Friday, May 3, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance--Collegial Version

I work at a huge and diverse university and one of the joys is meeting and getting to know my colleagues across campus. I love to hear about what other faculty and researchers across campus are doing. Our collective knowledge, intelligence, wisdom, enthusiasm, and passion is overwhelming and inspiring.

Occasionally a colleague that I am meeting for the first time does not realize right away that I am a fellow faculty member.

My goal here is to analyze this particular type of communication/interaction and outline its distinctive parts to help with pattern recognition and early intervention. While I have been on one side of this interaction more than the other side, I have definitely found myself on the other side too, so I suspect this communication pattern happens to most of us at least sometimes.

These interactions are generally characterized by three distinct stages:

Stage 1: Abnormal Interaction.  Sometimes these miscommunications are straightforward; for example I once made an appointment with a colleague to discuss what I though might be overlapping research interests. He welcomed me in his office by my first name, and when I returned the tutoyer*, he corrected me to use his Professor XY title. Sometimes the communication is just anomalous in a way that is difficult to articulate: something about the tone of voice, eye contact, body language, or language use deviates from the norms of how colleagues communicate with each other here on campus and I find myself surprised by the manner in which the person is talking with me. Sometimes I simply sense the other’s discomfort with the way that I am talking with them. Sometimes the interaction ends here, and the conversation does not advance to the other stages.

Stage 2: Realization and Window. I am learning to quickly recognize when someone does not realize I am a faculty member. If I can make it to Stage 2 before the other person passes to Stage 3, I have a clear window through which I can see how this person treats others who are not fellow colleagues and I see how I am perceived. Often I’m an undergraduate (but now becoming increasingly an “alternative-path undergraduate”), and I get to see how a colleague treats undergraduates. I’m also often an assistant to someone else (administrative assistant; I’m rarely mistaken for a research assistant), and I can see how this person treats my staff colleagues at the university. Most often, there is just confusion because the other person just does not understand who I am and why I am talking to them in the way that I am talking to them (e.g. why is this young-yet-old-looking humanities or maybe sociology major asking me about the dielectric properties of water at electrified interfaces under high hydrostatic pressures?).

Stage 3: Cognitive Dissonance. The big double-take almost always happens at some point. I wish I had a camera so I could post snapshots of the moment of my conversation partner’s realization that I am not who they think I am: transient wide eyes and slack jaw, and then a relaxation into crinkly forehead of confusion. There is discomfort and embarrassment. Often the conversation recovers, and a new collegial relationship grows. But sometimes people run away from a relationship that has a rocky start. Or worse—and for me a true show-stopper in developing collegiality—the person responds with anger and/or hostility in the wake of their cognitive dissonance.

So readers—please chime in with your stories of cognitive dissonance. Have you felt it? Have you caused others to feel it? Are there graceful ways to progress through this interaction pattern? Is there a gentle way to clear misunderstanding while allowing face-saving on both sides?

*There is no good English noun for informal/formal speech patterns so I’m nounifying the French verb. Quel triple horreur!

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