animal---that's me!

Woody said...
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Woody said...

Hi Brad! I've been wanting to give my two cents worth for this issue for quite some time already but really didn't have the time to.

(hypothetical discussion time)
1)The conditions of the situation are very important. Like what Terry mentioned, the person might have assumed that you were otherwise engaged and thought it better not to distract you. Otherwise, the person could be so "blur" that he really didn't notice you even though your eyes may have met. He could have been in deep thought about some issue and just happened to look in a direction that seemed to meet your eyes. It happens to me all the time (@.@)

Such cases really have to be considered carefully before passing judgement on the issue.

2)Generally one would only ignore an acquaintance he runs into if he holds grudges against that person, if he is not in the proper emotional state at that time, or if he doesn't know that person well enough and is too shy and feels too awkward to greet him (this also depends on the personality of the person).

From the way you teach us in class it's really quite impossible for anybody not to have built such a bond with you. However, some people may really be such social recluses that they still don't feel close to you after one semester. These are some real shy animals I tell you.

On to the "emo-kids", be it anger or sadness, a basic set of social etiquette is still required no matter what the occasion is. However, I guess we could be gracious enough to sympathise with those who are not able to handle their emotions as well?

I would also find it quite stupid and immature if someone really held a grudge against you for giving him a bad grade and ignored you on the streets because of that. They would have missed the point of the module then.

3) Lastly to the overpragmatic robots. If one could really put on such a facade in class then that's one really scary person. I believe that his whole set of life, moral and interpersonal values would be very different from ours. Imagine what he could achieve being able to hide his true intentions so well.

Chicken soup for the soul, anyone?

Anonymous said...

Hi Brad

I think that the situation you described has been experienced by many of us. I do agree that many of us pay way too much attention on our grades and put in extraordinary effort just to pull up our CAP by interacting with our tutors. The use of 'class participation' marks makes this worse isn't it.

But regardless of the motives for interacting with our tutors, I agree with your point that we should still acknowledge the presence of our tutors even when the course is over. There is so much more to be learnt out of the classroom especially when grades are out of the equation. I think that is when both tutors and students truly interact - exchanging opinions on matters not dictated by the curricula. Sadly many of us fail to see this.

Annie Ang said...

Dear Brad,

If I have ever done that to you, I apologise in advance! I tend to walk through school in a half daze or think of other matters. Thus, I don't tend to notice people. I really appreciate greeting other people through, if just to get away from the tedium of school for a while.

Oh well, this is Singapore and the situation you just described is a common one. I once smsed an ex-colleague to greet her and ask her out for lunch. Only to have her reply that we only worked a few days together and that doesn't mean we are friends! Well, if we don't interact, I really cannot fathom how we will become friends. Needless to say, I never smsed that person again.

Sometimes not being friendly is a form of self-protection, especially against ungracious people.


snll said...

Dear Brad,

Rest assured I would never not acknowledge your presence unless I really didn't see you. Moses and I were even thinking of asking you what other modules you're teaching so we can take them under your guidance again. :)

I just feel that students like that are really uncalled for. What's the harm of giving a small smile to a mentor who has made lessons more meaningful than just words in a classroom? I am really not trying to "grind-the-sesame" (is this what the flattery term is?), but I am trying to say that through the years of being in the education system of Singapore, how many of us can truly say I can talk to the teacher like a friend and I can call him by his first name?

Being allowed to call a teacher by his first name is definitely a first for me. Most teachers in Singapore just don't take the time to sit with students and just chat. I really envy the western schools sometimes when I watch shows about high schools. Students are free to express themselves as long as they do it appropriately. In Singapore, I don't think anyone dares to reason with a teacher lest we get an undeserved punishment, or at least, that is what I feel.

Of course, there is a handful of teachers who truly made a difference in my life as a student. They are those who took time out from the academic and curriculum aspect to really get to know us as a person. I believe you are one such teacher Brad!

p.s. even the authority we interviewed for our report knows that as well!

Regina said...

Hi Peet,

I have to admit that sometimes I have become unconsciously rude as to not talk to my professors because of my shyness. Also because I can't think of anything to say to them to be honest.

I know it's mighty frustrating when I am the other party ignored. Knowing how it feels to have been ignored myself by so-called friends from Facebook, I find it sometimes annoying to find that the socializing construct on such social platforms is nothing but superficial.

But more genuine are the relationships formed with those you've met in person. I guess I can't just greet them when I have ignored them in the past. And I sincerely regret not having the courtesy to befriend my professors now that I am applying for grad school and no one is that eager to vouch for me. Oops... there goes the superficiality again...

But I sincerely wish I had formed friendships with professors. They are usually an interesting bunch who lower themselves to talk to mere mortals like we students. I wish I was not as scared of them.


PS - I have a new blog and I linked it here :D

Sharon said...

Hi Brad,

Hope to see you around! :)
attend our commencement ceremonies?

Ok... time to get back to thesis writing.. do not procrastinate any further.. :P