People are wired to connect. We start trying to do it the moment we’re born, and we continue to make regular bids for connecting with the people around us throughout our lives. In infancy, we rely on eye contact, body language and such simple forms of expression as crying. When these bids are successful—when people respond by reaching back to us willingly rather than with hostility or apathy—we learn to trust our very first human emotional attachments, and this trust informs our expectations about future connections throughout our lives.
As we interact with others and grow, we add language and other more sophisticated tools to our bidding repertoire. Whether through a simple “hello,” a shared observation about our world, or a question about someone’s day, we’re reaching out, hoping others will reach back to complete the circuit. Some even make bids for transcendent connection in forms such as prayer and meditation. The bid and its response have been called the “fundamental unit of emotional communication.” Some are successful, others are not. But if nature and nurture give us the right conditions for it, we learn from our past efforts and become more adept at connecting as time goes on.
If you’re like most people, however, chances are good that some of your bids have been dismissed, ignored or outright rejected. Maybe you’ve reached out to someone hoping to deepen a connection and have come away knowing the only thing deepened was a divide. Maybe you’ve been on the other side of the equation and have failed to recognize someone else’s attempts to reach out to you. Or maybe an exchange simply left both of you feeling misunderstood.
Why is it so hard to connect sometimes? Does it really matter?
Common sense (supported by a great deal of research) tells us that being understood, relating to others, and resonating with them to whatever degree we can matters a great deal, not only in our friendships and families, but also in our workplaces and communities. We can’t reach our full potential without connecting on an emotional level with others. And that’s only the beginning. Our ability to understand one another and connect on the “big stuff” in the wider world starts with learning to connect on the “small stuff” in our personal lives.
Still, relating to others is hard, and not only when those others are strangers. Sometimes it’s just as difficult to connect on a personal level with people we love. But there are strategies we can use to overcome the obstacles that so easily get in the way when we reach out. Some of these obstacles are a product of our own personal experiences, but others are set up for us by the cultures we live in.
Let’s take a look at a couple of these common barriers and think about how they might have affected our ability to make the connections we’re hardwired to need.
A Limited Emotional Vocabulary
Particularly lethal to human connection are subtle cultural pressures that discourage us from expressing emotional vulnerability in our relationships. Society exerts these kinds of influences on both men and women from childhood, limiting their emotional experiences in different ways. In many cultures this shows up for women in the pressure to “smile, be nice, don’t complain, don’t be too outspoken.” Boys in these cultures are often discouraged from crying when they’re hurt; they may be told to “man up,” “toughen up” or “be strong,” and these phrases send a clear message: “Don’t show pain; showing pain is weak, unmanly.”
Sadly, the harmful idea that mental and emotional pain equates with weakness hurts everyone. Pushing emotional pain inward and tamping it down with the smothering lid of false positivity can lead to serious physical and mental health issues. At the very least, it raises interpersonal barriers that prevent us from making and accepting bids for connection—or even recognizing them when we see them. After all, how can we recognize a feeling in someone else if we’ve never been allowed to acknowledge it in ourselves?
“When our access to emotional language is blocked, our ability to interpret incoming emotional information is significantly diminished.”
This has been a tragic reality for many men. Teaching them from boyhood to bury their feelings limits their emotional vocabulary in relationships with other men, as well as with the women in their lives—their wives, sisters, daughters and female friends. Separating men from the full range of human emotion in the name of a false definition of strength prevents them from developing the true strength that comes from enjoying the full range of supportive human connections. As University of Maryland psychologist Marisa Franco puts it, “when men do not mask vulnerability through dominance, they gain a subtler power, one that allows them to love and connect.”
Are we saying it’s okay to let our emotions run amok? Quite the opposite. Learning to understand and master our behaviors—and to contextualize the behaviors of others—requires that we’re able to identify the feelings and emotions behind the behaviors. We “name them to tame them,” to paraphrase UCLA neurobiologist Daniel Siegel.
This is an important concept. If we raise children without the language of emotion, they don’t have access to the relief that comes from sharing their inner world, nor to the tools to manage it. For girls, the pressure to “smile and be nice” may be internalized as anxiety. For boys, the unnamed feelings may erupt as anger—one of the few emotions the false narrative allows as part of the male repertoire. Withdrawing in a stony silence might seem like a better alternative, but in reality, it’s an equally destructive behavior that leaves loved ones feeling abandoned and distressed.
Again, without the tools to identify our own complex emotions, we don’t learn to pick up nuances in the emotions of others, and it’s no surprise when our emotional isolation leads to mental and physical suffering. These situations are made worse by cultural stigmas that characterize it as weak to seek professional help for the health problems that result.
For many men, this catch-22 has led to a rise in something psychologists call “covert male depression,” which can take the form of numbness or apathy, cynicism, and even a subclinical form of alexithymia (the inability to identify and describe emotions). It’s a state that’s become so common in men that it now has a name: “normative male alexithymia.” This can make men more vulnerable to social isolation and the pain of rejection—opening them up, in worst-case scenarios, to the influence of toxic subcultures that can isolate them even further.
By now it should be clear that to insist that the bulk of emotions are “feminine” and only a few are “masculine” severely limits the ability for men and women to communicate with one another effectively and respectfully. Emotions aren’t gender-specific; they’re part of being human, and they give us portals through which we can connect, if we can acknowledge them. “I can empathize with your vulnerability because I’ve felt vulnerable at times too.”
“Vulnerability is the first thing we look for in other people, and the last thing we want to show them about ourselves.”
It’s not always easy, but talking to someone about our thoughts, feelings and emotions can help us make sense of them, leading us to a level of self-awareness that Siegel calls mindsight. It’s this depth of self-understanding that helps us gain control over our outward behaviors and insight into the inner worlds of others. The “me-maps” we make of our inner world help us conceive of “you-maps” so we can understand and respond appropriately to one another’s bids for emotional connection. In this way, we succeed in “feeling felt” by one another.
According to researcher John Gottman, we respond to connection bids in one of three ways. We can turn away from a bid by missing it entirely or intentionally ignoring it. We can turn against a bid when we reject it in an argumentative or confrontational way. But our best option is to turn toward a bid by acknowledging it. We want our response to signal “I hear you; I understand what you’re communicating to me, and I want to help.” The issue isn’t whether we can help, or whether we agree on everything. The important thing is that we’re sending a message: the person who has just made a bid for our attention—whether an acquaintance, a friend, a child or a partner—matters to us.
Obviously we’re not going to feel “felt” if our bids are dismissed, minimized or ignored.
In a six-year study of newlyweds, the Gottman Relationship Institute found that the couples who were still together at the end of that period were especially good at noticing and turning toward bids for connection. In fact, they did this successfully about 86 percent of the time. Those who were divorced by the six-year mark had managed to turn toward one another’s bids only about 33 percent of the time. This helps illustrate how important it is to notice and respond when our loved ones reach out to us.
The Role of Personality Clichés
Another barrier to connection is the self-limiting belief that we just aren’t built for it, and outdated clichés about personality can feed into this idea.
In many Western cultures, for example, extraversion and introversion were once seen as two sides of a personality coin, an idea that still lingers in some circles. It’s true that some people are more outgoing than others in a general sense—and again, our past connection wounds (including emotional trauma) affect how we reach out to others in the here and now. But extraversion is better measured along a continuum. We feel more like connecting at certain times than we do at others, and when doing so, one person may range further to the extraversion end of the scale than another person.
This isn’t to say that people on the extremes don’t exist. While most land somewhere within the wide range known as ambiversion, a percentage of people who struggle with difficult emotional stress, severe anxiety, past trauma or insecure attachment will almost certainly find themselves reacting from the introvert end of the continuum more often than others might. Psychologist Franco writes, “Connection affects who we are, and who we are affects how we connect.”
“When we have felt connected, we’ve grown. We’ve become more open, more empathic, bolder. When we have felt disconnected, we’ve withered. We’ve become closed off, judgmental, or distant in acts of self-protection.”
Our past may have given us some very good reasons to protect ourselves in these ways, but even so, it’s not a life sentence. It’s possible to learn to open ourselves to connection—to gradually overcome the need to reject before we can be rejected—although it may take professional help to do that. But it’s worth getting help if we need it, because the simple truth is that for optimal well-being, we need connections with other people.
But which other people? Just those in our inner circle? Just those who think like we do? Just people we know?
Some personality clichés have encouraged the idea that only our deepest connections are really meaningful. In this view, engaging in superficial chitchat signals a lack of imagination or a discomfort with silence rather than a genuine interest in getting to know someone. So-called small talk is dismissed as inconsequential. In truth, we have little choice but to open with small talk when we don’t know someone well, and it can be a valuable social lubricant to ease people into deeper conversations—or at the very least to act as an opening for important microconversations and microconnections.
Microconnections and other so-called weak ties have piqued the interest of researchers in recent years, and they’ve learned some interesting things. One is that our expectations about them aren’t always on target. Another is that having a diverse “social portfolio”—or many types and levels of relationships in our lives, including seemingly superficial ones—is linked to greater well-being.
Knowing that connecting with others makes people happier in general, behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder wanted to know why strangers often ignore each other. They reached out to commuters and people sitting in waiting rooms to find out what would happen if they either ignored or connected with the strangers near them. After the experiment they also compared each person’s expectation about the outcome to the reality. Interestingly, even those who thought they’d be happier keeping to themselves reported a positive experience after connecting. As the researchers dug deeper, they found the pleasure seemed contagious: those on the receiving end of the connection had equally positive experiences to those reaching out.
“Human beings are social animals. Those who misunderstand the consequences of social interactions may not, at least in some contexts, be social enough for their own well-being.”
Another researcher, Patrick Downes, was part of a group studying how office chitchat affects workplaces. The upshot was that the positives (boosting office cooperation and positive feelings and behaviors) outweighed the negatives (temporary disruption of work tasks). In an interview with his own university’s press, Downes admitted he’s “not a fan” of casual small talk himself. “Yet I still do it because I want to be connected to my colleagues in the long run—that’s why I leave my office door open,” he said. “Even if the conversations are interrupting, the data suggests small talk is good both for me and for the organization.”
The Bottom Line: Pushing Past the Fear
Of course, Downes has done the research, so he’s convinced. But what about the rest of us? We’ve all learned how to use smartphones and earbuds to avoid talking to people in public spaces—and we’re used to conventions like pretending we don’t see people until someone else introduces us. Psychologist Gillian Sandstrom and her colleagues call these tactics “impressive displays of ‘civil inattention’” that don’t seem harmful by themselves but can develop into a destructive pattern.
The bottom line in most of our avoidance is fear. We fear our bids for connection will be rejected. We fear we won’t know what to say. We fear the conversation won’t go well.
Even when we get past the initial fears that keep us from reaching out to strangers in the first place, we sometimes end these conversations after the first few minutes because we’re afraid the quality will decline over time. If the conversation moves into deeper waters, maybe we’ll find our conversational goals aren’t aligned or we’ll disagree on a topic, and the conversation will become awkward.
In actual practice, such fears prove mostly unfounded. People routinely underestimate how long they can sustain a conversation with a stranger, how positively the other person will react to them, how little risk there is in moving to deeper conversational waters, and how rewarding it can be to find common ground after exploring areas of disagreement.
It’s natural to take it personally when someone doesn’t agree with us, but we don’t have to. We know we aren’t going to agree with everyone about everything, and our “conversational receptiveness”— the ways we signal that we’re willing to engage with opposing viewpoints—has a lot to do with how the conversation goes. “Going a little deeper in conversation, as well as learning to navigate disagreements, can create the kinds of connections that leave people feeling happier,” says Oklahoma State University researcher Michael Kardas.
Sandstrom finds that when people have repeated experience in the “(surprisingly positive) reality of talking to strangers,” their fears are reduced and their expectations for future conversations grow more accurate.
Again, some people will need professional help to navigate these waters—including those who experienced abuse or neglect before they were old enough to identify and manage the complex emotions that result. But most of us have the potential for all sorts of connections if we can be vulnerable enough to take the initiative.
Whether we’re reaching out to strangers on a train, acquaintances, friends (in varying levels of thick or thin), extended family, or even a power greater than ourselves, each connection offers its own value. And the more diverse our connections, the better we begin to understand how the world looks through another person’s eyes. Making the effort can be life-changing if it makes us interested in becoming better people. In any case, the price we pay for maintaining distance is much higher than the cost of a connection bid, whether we’re making the bid ourselves or responding to someone else’s.