<mood-warning>
rambling vague psychobabble
</mood-warning>

Human interactions are interesting things. One thing I have learned about them is that an incredibly huge proportion of every set of interactions between two given people (hey, I’m not about to solve some sort of weird psycho-N-body-problem… let’s just stick to two people)… are by rote. That is to say, most interactions are based on learned behaviour. And this learning is quite specific to each co-incidence of 2 people.

Stealing cryptography’s fictional characters ‘Bob’ and ‘Alice’ for a moment: It seems that after some fairly short window of time, Bob and Alice inevitably gravitate to a ‘protocol’ of sorts for dealing with each other, and they rapidly hardwire their rules of engagement. I don’t know why it is that they do this; though I can imagine that if 2 machines with mutually alien architectures needed to communicate with each other, they’d probably scrap together a protocol real fast – anything, as long as it works and doesn’t cause a SEGFAULT at the receiving end. Are human relationships like that? Are we ‘wired’ to find a way of relating, ANY way of relating, just so that we have some basis or pattern for communication? And why do we tend to follow the example of others so that, after person A starts to treat person B a certain way, we tend to start to treat person B the same way too?

Strength of emotion

If the ‘time-window’ for cementing the basis of interaction, or protocol, (or as psychologist might say, ‘roles’) between Alice and Bob passes fairly uneventfully, the established protocol is likely to be neutral, and therefore flexible and adaptive, allowing Alice and Bob to communicate on many levels within a wide variety of settings.

But if by some chance, an event occurs with a strong enough emotion attached to it, it seems to lock down the protocol right there and then. It becomes a rigid channel of communication with (inferred) fixed endpoints, with little room for Alice and Bob to communicate widely or adaptively. Alice and Bob become frozen in a single scene of a play that has no end. The well-rehearsed ‘lines’ come out effortlessly even as an imaginary audience yawns, wondering when the hell the plot is going to advance itself.

And it matters not a jot to the ‘ole human APIs whether the emotive event was positive or negative. Even the most delightful occurrences can clamp down on fledgling protocols. The end effect is the same.

Why did I start thinking about this, anyway?

The final state of the adopted ‘protocol’ defines the stability of the relationship.

Yep. This is my grand 10-pence piece of insight before I crawl off to bed (it was late when I started writing this, folks).

I came across an old post on system stability (BRITTLE/FRAGILE/ROBUST/FLEXIBLE) and I realised that I could just as easily have been describing the stability of human relationships. They are systems too, after a fashion, and I reckon they manifest themselves in more or less the same 4 flavours: Brittle relationships at one extreme can’t withstand the tiniest of upsets and flexible relationships at the other can take anything running the gamut from hell to high water.

Why does stability matter?

For the same reasons I mentioned in the post on system stability. Stability allows for future planning and decision-making, mainly. In Brittle or fragile relationships (systems), people genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next. The outcomes of similar ‘data packets’ sent along on the shared communication channel could have wildly different results. And 10-to-1 an adopted protocol that is ‘fixed’ or ‘brittle’ has no spare bits for communicating anything contextually important to render the limited bandwidth more useful.  In contrast, a less rigid mode of interaction allows the people at both ends to adapt to new information or signals and plan toward or around them; there are less shocks and surprises, and less stress on both parties.

(OK at this point I’m starting to sound a lot like that character in Blindsight whose girlfriend dumped him because of his hopelessly nerdy, black-and-white, mechanical view of human relationships. Ahem.)

Learned Behaviour

Point is, I’ve witnessed people fall into the habit of being: doting, overprotective, abusive, bullying, cloying, clingy, loving, aloof, argumentative, bitchy, helpful… you name it – all within the space of a few days to a few weeks, MAX, of interacting with a new person. It only takes one or 2 (I’m even betting just one) emotive trigger. All that separates a humdrum, neutral mode of interaction from something more extreme is a mis-step or a serendipitous bit of synchrodestiny to align (or misalign) “Bob” and “Alice” while they’re still getting to grips with each other. And then the die is, barring a miracle here or there (or another emotive event), CAST.

It gets worse when Bob and Alice have to work together or live together because once the protocol is cemented it can only really be reinforced. It’s by far the easier path.

Aside: Factory work

The only plus-side to all this is that you can use this knowledge to setup a preferred protocol. I remember a crappy summer job in a warehouse where this van-driver picked up all of us (students) and dropped us off at the end of the day. He was the most foul-mouthed, red-furious, quick-tempered bully you’d ever met and he loved terrorising everyone. I was like, man… this is SO NOT WORTH PUTTING UP WITH for the pay I’m getting. So I set out to be SUPER polite toward the guy from the get go. And he was as nice as melted butter to me (but still horrid to everyone else). Even if I was late to the Van, he never yelled at me because by that point, he had NO precedents to remind him of exactly how to be mad at me.

Now if only I had the presence of mind to be this prescient in ALL my encounters… πŸ™‚

Re-writing the protocol

Aside from the fact that human relationships don’t tend to come with a big fat honking red giant ‘RESET’ button, there’s the issue of absolution. How does one go about getting some? I mean, if you’ve co-bootstrapped a shitty protocol that trains you within a short space of time to become a complete monster (I am guilty of this, I’ve been very mouthy to a certain someone –  but dagnammit, they were annoying!) what do you do? The decent thing to do would be to apologise. I’m far to shrivelled and gnarled for that (plus I’m not at all sure it would jive with my survival instincts – those things I’m always pooh-poohing until I need them) – so I guess the next best thing is to pattern-interrupt my way back out of the mess. I can start by not saying “eejit!” over and over again mentally whenever I have to deal with this person on the phone. Maybe my improved demeanour will have some “spooky action at a distance”.

I still think a BIG RED RESET button would have been a nice thing to have on the ‘ole memome.

***

ADDENDUM:

I just had an eerie thought… it;s not impossible *I* have this backwards? I was just going to click ‘publish’ when I remembered that whenever I haven’t seen certain people for a long time (even siblings/family/friends) I can’t remember what the established protocol WAS, and then I flounder like the afore-mentioned ‘alien architecture’ trying to say HELO or SYN. but I kind of ‘remember’ after just a few hours. So it’s possible that *I’m* the one who relies on protocols, and maybe others simply don’t…

Or more likely, sane people just don’t go on about this stuff.

0 Replies to “SYN-ACK? (or, the fragility of human relationships)”

  1. I have noticed the same, and I do think it has to do with efficiency.

    Is it possible, not to throw another kink in here, that there are other parameters that determine how long it takes for The Pattern to cement, and in what direction?

    In particular, the assumptions one or both parties make about the other based on visual cues. I notice it is possible for “foul-mouthed, red-furious, quick-tempered bully” types to be set off before you have displayed any behaviors whatsoever; they just don’t like the cut of your jib.

    Another thought: I like the RESET idea, and I find that listening more + talking less subtly re-jiggers the communication for some reason. I think the ratio of talk/listen is vital in some way I have yet to figure out.

    Or more likely, sane people just don’t go on about this stuff.

    May I suggest that non-analytical people, non-introspective, people just don’t go on about this stuff. I hope they aren’t the only sane ones!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, bec_87rb.

    Visual cues is a biggie and I can’t believe I did all that rambling and forgot to mention it! πŸ™‚ Visual cues definitely have a chance to skew things before any interactions kick off at all…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *