Big news: Something good has happened in American society over the last decade or so.
From my alcove in the vast universe, it appears to me that Americans are sharing their emotions much more freely than they ever have before. They are more in touch with what really matters to them. They are being more authentic with more people in their lives. And if they're oversharing, that's better than under-sharing.
This seems like the belated culmination of a project that my mother and Phil Donahue were working on when I was growing up in the 1970s. It was okay for women to be angry and for men to cry. "Feelings are mentionable, and manageable," Fred Rogers said. Even Jimmy Carter seemed down with it. In a famously touchy-feely 1979 Oval Office address, he told Americans: “We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose."
But then Ronald Reagan got elected, and we went back to plastic. In a go-go economy, we got all excited again about money and status and technology, and we stayed that way up through the dot com bubble.
And maybe it was that technology that led us back to Leo Buscaglia. The Internet helped us understand we weren't the only freaks in the universe. Social media let us talk with them. And Facebook helped us understand that the people who seemed the most together were people, too. Facebook gets a lot of misplaced flack for being the place where people share only their victories and humble brags. That’s what smart people have done since the beginning of time, in order to ward off criticism from their enemies and unwanted suggestions from their friends.
Facebook doesn’t get enough credit for being the place where people also share their grief, their anger, their fear and their freak flag.
Or for the result: That people are more comfortable sharing their feelings in person. I see the evidence at neighborhood parties and at my daughter’s soccer sidelines, where the slightest scratch of the surface gets a soccer parent talking about everything from struggles with their teenage kids to issues with booze to career insecurities.
I’ve only been on soccer sidelines for about 10 years. I've been running professional development seminars for 25. For most of those years, seminars were seminars: The delivery of principles and best practices by an Expert Who Knew to Practitioners Who Wanted to Know. Good seminar leaders had funny lines and told amusing anecdotes and often charmed audiences—but usually with erudition, and never with emotion.
And audience members, for their part, would bellyache about the bureaucracy or the union or the corporate culture—but never about the boss, and always on an intellectual basis, never an emotional one. A popular seminar leader once told me he get a corporate seminar with tittering simply by acknowledging a scab on his elbow, so detached were white collar workers from the physical, let alone emotional, parts of their being.
Over the last 10 years—and increasingly every year—I am seeing people bring their personal lives into these professional meetings. A couple years ago PepsiCo speechwriter Rod Thorn gave a keynote speech at a communication conference about his hardscrabble upbringing under an abusive, alcoholic father, and how it informs his work as a hotshot communication exec flying around corporate in jets bigger than the trailer he grew up in: "I am the people I've been flying over."
Nobody was speaking that way 15 years ago.
In a Professional Speechwriters Association seminar just last week, one participant discussed her divorce. Another talked about a career crisis. A third told a long story about “not my finest hour” as a parent. A fourth played “Moon River” on his harmonica. A fifth shared a dream that she said had taken over her whole life. And a sixth told me as we walked to lunch that she'd had a psychological meltdown three years ago that was so complete that it put her in a mental institution for 17 days and ended her marriage. (But they got back together again.)
Some of these ourpourings were solicited by the seminar leader as part of a storytelling exercise. Others weren’t. All were shared freely and without apparent reservation. And the rest of the group responded with laughter and with tears. The seminar leader, included.
And this was all taken in the stride of an intellectually intensive all-day event that was primarily focused on the sharing of rhetorical techniques for professional speechwriters.
This never would have happened at a professional event when I was first learning the social parameters of such events 25 years ago.
I have friends who will read this and say a professional event is not a confessional event, and that people shouldn’t show such vulnerability in the company of their peers—let alone in the company of the executive director of their professional association.
(Even if he’s misting up, too—which I occasionally do, touched by the proximity and sincerity of the people I serve and with whom I share the common cause of communication.)
But I'd say that for people who try to do meaningful communication in corporate cultures that eschew candor, vulnerability, humor, love and heroes—getting together with their fellow sufferers is inherently emotional. And sharing with one another emotions that they may not dare to share with their colleagues and rivals at work—well, I’m awfully happy to offer that opportunity at our seminars and conferences, in addition to our rigorous curricula.
But I've made a big claim here: WritingBootista, do my observations here ring true to you?