Human Interaction

A couple of weeks ago I went to the bank with my mother to deposit money. The bank was empty, but I headed straight to the ATM – that is, until my mom stopped and told me to go to a teller. “But then I’d have to fill out a slip and I don’t remember my bank account number and I’d have to go all the way inside…” the excuses flowed out easily, but I questioned myself. Why didn’t I just go to the teller? I put on my ‘adult’ hat and walked inside. It was fast, easy, and pleasant.

Why didn’t I want to talk to the teller? What makes the ATM more ‘convenient’ if going to a teller takes the same amount of time? The only difference is human interaction. Why is interacting with strangers such a deterrent?

The exponential increase in technology says a lot about society. We’re moving away from small, interpersonal interactions in the name of ‘convenience.’ Virtually everything can be done with minimal contact nowadays; food is ordered online, shipping labels can be printed out, machines eliminate the need for MTA workers and bank tellers. Granted, this technology is very useful and saves a lot of people a lot of time – and as a native New Yorker, I appreciate saved time.

However, social skills are slowly deteriorating. Kids in younger generations are growing up with cell phones in their hands and the virtual world at their fingertips. It’s no wonder my brother asks me to order food on the phone for him (and make the rest of his phone calls); my friends play on their phones while we’re eating dinner together; my sisters email and snapchat me instead of calling.

There are pros: easy, fast, simple communication with a vast expanse of people. We have bigger networks now, bigger than our grandparents could ever imagine. However, there are cons as well: some would argue we have access to too much information; and as court cases involving social networking increase, the line between public and private life is being blurred. Additionally, there’s an expectation that people are now supposed to be readily available via email, text or call.

Text messages. Awkward, awkward text messages. Interpreting them are a pain – is that “haha” sarcastic? If I don’t include a smiley face, does this sound mean? 🙂 Text messages lack body language and nonverbal communication, so we try to include mood indicators through language. That’s a recipe for disaster more often than not. By using “texting” language, we run the risk of losing the genuine message we’re trying to convey.

Additionally, by trying to ‘speak through writing’ we also lose objectivity. Simply put, people don’t take text messages at face value anymore. The reader seeks meaning in each message, and the writer isn’t there to clarify. The abbreviated language used in texting further muddles the intended message.

There’s a difference between physically conveying what you’re saying via body language and tone versus reading a sentence. We don’t convey our thoughts via a written medium the same way we would convey them via a spoken medium; meshing the two together is not working. Simplified written language can’t convey the subtle nuances of spoken language properly.

Convenience has simplified written language and social interaction. We need to be aware of this in our day to day interactions. Humans are such a wary species, especially in New York, but we need to take efforts to interact with each other if we don’t want technology to consume us. We need to make that phone call instead of text. We need to do our banking at the teller.


Weeding and Writing: There’s No Such Thing as Focus Pocus

I blame focus for what is admittedly stage one and a half of my writing process: panic. Completing the assigned readings and taking notes are always my stage one, but before I begin to draft in stage two, I often put down the assignment out of a fear of focus. The word focus just seems like a reminder of everything I can’t write about, and herein lies my logic for just not writing at all. Usually I have some sense of a topic at this point, but given the need to find a narrow argument, I often spend hours or days sitting on a topic—not actually doing anything—out of fear that if I write before I devise a focus, I may end up hitting a wall and/or completely wasting my time. I do the same thing with promptless essay assignments: I convince myself that I need a specific question to answer in each paper before I begin to write. What if I were to completely miss the point of the assignment? In short, I sit around totally flustered, convincing myself that I can’t do anything until the focus pocus kicks in.

We have all been there—so overwhelmed to the point at which the pressure to turn in a finished product on time weighs down any ability to think clearly. While yes, focus is and will always be the goal of a paper, there is, in fact, no such thing as focus pocus; our brains don’t just extract focused ideas out of vacuums. We need to illustrate some sort of situation from within which we can find a focus. I do this by abandoning focus. I temporarily put it aside, and swim nonfocus for a bit. The perk of doing so is that once I’m swimming—in reading or in drafting—I can’t sink. I can only sink if I dive, headfirst, into a final draft without getting wet first. Once in the pool, the information is much more likely to sink in me.

Sure, it helps to have a specific direction when you begin to write, but sometimes the most compelling, focused papers end up being the ones that began having twelve theses. Such a paper is often a sign that the brain juices are flowing: perhaps even a sign of excitement.

While I enjoy this stage, given deadlines, there comes a point at which I have to begin “weeding” – the process by which I make connections within my own writing, cut out what no longer seems relevant, and then keep digging within what I already have. I always begin writing weeding with what we Fellows consider a “self-fellowing” process: I notice what seems to work and what doesn’t, and I ask myself questions: What are the patterns? What are the different facets of my topic? What’s confusing? What does the author seem to be saying? I usually do this when I’m as far away from my own writing adrenaline as possible. It’s important not to be in your head at this stage so that you can be your own fresh reader. This makes it much easier to categorize ideas without feeling the urge to run away with them.

Sadly, in this act of editing your own focused conversation, you will likely end up cutting a few (or many) ideas. Some writers call this “killing your darlings.” But regardless of how much you cut, every stage of the writing process is equally as valuable. It is often those random bits of information that you don’t end up using that lead you to a more focused idea rooted in a slightly different context. And because all of our ideas are connected somewhere in our brains, we can consciously file ideas away, but we can’t actually kill them (like we can weeds).

Perhaps you are already familiar with another form of weeding: verbal weeding either as you are speaking or in reflection after the fact. Have you ever mentally prepared for a conversation, and then after having the conversation, decided on everything you didn’t really need to say and everything you could have said? The key here is that you wouldn’t have been able to reflect had you not had the conversation to begin with. So weeding through your paper can only really begin once you initiate the conversation with yourself. The beauty of writing weeding above verbal weeding is that you can capture, rewind, and rewrite your own conversation at any point along the way.

My message is that they key to writing is patience. Trust the process. You already know how to weed. Don’t wait around for focus pocus.

“The Fight of Public Speaking” by Claire Bouchard

The following post was written by Claire Bouchard, Speaking Fellow (BC ’15).

What could pubic speaking and martial arts possibly have in common? One is a sport that focuses on precision and concentration in order to deliver the best and most deadly hit as efficiently as possible, and the other is a mode of communication that focuses on connection with the audience and the skill with which one can deliver their message.

How does the martial arts world connect with the realm of public speaking? They are both performances. As a member of the national United States karate team and a speaking fellow of Barnard College this performance aspect is well known to me. When you’re standing in front of the judges overseas, about to perform a kata (form) in order to represent your country, your adrenaline starts running. All eyes are on you, time slows down, and you feel the pressure to begin. You take a deep breath, relax all of your muscles, and the game begins. You work through your kata; using full moves that you make sure are defined and take your time. Public speaking is not all that different from this set-up.  You enter the spotlight, all eyes turn in your direction, the chatter of the waiting room slowly dies away, and time slows down. You take a deep breath, relax your demeanor and the game begins. You start speaking through your outline, pausing when necessary, using your ability to maneuver between silence and language and deliver your speech.

Both kata and public speaking require the one performing the action to have a strong understanding of themselves and how to present themselves. The performances allow athletes and speakers to present certain aspects of their personality, in kata your ability to focus and in public speaking your ability to connect.

Performances are always a part of our lives; they are an opportunity to present yourself in a fashion that you approve.

Speaking to be Heard: Thoughts on Becoming a Speaking Fellow

Imagine a beach, waves curling up and lapping on the sunny shore. You are walking in the sand feeling it spread beneath your feet and gurgle up between your toes. Stop for moment. Bend down and use your hands to scope up a handful of sand. Look closely at it. From far away the sand looked beige but up close all the little grains take on different colors, betraying their diverse origins.


This is what New York City is like. When I first arrived I was amazed by the shear magnitude of difference that could exist in one subway car. Soon, however I began to feel myself disappear in the crowds, becoming part of the beige. It’s hard to stand out in a city where the extraordinary is ordinary.


I found solace in knowing that not everyone has the same things to say, the same way to speak. The connections made by one’s brain are the result of a truly unique mix of experiences, beliefs, and knowledge– these are the building blocks of identity. Yet, the individuality of one’s thoughts goes unnoticed unless one has the ability to powerfully voice these unique connections. Developing strong public speaking skills has given me the ability to assert myself in crowds– to stand out not because of how I look but because of how I voice my own thoughts and opinions.


To be a contributing member to society it’s important to teach the unique connections our minds make, as well. A city is the sum of its parts. Its ability to grow rests on the ability of its citizens to share their knowledge and skills with others– to create a critical mass of educated individuals who then power the city. Teaching is a key component in leadership and can always be improved upon. Believe it or not, learning to teach also enhances your own ability to learn.


This is why joined Speaking Fellows: to hone my public speaking skills and to develop as a teacher. Rooted in an attempt to find a place in the city, Speaking Fellows has helped me find my voice in the crowd. Everyone comes to Speaking Fellows for different reasons– if you see a Speaking Fellow around campus or in a Speaking Session don’t hesitate to ask them their story.  If it resonates with you join Speaking Fellows and raise your voice as well.


Click here for the application. 

“Sorry, but I’m not sorry.”

Every now and then, someone in one of my classes will raise their hand and start saying, “This might be a stupid question but…” And then they proceed to ask a question about iambic pentameter, which wouldn’t be stupid, except that they said it was.

Same thing happens when someone raises their hand and says, “I just thought it was interesting…” And then they read a quote or describe something about Hamlet, but fail to say exactly what was so “interesting” about it. What does interesting even mean anymore? Hamlet may be just as interesting as your neighbor’s cat or a flash mob, but that’s not really saying much now, is it?

You’ve probably heard all this before. You’ve probably seen all this before. You’ve probably said these exact same things before. Yours truly is definitely guilty as charged, on many and multiple occasions.

So I’m here to tell you, rather bluntly, that we need to stop. (Tough love.) Stop with the qualifiers the apologies, the disclaimers. Stop with the meekness and the weakness. It’s all an addiction or a bad relationship; it’s only hurting us and we don’t need any of it! We don’t need to diminish our confidence, to give up our power, to lessen our argument. (We Writing and Speaking Fellows are all about confidence, power, and a good argument.)

These behaviors expose a disconnect between expectations and reality. The student that qualifies her question, her argument, her opinion, by saying it might be stupid expects that the qualifier will remove any judgment. The student that brings up a point but resolves not to elaborate hopes that someone else will take charge in explaining it. After all, if someone does think her question is a little remedial, it’s not like she didn’t say, “it might be stupid.” If she brings up a quote but doesn’t want to explain it, the professor or another classmate will be more than happy to carry it further. When we disown our words, we protect ourselves just a little bit from all the backlash of our peers.

Here’s the reality: disowning opinions only reinforces the idea that we should be doing just that. We’re really saying that our statements are trivial, our questions are not important, our opinions are negligible. We’re saying that our words require those apologies—because they’re just that bad. But is that really what you want others to think about you? Is that really what you want to think about yourself? Instead of protecting ourselves from peers’ criticism, we’re inviting them to attack us.

The reality is that there will always be people rolling their eyes or laughing at us. It’s just a matter of whose opinion is more valid—theirs or ours? We have to ask ourselves, “Is it more important to keep my classmates from laughing or myself from learning?” When did being curious become a crime? When did asking clarification questions become “stupid?” When did getting so excited about a connection become a bad thing? Why not just say, “Hamlet’s soliloquies really strike me as a coping mechanism for trauma?” Why do you need to apologize, disown or back down from your analysis? Shouldn’t you save your apologies for when you actually do something wrong?

So I give you, dear reader, a challenge: catch yourself. Catch yourself from falling into a trap of insecurity and submission. You don’t need to apologize when you want to know exactly what wave-particle duality is. You don’t need to tell people that your opinions are silly or stupid or seemingly unimportant. Take yourself back. You know exactly why that poem evokes fear, why that equation is baffling, why you’re talking in the first place. Own it.

The Future of Feminism: Some Musings

Women’s History Month at CU/BC is having their first event, “The Future of Feminism,” tomorrow. You should definitely go to hear some good conversation about an important subject.

The Speaking Fellows Program is working on a multitude of different sessions that cover different subjects for students, and one of them, which I happened to be writing last week, was about the art of negotiation. One of the most important elements of negotiation is framing: learning how to present an idea in an amicable way. Framing is essential for positive reception of solutions to problems by the parties involved. When I considered “The Future of Feminism,” I immediately questioned the framing of the ideas presented. A panel full of women, commenting on how women need to move forward, presenting their ideas to a room full of women: something seems very one-sided in this scenario.

Whenever I go to an event about women, I always wonder: where are all the men? Presumably, men raised in this generation are taught not to be explicitly sexist at the very least; a great many believe in choice and women’s rights. So, where are they when discussions like these happen, or when there’s a protest or march? And most infuriatingly, why are women still a small percentage of the top players in the game – any game (Congress, business, medicine, etc.)?

Everyone seems to be talking about women in the media and on campus, but no one is getting it right: not Sheryl Sandberg, not Anne-Marie Slaughter, not anyone. Many present different, sometimes opposing approaches to reaching gender equality, but one glaring factor runs through every narrative: women have to close the gap. Women have to fight. Women have to break the glass ceiling, for the betterment of womankind.

We need to re-frame this idea, this sentiment, this urge. We need to shift the dialogue from discussing how breaking the glass ceiling will benefit women, to discussing how breaking the glass ceiling will benefit everyone. Why aren’t men questioning traditional patriarchy and masculinity when it clearly leaves them sacrificing wants and needs for performance-based esteem? Men’s movements compete with or oppose feminism under the guise of ‘misandry,’ and that’s partially our fault. We’re creating a movement that has unintentionally dismissed male accountability and participation, and it’s high time we bring them back into the conversation.

President Spar wrote an article in September 2012 about how women can’t have it all, and it’s true, we can’t – and shouldn’t desire to – have it all. No one can achieve the impossible, and the ‘all’ is impossible; it’s something that I never considered before I came to Barnard. However, as a black Latina woman going into medicine, I am constantly told I can’t have it all. Successful minorities, especially black women, have to settle for marrying someone with lower income or date outside their race or get comfortable with being alone or even raising children alone. And with these messages constantly berating my conscious, I’m starting to worry about them, even though they were never a desire or consideration in the first place. And furthermore, I start to devalue myself because of it. As President Spar says, women are held up to a standard of perfection at all times, and when you hold yourself to such an unrealistic standard you are going to underrate yourself. How can I feel content with my achievements when I don’t possess enough valuable attributes to get ahead in life? The underlying problem in this is that the attributes we as a society have deemed valuable are male-oriented, and I’m a woman.

The mission of re-framing, then, must start with ascribing value to female characteristics. We live in a capitalist, patriarchal society that values male characteristics (the gendering of personality traits is something I’ve already written about on this site), and society thus far has attempted to even the numbers under this unbalanced system. We need to shift the onus from ‘fair’ to ‘valuable’; from a superficial equality in numbers to a true equality in which female attributes and qualities are viewed just as beneficial and useful as male ones.

I’m sick of having to prove that I am worth it, and I’m sick of being told to change my everything to fit the mold. We – women and men – need to reform and restructure both the professional and social system to value people, male and female. It’s time to take feminism a step further.

The Inarticulate Academic: Class Participation and the Valley Girl

Speaking up in class can be difficult. Terrifying, even, but most students at Barnard College are able to overcome this fear and contribute to the class discussion in one way or another. Unfortunately, some students deal with this pressure better than others. I am referring specifically to Valleyspeak. For the purposes of this discussion I define Valleyspeak as speech with elongated vowels, fluctuating pitch, hedging statements with modifiers, and ending declarative sentences with rising intonation. This form of speech does not fit into the ideal-typical conception of academic articulation and so contributions and questions of this kind are often met with dismissal or derision by other students in the classroom. This phenomenon is widely documented and easily visible at our University. But why would young women at elite institutions of higher learning choose to undermine themselves in this manner?

In most lecture classes, there is at least one student whose Valleyspeak-toned questions effectively stop the class for everyone but herself. Whenever she raises her hand to ask a question, sighs abound, pens click closed, and attention wanders. This clear disregard for the value of her questions, and even the professor’s response to them, is visible in other students’ behavior. They are reacting to a performance that she creates with her intonation and phrasing. She establishes herself after a few weeks in the semester as an archetypal Valley Girl. She becomes a stock character who is expected to appear in each class. As such, her behavior and her peers’ reactions are pre-scripted. Deborah Tannen writes in her article “The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why” that women who openly and frequently ask questions can often be misinterpreted as ignorant or unintelligent. For the Valley Girl, who often ends declarative sentences with rising intonation, her speech collapses into one continuous question. As such, her peers view her questions as wasted time and disengage from the class when she speaks so that they can react to her performance.

Although her performance causes her peers to disengage from critiquing her academically, she is not protected completely from personal critique. However, it is a different type of scorn that she faces from her peers than she otherwise would have if she spoke as the Standard articulate academic. By subverting the accepted norm in her rhetorical choices, the Valley Girl places herself outside of the academic hierarchy in order to not be considered an Academic. When she does this, her peers either ignore or mock her. Although unpleasant, this is an effective measure against any substantial critique. Her peers’ subsequent reactions, instead of discouraging her behavior, galvanize it. The Valley Girl is able to narrow her audience to simply her and her professor, minimizing possible intellectual criticism while enduring ad hominem attacks.  This is the paradoxical aim of the Valleyspeaker. Her peers’ reactions allow her to get away with redundant, flawed, or hollow statements and questions. Even if her contribution is substantive and meaningful, it is still discounted from the academic discourse occurring in the classroom when her peers ignore her by engaging with one another to mock her or daydream.

Although this theory does explain a general phenomenon of Valleyspeak in academic settings by students who are capable of speaking otherwise, the question remains as to why it occurs at Barnard College. Before arriving here in my freshman year I had rarely encountered this type of speech, let alone felt the pressure to use it myself. Unlike some of my peers, though, I did not go to an extremely competitive high school and the atmospheres in the difference in the competitive natures between high school and college was like night and day. I would posit, then, that the elite and highly competitive nature of our University encourages this type of behavior as it values verbal opposition in academic discourse which has the potential to create tense atmospheres filled with uncomfortable and only partially explored confrontations.  This is why it is so important for professors to set up atmospheres in their classrooms that encourage speaking in a way that separates intellectual and academic arguments from personal ideas and opinions. By doing so, we can avoid the potential interpersonal conflicts that sometimes occur in classroom settings. In turn, this would hopefully encourage students to speak more openly and freely about ideas without the fear of being attacked as a person. Instead the students could have an actual discussion about an idea, not just argue separate sides of it.