Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Affective viscosity

Who uses it: Psychologists and behaviorists
What it means: The tendency to prolong contact with other people, and to talk repetitively and in excessive detail about a narrow range of subjects.
How you can use it: The next time you're cornered.

Did you know there was a name for this? It happens to everyone -- someone decides that they really, really need you to understand something, and isn't going to let you go until you do. Of course, it has nothing to do with your understanding; it's about their need to feel understood, which you have no control over. It's my worst nightmare -- not just being the recipient of this, but doing it to other people.

People who consistently behave this way, however, often suffer from some kind of temporal lobe disorder -- epilepsy, or a lesion, or a traumatic head injury of some kind. They might or might not be aware that they do this, and they're probably incapable of changing their behavior. Medication can help, but not always.

Years ago, I met an anthropologist who studied customs of parting. He said that Westerners are very bad at saying goodbye to each other; we're great at greetings, but we slip away from each other without acknowledging the departure. I've noticed this ever since, not least because I'm bad at goodbyes myself. For me, it's a matter of fear -- if I say goodbye, will that be the end?

And is becoming good at "goodbye" something we should aspire to?


Anonymous said...

Yes people should get good at goodbye.

Hear me out. Although if you saw the first line and clicked away in disgust thinking, "What a prig!" then you don't have the problem I'm mini-ranting about.

Too many people are what I call "bad leavers." They say, "Well it's time for me to go," then they float topic that turns into a whole new 20-minute conversation. I can't stand that.

If you're gonna go, go. Shake a hand, give a hug, go through whatever rituals you need to to be polite or feel like your absence will be excused -- but go already.


AnswerGirl said...

This is a beautiful example of affective viscosity -- and it happens even more often on the phone. I've been guilty of it myself, and Mom was the worst. You'd say, "I need to run," and she'd start a new topic, and 20 minutes later, you'd get off the phone.

I miss that so much I can hardly stand it.

mernitman said...

Everything about this intrigues me.

First I was thinking that affective viscosity is, in a sense, one of the major afflictions of bloggers -- but that's too glib.

Then I read Ed's comment, which I completely agree with, and realized that this phenomenon, which I think of as "the fake goodbye," is one of those things in life that really drives me batty. (And it could inspire a blog post where the gag would be, you keep saying you're doing a very quick post and that you're done talking about something, and then you go on for another six paragraphs...)

But it also reminds me that I've become, over the years, an active student and appreciator of "the good goodbye." I always notice how some people are marvelously adept at getting out of a conversation; some possess that professional comedian's skill -- they always "leave 'em laughing." And true to form, nothing makes me happier about my own social encounters than those (fairly rare) moments when I feel like I've "gotten out well."

And then I read your comment, which actually teared me up. Isn't it strange (and quintessentially human) how sometimes those things that drive us crazy about someone become, of course, the very things we cherish when they're no longer with us? Seems to me there should be a term for that phenomenon...