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Learning from Mr. Collins: Practice, conversation, and what to do when someone says something mean

"You judge very properly," said Mr. Bennet, "and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?"

"They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible," [said Mr. Collins.]

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins thinks up compliments and practises them until they flow smoothly. He comes off smarmy and supercilious, but the idea is generally useful.

imageI have a confession to make: I practise responses. After I find myself tongue-tied or I respond to something with less grace than I want to, I rehearse it and similar situations in my mind so that I can figure out a better way to respond. I think about translations that help me get to what people might really mean, phrases to use, tones of voice to adopt, ways to bring the conversation back on track. It’s a little like the way a witty retort might come to you hours after an argument (there’s even a name for this: l’ esprit de l’escalier, staircase wit), but done deliberately, and for good and self-improvement instead of for scoring points or getting back at someone. Deliberate practice makes perfect, after all.

For example, if someone says something sexist, I know my response won’t be silence, it will be something like "That’s sexist!" in as joking a way as I can manage – and I’ve practised not taking it personally, so it bounces off me. (Kapoing!)

I’m still figuring out what to do when someone says something mean. It happens to the best of us. I struggle to avoid saying mean things, too. I’m glad my first instinct isn’t to fight fire with fire, because that just makes things worse. I can recognize when something may be mean and stick up for myself: "That’s mean!" – not "That’s not fair!" or "That’s not nice!", which are a bit soft. I can separate what someone says in the heat of a moment from who they are and from what I think about myself, and I’m working on getting faster and more instinctive at doing so.

The Internet suggests several ways to deal with hurtful words:

  • Ignore it. It’s a gift, like praise is, and you don’t have to take it. (There’s a Zen story about that…)
  • Translate it. You can pick out the useful parts of hurtful words, work with them, and throw the rest away. People are human. We’re not perfect communicators. Somewhere in there, there might be something you can work with – or at the very least, an opportunity to step back, look at the person as a whole, and appreciate what you can about that person. Everything teaches you something.
  • Ask for clarification. Sometimes this is enough to slow things down and raise the conversation to a reasonable level.
  • Respond positively or surprisingly. "I love you too" is a popular come-back, even when responding to strangers’ insults.
  • Call a time-out or walk away, particularly if things are turning into a vicious circle. You don’t want to be drawn into a fight that throws you off your balance. This doesn’t mean ignoring the issue entirely. Hit the pause button, untangle the issues, and discuss them when you’ve got some distance.

I want to get to the point of being able to respond with loving-kindness to whatever life throws at me.

How do you deal with the occasional hiccup in people’s niceness?

2011-05-31 Tue 12:18

Writing macrons in Linux for Latin pronunciation

Frustrated with the inability to search the scanned images of the 1822 Latin textbook we’re using (Albert Harkness’ An Easy Method for Beginners in Latin – get the PDF, the full-text version is badly OCRed), W- has taken it upon himself to recreate the public-domain textbook as a fully searchable TiddlyWiki (sans illustrations). This meant that he needed to type in a great number of macrons in the words, and that meant finding a better way than copying and pasting from KDE’s character map.

Macrons turn up in many languages. In Japanese, you use them to indicate that vowels are doubled. 大阪(おおさか)can be romanized as Oosaka or Ōsaka. In Latin, beginner textbooks often use macrons (macra) to indicate pronunciation. (Why do we care about pronunciation for a dead language used mostly in church hymns? W- and I actually want to be able to use this conversationally, at least with each other. After all, if you don’t use it, you lose it.)

I suggested Emacs. In Emacs, it’s just a matter of using M-x set-input-method to choose latin-alt-postfix. With that input method, you can add macrons to letters by typing – after them. For example, typing “a -” will result in ā. Not only that, dynamic abbreviations (M-/) make it easier to retype words you’ve already written before.

W- wouldn’t hear of using Emacs, being almost as firmly wedded to vi as he is to me. ;)

Instead, we spent some time figuring out how to set up KDE and gvim to make it easier for him to type in macrons. HTML character sequences were out of the question, of course. W- used KDE’s settings to map his unused Windows key and menu key to compose keys. That made it easier to produce ē, ī, ō, and ū using the key sequence “Compose + hyphen + vowel”. However, “Compose + hyphen + a” produced ã, not ā. This was probably a bug based on some issue reports we found on the Net, but the suggested fix didn’t work (im-switch -c to change to default-xim). I found a page describing an .XCompose fix, customizing the key sequences. He copied the relevant key sequences from en-US’s locale settings for Compose in /usr/share/X11, restarted X, and it worked.

Now he’s off and typing!

2011-04-24 Sun 23:21

Rhetoric

W- and I are getting married in less than two weeks. In preparation for that (and as a way of keeping sane during the pre-wedding hullabaloo), we’ve been learning how to argue. You’ve gotta love a man whose reaction to a challenging situation is to not only figure how to address the conflict, but also to learn more about effective communication.

You might be thinking: Isn’t rhetoric about political grandstanding, slick salesmanship, and mouldy Greeks and Romans? Isn’t “argument” just a fancy word for “fight?”

I thought so too, non-confrontational me. It turns out that learning more about rhetoric and argument can make relationships even better. In “Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion,” Jay Heinrichs points out the difference between fighting to win and arguing to win people over. What’s more, he uses familiar situations drawn from everyday life: persuading his teenage son to get him toothpaste, defusing potential fights with his wife, and analyzing the selling techniques and marketing tactics that beseige us.

My first encounter with Heinrichs was when W- pointed me to Heinrichs’ post on “How to Teach a Child to Argue.” It’s a clever example of logos, ethos, and pathos. Reading it, I thought: Hey, this is so practical. Then I wondered: Why didn’t I learn this in school? But I brought myself firmly back into a focus on the future by asking: What can I do to get better at this? When Heinrich writes about the past (forensic), present (demonstrative), and future (deliberative) tenses of arguments, I recognize my own urge to focus on moving forward–practical things we can do–during difficult conversations that threaten to spiral into blame games or overgeneralizations. Learning more about rhetoric helps me understand the patterns, working with them without being sucked in.

It isn’t easy to admit to learning more about rhetoric and argument. One downside of reading mybooks on communication and relationships as a child was that people occasionally doubted if I meant what I said. As a grade school kid, I found it hard to prove I wasn’t being manipulative. It’s still hard even now, but at least experiences give me more depth and reassurance that I’m not just making things up. I like Heinrichs’ approach. He and his family are well aware of the tactics they use, but they relate well anyway, and they give each other points for trying. I’m sure we’ll run into unwarranted expectations along the way – learning about argument doesn’t mean I’ll magically become an empathetic wizard of win-win! – but I’d rather learn rhetoric than stumble along without it.

Besides, argument – good argument, not fights – could be amazing. In “Ask Figaro“, Heinrichs writes:

“My wife and I believed that happy couples never argued; but since we started manipulating each other rhetorically (we recognize each other’s tricks, which just makes it all the more fun), we’ve become a happier couple.”

To learn more beyond “Thank You for Arguing”, we’ve also raided the library for other rhetoric books. Nancy Wood’s “Essentials of Argument” is a concise university-level textbook with plenty of exercises that I plan to work on after the wedding. “Critical Inquiry: The Process of Argument” also promises to be a good read. These are not books to skim and slurp up. They demand practice.

Results so far: I have had deeper conversations with W-, had a still-emotional-but-getting-better conversation with my mom (I’m getting better at recovering my balance), and conceded an argument with Luke about dinner. (It’s hard to argue with a cat who sits on your lap and meows – pure pathos in action.) I’ll keep you posted. I look forward to practicing rhetoric in blogging, too.

I’ve won the relationship lottery, I really have. In a city of 5.5 million people, in the third country I’ve lived in, I found someone who exemplifies the saying: When the going gets tough, the tough hit the books.

(edited for clarity)

Squirrels, shop class and drafting: making my peace with high school

The squirrels had messed with the wrong seedlings.

To entertain cats and people alike, we’d fed the squirrels throughout winter. Now we were paying for it with the consequences of population explosion: ravaged seedling beds, munched-on sprouts, and dug-up and discarded onion bulbs.

The stench of bloodmeal didn’t stop the marauding rodents from plundering our vegetable patches. We didn’t want to use hot pepper flakes and other painful irritants. We needed a plan.

We stapled chicken wire on our raised beds, which kept the scallions and other bulbs safe for the moment. When the strawberry plants grew tall enough to poke white and pink flowers through the mesh, we knew we needed something bigger.

I was about to experiment with circles of chicken wire held together with duct tape and string. But W- had an engineering decree, and he wasn’t afraid to use it.

After days of discussing diagrams on scratch paper, we decided to build a semi-permanent frame. We picked up spruce and hardware from Home Depot, and then set to work. W- taught me how to use a circular saw to cut the lumber. I told him that it felt a lot like sewing: marking my seams and following the lines. We sanded, measured, marked, leveled, measured, and fastened. We finished the frame just as the sky darkened.

This is what it will probably look like:

 garden-frame (… minus the text, of course, and liberally covered with chicken wire.)

We’ve finished the vertical and horizontal supports, and we’ll work on the chicken-wire doors this week. I’m looking forward to it.

I’m making my peace with subjects I detested in school. Now that sewing and cooking have become enjoyable hobbies, I’ve set my sights on shop class and drafting.

Working on shelves and other small projects in high school shop/tech class, I had felt awkward and clumsy. I struggled to wrap my mind around the spatial puzzles of carpentry. The classroom was full of sweat and sawdust, and the lab coats we wore did nothing for either.

Drafting classes in fourth year were more refined, but not more enjoyable. My classmates drew neat lines that intersected at just the right places. My papers were full of smudges, distortions, and impossibilities.

Now, without the pressure of a classroom and with more developed spatial skills (thank you, sewing and drawing), I can find these long-forsaken subjects relaxing, even enjoyable. Working with wood, I found myself thinking of other things I’d like to build. Drawing the structure, I though

Helps to have the right tools, too. Axonometric grids in Inkscape for drawing isometric images? Yes! So much easier than erasing and redrawing segments.

It’s great to challenge my memories. I’m learning that sometimes things are better learned the second time around. It’s great to know it wasn’t me, it was then. Who knows? I may yet revisit the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and learn how to look at fiction and poetry with a critical eye.

But first, I have some squirrels to chase off the lawn.

Social Tech Brewing: Women in Technology

Today’s Social Tech Brewing event about Women in Technology gave me
much to think about. I’ll blog a bit more about it tomorrow, but I
just wanted to get some thoughts out before going to bed.

Someone jokingly mentioned a study that claimed that the probability of marriage was proportional to a man’s IQ but inversely proportional to a woman’s. Quinn added that this study has been ripped apart in blogs before, but the factoid nonetheless sparked an interesting discussion about alpha females and relationships. And yes, despite my consensus-building, nurturing side, I’m still very much an alpha-type geekette.

This should make life interesting.

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Sacha-sense tingling

This is what it’s like to be loved. =)

I was having one of my I-hate-being-an-international-student moments
when Dominique turned up online, telling me his Sacha-sense was
tingling. I was incoherent during the first half of our Skype
conversation, but he just kept listening to me and joking with me
until I felt better.

I don’t think I’ll wake up in time to go to IBM tomorrow, so I’ll make
it up on Monday instead. I guess I’ll work on the reading paper,
then…

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Random Japanese sentence: 我々は犬や猫や鳥などを飼うことができる。 We can have dogs, cats, birds, and so on.