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Watching television may not only plant preconceptions about how to recognize honesty from deceit, it may simultaneously take time away from observing genuine social interaction”

The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.

If I had to sum up Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers simply, I would say it’s about understanding.

Or rather misunderstanding. Which sounds like I didn’t really understand it, except they’re two sides of the same coin. Add to that a person’s tendency to think they’re right (is he talking about me?), and I was left with a lot to think about.

Introspective-type thoughts.

Thoughts that led me to question whether I really knew what on earth was going on. And then, a comforting pop-culture reference. Perhaps I did know after all.

Gladwell uses the television show Friends to demonstrate the concept of transparency, defined as “… the idea that people’s behaviour and demeanor ... provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside.” While the show’s actors perfectly demonstrate our culturally recognized expression of emotion, these don’t in fact reflect reality. In real life, physical expression of emotion varies between and within cultures. Problems arise for individuals that lack transparency—they don’t match the expected reaction and are misunderstood. Sometimes, with tragic outcomes.

So, there you have it. Television is evil and the downfall of society. The end.

By Yahor Urbanovich on Upsplash

Kidding. But this book had me ruminating on what Gladwell calls “The Friends Fallacy” and television’s impact on social interactions as a whole. Watching television may not only plant preconceptions about how to recognize honesty from deceit, it may simultaneously take time away from observing genuine social interaction, along with all the nuance and diversity that entails. One hour in front of a screen is one hour disconnected from whatever is transpiring around me.

What about two hours? Three?

It was easy to find articles about television impairing mental functioning that focus primarily on memory and cognitive performance. The impacts on transparency were a different angle, complicated by the variety of television content and a key feature of social interaction—it’s not an individual undertaking. Will too much TV make me worse at reading people?

Sounds scary. Like the plot of a dystopian novel.

All these studies are probably why the very people supplying technology—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sundar Pichai—strictly limit their own children’s screen time. What about the rest of us?

The CDC states that children ages 8-18 spend an average of about 7.5 hours a day on screen for entertainment, of which about 4.5 hrs are television. That seems like a lot, but adults aren’t much better. An Alcon survey found Canadian adults watch an average of over 3 hours of television a day and out of a total 11 hours on screens.

Why do we do it to ourselves?

I can only speak for myself. There’s the fatigue trap—wanting an easy way to relax that doesn’t take much energy. Or sometimes I want a break from 24/7 parenting, and plopping the kids in front of the television affords me 20 minutes of spill-free, question-free, bicker-free time. Pop-culture also comes into play. There is a pretty common fear that if we (or our kids) miss out on pop-culture, we’ll be unable to connect with peers. I don’t think I’m alone on this last one, which is why Gladwell was able to use a television show to demonstrate his point—it was widely relatable.

It seemed like a Catch 22. Social outcasts if you do (too much TV), and social outcasts if you don’t (oblivious to pop-culture).

I started imagining that dystopian novel.

The world is split in two primary groups.

Entertainment programming grows ever more generic, stunting the average consumer’s ability to connect with people on a one-on-one basis, and fortifying their dependence on technology. And yet, their common experience reeks of familiarity, drawing them to one another. The predictability of on-screen relationships has convinced them of their knack for interpreting emotional expression. When confronted with real-life deviations in behaviour, false confidence in their ability to read others results in misunderstanding, conflict, and difficulty forming deep connections. Loneliness drives them back to their screens, strengthening the hold big brother has on their decisions, relationships, and very being.

On the other side is a group somewhat isolated from trends. Their media content is carefully rationed to shield them from unwanted content and subliminal manipulation. For these people, pop-culture is stumbled upon by chance. They remain silent when it is referenced in everyday small talk, and are naturally drawn to others who are equally oblivious. Their understanding of emotional expression relies more heavily on the people close to them, a puzzle unique to each individual and sometimes difficult to define. In fact, they are less confident of being able to read others. Ironically, since they have more free-time, this group includes the ones driving innovation, including television programming. For those in power, their understanding of the average consumer dwindles as they associate them more and more with the fictional characters they create. The gap grows.

Each find each other unpredictable, difficult to read, over-confident, or oblivious. They might not know how to seem transparent to one another. Both are outcast by the other, incompatible, divisive, and unable to see the world from the other’s point of view.

Blah, blah, blah. Two outcasts from opposite groups meet, connect over feelings of being controlled, blah, blah blah, blossoming love interest while attempting to break the system and save the world. The end.

Too far-fetched?

Ok, I went a little dark there. I can’t help it. I like dark stories. The unknowns about the full impact of television on society makes it a prime candidate as the villain in a psychological thriller. Luckily, unlike fiction, the world isn’t really split into heroes and villains. Sure, we like these archetypes because they are familiar and transparent. Sometimes the familiar is what we seek from entertainment—it’s comforting. Thanks to Gladwell, transparency in fiction will remind me emotional expression is not universal.

I’ll try not to be kept up at night worrying about it, in any case. I’ll stay up at night because I’m binge watching the next season of Stranger Things.

Do you limit your screen time? What are your favourite binge-worthy shows? Do you think others easily read your feelings based on your outward expression?

We’d love to hear from you. Comment below, email us, or connect with us on Instagram. Your comment could be featured at the end of each book cycle during our fan episode.

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