Why hearing is not enough, you need to listen

  • Sanchita Sharma, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Feb 07, 2015 17:44 IST

Russian President Vladimir Putin suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, said a secret Pentagon report prepared in 2008 for the US military's Office of Net Assessment. The study, leaked to the media this week, said Putin's "neurological development was significantly interrupted in infancy", possibly due to his pregnant mother having had a stroke with him in the womb.

Asperger's is what explains Putin's obsession with authority and control. "His primary form of compensation for his disorder is extreme control and this is reflected in his decision style and how he governs," it concluded.

Asperger's Syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder marked by social isolation because the affected person is physically awkward, lacks empathy and has poor non-verbal communication skills. In social situations, people with Asperger's often appear robotic, with their body-language out of sync with their speech, which may be either disjointed or overly formal.

Though the description seems to fit Putin like a glove, Moscow expectedly dismissed the report as "stupidity not worthy of comment".

Till the Russian President's brain scans confirm the diagnosis, the jury will be out on why he behaves the way he does. There may be many other reasons for his social awkwardness. For one, it could be old-fashioned shyness that makes him hesitant to reach out to people. For another, he may have chosen to appear cold and distant because smiling makes him look wimpy.

Mind your body language
Whatever the reason, his lack of expression has won him more critics than Russia's alleged arming pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, a claim it denies. According to two landmark studies (Mehrabian & Wiener, 1967 and Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967) that remain the touchstone of interpersonal communication, 55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words spoken.

Clearly, body language and tone of voice are gaping chinks in Putin's armour. While humans rely heavily on personal communication, experts fear that reading facial expression, body language and other forms of non-verbal communication is a skill getting lost among the generation spending more time with gadgets than living and breathing people. We use non-verbal cues a lot more than we realise. It's only when we can hear a tone of voice or look into someone's eyes that we're able to know when "I'm fine" doesn't mean they're fine at all… it may mean the exact opposite. This is when emails, text messages and emoticons fail us. When you text or mail, people hear you, but they don't listen. The nuances of communication -- for example, whether your expression matches what you're saying -- are lost when we stop interacting. So we have the unprecedented paradox of being more connected and more isolated than ever before.

Virtual interaction
Contrary to popular perception, social networking does not always make us less social. Facebook and texting helps students to connect with or arrange more activities and get out, compared to students who didn't use the social networks, showed a study of 1,000 university students in the US, reported a study in the journal, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. There were, of course, extreme Facebook users who spent hours online at a go and didn't go out much, but it was not typical behaviour. Most students managed to multitask quite efficiently.

The only possible threat from online chatting is that of communication becoming more superficial. Philosopher and cognitive-scientist Noam Chomsky sums it up: "I think it erodes normal human relations. It makes them more superficial, shallow, evanescent... My grandchildren, that's all they do. I mean, of course they talk to people, but an awful lot of their communication is extremely rapid, very shallow communication."

Of course, critics argue that Chomsky's dismissal of a media accessible to non-experts fits a pattern of powerful and influential people fighting to keep their privileged position as social commentators, but it's a trap we have to avoid falling into.

As with anything else, it's what you do with social technology that will define your relationships and social skills. Using too many emoticons may be injurious to your social life, so use them sparingly.

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