Virtual Facework

Then stop. The writer now turns the microphone and camera back on and says a simple, “Thank you.” Let another minute or so pass in silence. Look at each other’s faces. Then say a polite, “Good bye,” and hang up. That’s it.

That probably sounds stranger out of context than it already did in context. Am I being serious? Yes, I am being totally and completely serious. And, after trying it a few times, you will understand what I mean perfectly. You may not enjoy the experience, and you may decide never to do it again, but you will understand why I suggested it. And a part of you will have learned an important lesson. However much the rest of you wants to repress it, that part of you will at some point reassert itself and demand to take another shot at it.

We sometimes talk about “finding our voice” in writing; here we’re putting on our face and giving our reader one. For 3 or 6 or 9 minutes you have listened to someone else make sense of your text and you have watched their face while they struggled. They were unable to look at yours to see how they were doing. They were utterly alone with your words and you witnessed what those words were doing to them. You could see what pleased and pained them, what puzzled them, and what was clear. You could empathize with your reader as they read your words. You got a great deal of information about how your writing works.

Now it is over. You have an urge to explain, to apologize, to excuse. And so does your reader, no doubt. They want to tell you it was “very interesting” or probably only hard to understand “out of context.” You want to tell them it’s okay, you didn’t take it personally. Their comments were very helpful. Etc. Your impulse (and theirs) is to “save face” (both yours and theirs), to engage in what Erving Goffman long ago called “facework”. You can’t help having the impulse, but with a little discipline you can do something more interesting with it.

By imposing a rule, you can experience something you might not otherwise notice. When the timer runs out and the feedback is formally over, both of you resolve not to say anything for a minute. You turn your camera back on, then the microphone. And you say a formal, but entirely sincere “Thank you.” For the next minute you just sit there, letting the reader look at the face of the writer of the words they just struggled with. Try not to communicate anything explicitly with your expression. Relax and think about what just happened. Be grateful (you should be) but don’t look for words to explain yourself. Don’t try to summarize what the reader has just “taught” you about your writing, not even silently. Just notice how you feel and let the reader observe that awareness for one minute.

Then say goodbye, formally and politely, and go on with your day, letting them go on with theirs. This experience, especially if you repeat it, will become part of your style. You don’t have to remember anything in particular. In fact, it’s fine if you forget it. Something will remain with you nonetheless. You will have demystified the relationship with the reader without trivializing it. You are learning how to find yourself “correctly attuned in the apportionment of the moment.”

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