September 22, 2004    Psychology

Understanding Emotion

Most people perceive me as someone who simply does not understand emotions of others. This partly stems from the fact that I tend to create emotional situations. I do not like pretending, and I like to be direct, so I often say things many people would not dream of saying to someone’s face. For instance, I had brunch one day with my girlfriend and a friend I had just met recently who was a struggling artist. We finished eating and the check came. I grabbed the check to see what I owed, and my new friend said to me: “Oh, no, it’s OK, you don’t have to treat me.” Then I immediately replied: “Don’t worry; I have no intention of treating you.” Years later, my girlfriend remembered it, and told me that she could never say something like that. Such bluntness is often seen as a sign of emotional blindness, but I must defend myself here.

Expression of one’s own emotion is independent of how emotional one is. One could be full of emotion and feel uncomfortable in expressing it. The degree of outward expression, in this sense, is not a good indication of the level of emotion the person is feeling. From the observer’s point of view, how one affects others emotionally is independent of one’s understanding of emotions of others. Just because one is good at avoiding emotional confrontations, does not mean that one is good at understanding the feelings of others. And, just because one is confrontational, does not mean that one does not understand the feelings of others.

Everyone deals with emotion differently. Some prefer to avoid emotional situations, while others prefer to confront them. The former is often perceived to be in control of emotion, but that is a misguided notion. In the end, no one can claim to be a master of understanding emotions of others. Such a claim can never be substantiated.

Understanding emotions of others are essentially the same as understanding who they are. The more you know about someone, the more sensitive you can be to his feelings. If you are a man, you tend to understand the emotions of other men better than you do those of women. If you are Black, you tend to understand the emotions of other Black people. This means that if you surround yourself with others who are just like you, you might actually feel that you are good at understanding the feelings of others. If you are an educated White male in your 30s living in New York City, and if the vast majority of your friends and co-workers are of the same demographic, you might feel quite in control of the feelings of others. But that is only a delusion. Get yourself out there; you will discover how wrong you are. Your confidence in understanding emotions of others, is a product of your own prejudice.

But, it is true that some people seem unarguably insensitive, pointlessly offending others while not realizing at all why people are offended. The problem with such a person is not their lack of understanding about emotions of others, but their lack of interest in knowing anything about others. Again, we tend to accuse only those who explicitly manifest this insensitivity, but the same amount of disharmony is also caused by those who do not. In fact, the latter tends to be more insidious.

Suppose, for instance, you like to listen to music while working. You keep it low, so as not to disturb others, but some people could always be annoyed by it. An outwardly offensive person might say this: “Hey, turn off that crap. It’s annoying.” Whereas a passively offensive person might take it up to the human resource or to your boss. Such a person has no interest in knowing you; so he would find ways to deal with you indirectly. All he needs to say, if he has any interest in knowing you, is: “I’m sorry, I know you like to listen to music, but it really distracts me. Do you mind turning it off?”

Lack of interest in knowing others is inherently annoying to human beings because we are social creatures. We survive by helping each other. In that system, those who have no interest in knowing others is disruptive to our social progress. This again has nothing to do with their understanding or mastery of emotion; they simply do not care about you, much less your emotions. They might in fact be very sensitive to the people they care about.

So, whether you tend to stir up a lot of emotions or you tend to avoid emotional confrontations, what is important is the point of your actions or inactions. Unfortunately, the point of something isn’t so black and white. Everyone has different reasons why they do what they do, and whether something was intentional or not is impossible to prove. In this sense, the effectiveness of each tendency is also impossible to prove. Even in business, there are situations where being confrontational is more effective, and those where avoiding confrontations is more effective. All that I can argue here is that you cannot criticize someone for being blind to emotions of others, just by looking at his outward expressions. The blindness can manifest passively or aggressively. Neither is better than the other.