No man is an island entire of itself…
because I am involved in mankind.
– John Donne
Ever hear the story of the nebbish with so little personality that when he came into a room he gave everyone the impression that somebody just left? There’s an odd human reality hidden in that joke, and that’s what I want to talk about. Not about nebbishism, but about the strange effects people can produce on each other at a distance.
I once met a man who had grown up with Tom Selleck. He told me that Tom Selleck had always had that peculiar whatever-it-is we call charisma. Even in high school, he said, when Tom walked into a room, he seemed to light it up. Peoples’ heads just naturally turned to him. I suppose you could say that Selleck’s charisma was exactly the opposite of nebbishism.
There is a psychological term called “affect” that I would like to redefine a bit. In psychology, the term has many (unnecessarily complicated, in my judgment) meanings, but, in general, affect refers to the experience of feeling or emotion. Affective Display is the set of expressions, gestures, etc. that we use to show our emotional state. If someone is very depressed, a doctor might say that their Affective Display is very flat. Many professionals shorten Affective Display to simply say that that person has a very flat affect.
Problem for me is that this term is essentially passive. That is, it treats us like road signs, simply displaying our internal feelings through our expressions for passersby to read…or not.
But the word “affect” comes from the Latin afficere – to act upon. In other words, for normal uses, the word “affect” is an active concept, not a passive one. My question is, is our “affect,” our emotional display, an active or a passive thing.
Certainly there are times, like depression, when our emotional output is almost a negative thing. All of us have known someone who was so depressed they seem to suck the life right out of the room. But it seems to me that we could say that even then their emotional display is anything but passive. That there are times when human emotion can reach across the distance separating us and simply shake us to the core. That there is a basic connectedness to being human that jumps the space separating us.
Let me give you a couple of stories as evidence:
People who met Marilyn Monroe in a private situation said she was a nice, quiet, somewhat shy girl, without anything in particular to attract the attention. Until, that is, someone with a camera showed up. All of a sudden Marilyn would start to radiate this sexual energy as if someone had turned on a spotlight inside her. Let the photo op end, and Marilyn would switch off and revert to the quiet, shy girl with nothing all that special about her.
I must admit that I never got Marilyn Monroe. I certainly never met her and experienced her sexual magnetism. So the pictures of Marilyn conveyed nothing in particular to me. I found her sexuality too crude to be attractive and the dumb blond persona never appealed to me. Other people found her marvelously sexy, but I just couldn’t see it. When I read about her sexual magnetism I just assumed it were code words for a certain vulgar ostentation.
Now I’m not so sure.
Once upon a time I had an office that looked out onto the production floor. There was a girl named Susan who had worked in our European office and had just returned home. From my desk I could often see her walking down the aisles. Susan was a mildly pretty girl with a perfect 50s figure, i.e., a bit too zaftig for my taste. She certainly didn’t carry herself in any overtly sexy way. I would even say she didn’t carry herself like a woman who knew men were looking at her. But for some reason, every time I saw her, I felt this reaction of pure lust. From 75 yards away, just walking across the floor, whammo!
This is not to say that I didn’t ogle most of the young ladies who passed my windows. I did. And certainly I found some of them fantasy making. But this was different. It was instantaneous and completely involuntary. I had never experienced anything like it before, but I thought it was one of those odd little tics my psyche was prone to.
Until, that is, I was talking to a couple of my (male) co-workers one day and discovered that they were having exactly the same reaction. Susan apparently had the power to reach out to the males of our species and turn some magical switch. It was very weird.
What was even weirder was that I got a chance to meet and work with Susan. Up close the effect completely went away. In person, Susan was simple a very nice, exceptionally bright, completely professional co-worker. And no, I never dared ask her if she had any idea of the effect she had on men at a distance.
But it did help me to understand those stories about the effect Marilyn Monroe had on men. Apparently some women just have this strange talent for reaching out to the gonads of men. And, for all I know, someone like Tom Selleck might have the same talent with women.
It seems, then, that some people are capable of stimulating an action-at-a-distance reaction in other human beings.
But as a more general bit of evidence, let me tell you a stage story.
Once I had to do some stage work where I could not look at the audience. It was a comedy piece and what made it tough was that the delivery of my lines had to be cued both to my acting partner and to the audience.
At first, I found myself listening with all my strength to the sound of the audience. Laughter beginning, rising up, and then dying away. Coughing, creaking seats, shuffling feet.
But pretty soon I noticed something else. Although I was looking away, I could feel the audience. I could sense the rise of emotion that went with the laughter, the recovery, and the anticipation of the next line. I could sense the shift of their attention from my partner over to me.
I found I could use this sensation to time my deliveries. It worked.
Then I started to tantalize them. To delay an extra second or so beyond the time they expected my next line, just to add to its impact. I’ve done a lot of shows over the years, but never had I felt a sense of exquisite timing. I even got compliments afterward about it. It was really wonderful.
I have to say I had never had such a tactile sense of an audience before and I’ve never felt it since. So if anyone wants to argue that I was simply picking up subtle sounds from the audience, I’m in no position to really argue. I think they would be wrong, but I certainly can’t prove it.
So what does all this mean? Are we really just passive expressers of emotions that our fellows are trained to read? Is there really nothing that connects us to each other? When we feel a twitch on the back of our necks and turn around to find someone staring at us, is it just a coincidence? When we want to catch a loved one’s attention across a crowded dance floor only to find them looking back at us, is that, too, just happenstance?
Maybe. But I don’t think so.
I think we are connected.
Perhaps it’s some primitive sense that survives from our days as hunter-gatherers. Perhaps it allowed us to warn each other of predators. Or perhaps it once had any one of a dozen other possible survival uses.
But it seems to me it may explain why we are such a collective species. Why we rejoice in the shared feeling at giant religious ceremonies or patriotic rallies. And it may be the explanation for such less attractive features as mass psychoses and lynch mobs. It may be our very connectedness that allows us to suspend our individual consciences and accept the will of the group as moral.
All I know is that my own experiences and others I’ve read about convince me that we should have another definition for “affect.” Affect is, to me, not merely the look we carry to reflect our moods, but also the feelings we project to others of our kind.
For me, that definition wraps all the above up into a neat little package which I find gives me a nice sense of closure.
Closure. Well, maybe not completely. I must admit I sometimes wonder what ever happened to Susan.