Conscientiousness

How we think and speak with others in mind

[Originally posted on Substack — sign up here]

Conscientiousness is the awareness of how your actions and behaviors are perceived by others.

Everything you do or say in a social context is going to be mediated through the senses of another person — and what is clearly and readily expressed by you may not be clearly and readily understood by them.

Conscientious people are aware of the delta between expression and perception.

To be conscientious of your own behavior and speech is to be mindful of how your actions and words will be received, processed, and internalized.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in the Avatar world where people can hook up their ponytails and experience the consciousness of another being. Until brain-to-brain interfaces become mainstream, we’re stuck with communication, which relies on a ton of intermediary steps on the route from my head to yours.

Sorry James — we’re not there yet

When communicating, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of believing that you’re expressing yourself perfectly clearly, when in fact you’re failing to get your point across at all.

That indicates a lack of conscientiousness.

You can’t be frustrated by someone who isn’t understanding you if you aren’t putting in the work to make yourself understood. While it would be nice if we could always express our feelings in a completely raw and unfiltered way, our expressions are mediated through another’s lens, and that necessitates a difference between the expressions we send and the messages being received.

Dancing with a partner is a prime example of when conscientiousness is absolutely necessary: a lead needs to give clear bodily signals to the follow if there’s any hope of the follow responding in kind.

To be sure, we can express ourselves in a completely raw and unfiltered way with some people (like our closest friends and lovers), but even communication between people who know each other extremely intimately will often be expressed with a sensitivity to how the listener is feeling and responding.

To say anything conscientiously is to say so with a mind to how it will be understood by others.

Some people may conflate being conscientious with performativity, and it’s easy to see why the two are jumbled. After all, to be conscientious is to be keenly aware of how your speech, expressions, and behavior are intentionally crafted so as to be perceived most suitably, and that can strike some people as inauthentic, disingenuous, or even manipulative.

I think it’s fair to point out these similarities (after all, being a performer and being conscientious may both entail an alteration of your behavior), but it would be unfair to accuse a conscientious person of being manipulative. Conscientious people are simply trying to express themselves in a way that will be most readily understood and incorporated.

True, conscientious people may sometimes miss the mark, mistakenly overcorrecting and going too far in their desire to be understood. This may register to the listener as condescending or ingratiating depending on the context, and it’s uncomfortable to recognize that someone is changing their behavior around us. If that happens to you, and you notice that someone is changing their speech patterns around you, you should politely but unequivocally tell them that they should feel free to speak honestly in a way that more closely matches their feelings.

Let’s use an example to illustrate the point: imagine your girlfriend is speaking to you about how she doesn’t want to go to your friend’s birthday party. You can sense that she’s walking on eggshells, which you can respect for its civility and gentleness, but she isn’t being straightforward with her feelings. You politely say “Babe, I’m getting the sense that you don’t want to come to the party, which is totally fine. No hard feelings, just let me know your thoughts.” She would then hopefully respond honestly after being given license to do so.

Being conscientious is a necessary ingredient for constructive conversation, and its reciprocal feeling, charitability, is what makes someone a good listener.

Listening charitably is the process of hearing what someone is saying with a mind to how they’re actually feeling. Someone might say that they’re fine when we have strong evidence to suggest that they aren’t. Nowhere is charitable and patient listening more necessary than in dealing with children: a 5-year-old may not have the words to properly convey their thoughts and feelings, and so it’s incumbent on the adults around them to be more attentive to how they might be trying to express themselves.

Conscientiousness is most often helpful in social situations where lots of delicacy is needed, like when accepting an apology or a compliment or a gift. For example, imagine that your aunt gives you a present for your birthday. She hands you the box with glee in her eyes, and when you tear through the wrapping paper, you reach in and pull out a boring old snow globe. Not quite on your wishlist. Of course, you don’t knit your eyebrows in disappointment, you feign surprise and delight for the sake of not offending your aunt.

This is a perfect example of conscientiousness: a behavior that’s been socially codified as acceptable despite it not being in keeping with our genuine feelings. True, it’s somewhat performative, but it’s functionally useful to avoid hurting others. Ultimately, we have to be the final arbiters of what we deem to be acceptably performative, taking care to speak in a way that balances the (sometimes opposing) forces of authenticity and kindness.

Don’t feel bad if you’re feeling aware of yourself as you speak and express yourself to others. In a very real sense, that awareness is baked into the cake of communication. Being conscientious means being intentional with your actions and words, and that’s an admirable and sensitive way to live.

[Originally posted on Substack — sign up here]

I’m approachable!

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