Friday, December 11, 2015

Twice is Coincidence

What is coincidence?
According to science, repeating stories is a matter of focus and resource allocation. There is one central pool of resources and if we take away from that pool, there's fewer left to do things with
  • The Onion or CNN? Psychologists say that we tell the same stories to the same people because our destination memories are relatively weak due to lack of practice. We devote little mental attention to whom we are telling the story because we are trying to recall either on the origin of the information or the details of the story. For memory, To is harder than From. And destination memory worsens with age.
  • But enough about you, how about me? We say the same things to the same people because we are self-absorbed. When providing information to others we are preoccupied, thinking about ourselves and how we look and not our audiencePsychologists think there is a limited set of resources available. And the more self-focused a person is, the less likely their ability to recall their audience. 
But over the course of a few weeks I experience a strange phenomenon where people are telling me the same stories, asking me the same questions, and saying the same snippets at the same points in conversations. It isn't déjà vu, just repeated phrases with a wide range of acquaintances on different topics at different locations. 

"Have you also heard every single one of these stories?" I ask my husband while we are at the sink. He is washing and I am drying the good pots that don't go in the dishwasher. I list the stories, the replies, and the questions that I am hearing three and four times. 

"We all do it," he said. "We all repeat stories. And I'm sure it happens more as we age," he says.

"I think this is different because it's not just old people retelling the stories. It's happening with older people of course but also people our age. It's like I'm on a loop and if I mention a specific city or run into a certain person, I know what they are going to say. And then I get focused on trying to avoid hearing it again." 

We laugh at how ridiculous it is for me to attempt to avoid conversations that may occur.

If science tells us that resource allocation explains our inability to recall the audience, what is the purpose of retelling stories, asking the same questions, and saying the same thing at the same point in a conversation? It depends.
  • We may not feel heard. Or maybe we didn't get the response we wanted needed when we told the story or asked the question the first time so we retell (or re-ask) in hopes of getting a different response. 
  • We want to relive the moment. Maybe the event itself was enjoyable when it happened or the response we receive when we tell the story is enjoyable, so we keep telling it. 
  • Stories reinforce how want to be seen. It's not socially acceptable to say "I am a worldly and sophisticated person." But telling a story where that presents us this way is more socially acceptable, at least it is the first time we tell it.
  • We want to contribute. But we may be unable to articulate an opinion or need or we may be unable to add a meaningful addition to the conversation because of our own limitations. 

In the entertainment industry re-watching movies or episodes is called regressive re-consumption, watching movies again and again because they are emotionally efficientWe get the emotional payoff we are looking for with no surprises. Familiar things require less energy to process, and when something is easy to think about we tend to think it's good. So would it be too much of a stretch to think we look for comfort conversations the same way they seek comfort food or old movies?
When I mention my Groundhog Day experience to different people they also have their own experience with one person who retells stories. Everybody has known an elderly person who retells stories, and it is well documented that humans need to make sense of their past. Retelling stories is one way to serve that function. But nobody I talk to has experienced a list a series of disparate people repeating themselves. It cannot be about dementia because my experiences involve a wide range of people. 

Ian Fleming wrote, "Once is an accident. Twice is coincidence. Three times is an enemy action." Reflexively saying aloud "My college roommate was Spanish" whenever the conversation is about Spain is not enemy action, it's a verbal tick. So how do we avoid repeating ourselves?

  • Be authentic. Understandably smalltalk is going through the motions, a warm up for a connection--nobody really cares about the weather or traffic. But after smalltalk, a conversation is an opportunity to learn about the other person. If you are talking to someone you care about, cherish that time together. Listen. Don't have an agenda.
  • Focus on them. If you forget the names of people as soon as you are introduced, recognize that it is because you are thinking about you, not them. The same thing happens when you go into repeat mode. Next time you tell a story, say the person's name, e.g., "Have I told you, Carol, that I was stuck in Hawaii during 9/11?" Saying their name forces you to focus on them, and probably remember you already told them this story.
  • Take a breath. When someone asks me the same question multiple times I think one of two things, a mental problem or they didn't believe my answer. But it just feels this way and most likely neither is true. Most likely we are just not being present (I know, this is an overused phrase) and are offering up verbal ticks in the form of rehashed conversation because we are distracted by something. So take a breath, slow down, and return to the moment. 
  • Acknowledge uneasiness. Most people on forums said they repeated themselves when they felt awkward or stressed. If you feel this way, just accept it. Continue to feel this way while listening to the other person. After the conversation, when you are alone, self-reflect, identify the cause of the awkwardness, and realize that it won't kill you. 

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