The space between stimulus and response.
The medium is the mimesis.
Most of us are price-takers in the market of communication. We don’t set the tone; we adopt one. Receive a passive aggressive email, send a passive aggressive email. See a bunch of snarky tweets in your feed, you tweet snark. Get emoji-filled text, send emoji-filled text.
In some ways, the mimesis is normal and healthy. I watched with amusement the uproar in the UK over Liam Payne’s post-Oscars interview about the Will Smith slap. People were very confused about his accent and ridiculed him endlessly.
“To tell you the truth,” Payne explained, “I was staying in a house with two German people, three people from Texas, one person from Liverpool and me.” He’s a ‘social chameleon,’ he said.
But aren’t we all? Humans are highly mimetic creatures. The only thing truly unnatural is not to pick up accents once we’ve been exposed to them for a while.
But even more than accents, we pick up modes and mediums of communication—including styles. We do that even when it stifles our own creativity or freedom of expression.
The first thing we do in any new environment is look around for norms so that we can either adopt them or flout them. (I like to follow brand new people on Twitter, or any social media platform, because what they say still hasn’t been contaminated yet. It’s interesting to see how their language and style changes over time, too. Has anyone done a study on this?)
The social norms in any medium are strong, especially within sub-genres and sub-cultures. Every once in a while, though, someone breaks out of the mimetic lines that have been carved and does something fresh.
Patricia Lockwood changed Twitter when she began her SEXTing (and other, more literary) tweets in the aftermath of the Anthony Weiner scandal. They made the platform oddly poetic for a fleeting moment. She didn’t seem to be talking @ anybody at all.
On another note: I once knew an entrepreneur who, when asked by an investor to send him his “deck”, declined and instead sent him two pages of prose explaining what his company did. Not only did he end up getting a term sheet, but he spooked the investor so much that he never required a powerpoint presentation again.
And I know that because that investor is me.
Do you set the rules of engagement when it comes to how you communicate yourself, or do you conform it to expectations or the technical limits (280 characters) of an smartphone application?
In a hypermimetic world, freedom of expression is rare.
The vast majority of communication, from political rhetoric to newspaper headlines to emails, is entirely predictable: reactive, mimetic, and stale. There is little intentionality beyond scoring a quick rhetorical win (and at what cost?).
The Discourse is an incredibly powerful riptide that takes almost everyone out to sea.
I’d like to explore some short experiments in Anti-Mimetic communication that might help us avoid getting caught in that riptide—and to carve out more freedom in our daily lives to communicate in a way that honors what we have to communicate more than the platform we’re communicating it on.
These tactics have made my life better. The ultimate goal is that I am able to say real things in such a way that protects those things (and myself) from ‘confusion, from indistinction, from immersion in the common, the nondescript, the trivial, the sordid, the evanescent’.1
If I don’t find a way to communicate my thick desires, they are eventually swept up in the sea of thin words.
Language creates and shapes reality, including our desires.
A short recap for anyone who may be new to the Anti-Mimetic newsletter or wondering what I mean by this term, ‘anti-mimetic’:
A mimetic action is driven by unintentional imitation; an anti-mimetic action is an intentional act that is not fundamentally reactive; rather, it expresses some core desire or value that transcends the moment, and it is grounded in some degree of self-possession.
We live in a thin culture that creates thin people with thin desires—it’s the default process. But it’s possible to act with more intentionality. And the way we speak and communicate has a critical role to play.
Okay. Here are a few tactics. I’ll cover five here; five more are on the way.
10. Zoom Out
I’m not suggesting anyone eliminate all Zoom calls (but can anyone tell me: is there any way to get on a Zoom other than ‘hopping’?). However, it does seem worth re-evaluating our relationship with video calls.
They’ve become the default option for speaking with someone over the past two years. But video calls come with serious constraints. It’s a lot harder to be out and about taking a walk, for instance. I always kick myself when I have one on my calendar when it’s a beautiful day out. “WHY?” I ask. Can I not just take an old-fashioned phone call while I go for a walk? (Numerous studies have shown that we think differently—and almost always better—when we’re moving.)
I wonder: what has our pandemic-induced Zoom culture done to the quality of our meetings, on the whole?
There seems to be a lot of pressure to conform to this new mode of communicating, but I see no compelling reason to adopt it.
An anti-mimetic response to a Zoom link may simply be: “How about a phone call?” More often than not, you’ll get a response of relief from the other person—as if you just told them they can take off the highly uncomfortable shoes they’ve been wearing around all day.
Tell them it’s okay.
9. Elevate the Standard
In any form of communication, the strong mimetic instinct is to return in-kind whatever it is that we’ve received.
Why is it that I started sending trite, unimaginative, prosaic emails in all lower-case letters, feigning self-importance, once I moved to California and got immersed in startup culture? Well, that’s the only thing that I ever received. It’s what I knew.
It wasn’t until I sent one of those emails to a relatively prominent author one day, inviting him to speak at a company event, that I realized how stupid I must have sounded.
He sent me back a beautiful five or six paragraph email that was worthy of a statesman, with his signature at the end. This was long before the days of iPads, so I suppose he did the work of scanning it into his laptop and inserting the jpg. A flourishing touch.
It was the most polite event decline I had ever received. I walked around for the rest of the day wondering how I might possibly respond. I felt compelled to respond-in-kind to this eloquence. I viewed it as a challenge.
From that day forward, I decided that I needed to be intentional about what kind of message I really wanted to communicate before I fired things off on my Blackberry (yes, I had one) where I was optimizing solely for convenience, speed, and information transfer.
I came to realize this: the author I reached out to chose to communicate on his own terms. He didn’t care what I thought. He was modeling something different. In his hierarchy of values, he valued communication far more than I did. That much was clear.
I realized that my hierarchy was probably off.
The author modeled a better, more thoughtful form of communication—and he made me want to aspire to it. It was clear that his response was not about ‘sending a message’—it was just how he chose to communicate. He didn’t feel the need to adapt his style to every person he communicated with across generations and cultures. He had one.
That’s not to say that a healthy form of tone-matching isn’t appropriate in some cases. It is. But there’s tremendous freedom in choosing the way that you desire to respond based on what it is that you’d like to communicate and how.
8. The Non-Response—Silence
Not everything warrants a response. Don’t throw your conscience to the dogs. There are certain debates, arguments, and criticisms that simply aren’t worth responding to because they are not in good faith—there is absolutely nothing to gain.
Even more importantly, though: there is not enough time in one day or one life to respond to everything that comes your way. Decisions have to be made. Every writer learns this lesson early on. You do the work; then you let go.
The same principle of non-response applies to phone calls or in meetings. The temptation is to fill every moment with noise, with sound, with chatter. Sometimes, simply taking a moment or two or three of uncomfortable silence is the best possible response in order to allow the words that someone just said to sink in.
Use silence to create tension and resolution. Silence in a world of hyper and overactive responsiveness is an anti-mimetic act.
7. Expressing Value in Appropriate Form
I appreciate the Thomistic maxim: Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur: “Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver.”
However, sometimes the mode of the receiver needs to change. 'Elevator Pitch’ and ‘Slide Deck’ culture has destroyed the possibilities of communicating the kinds of ideas that might change humanity.
I am imaging, for example, what might have happened if the early Christians or spiritual masters of Buddhism—or any of the great thinkers of the twentieth century (René Girard included)—had been put before a tribunal of smug Shark Tank hosts and given 2 minutes to ‘pitch their idea’, and then sent on their way when the judges couldn’t grasp it.
This is essentially what we’ve done to the human spirit. Everything has to fit inside the intellectual box of the day, and in a specific form.
Thick ideas, like thick desires, take time to develop and express.
Don’t buy into the idea that if it can’t be grasped right away, then it must not be powerful. History shows that to be false. The understanding of certain things—some of the most important things in life—requires an investment of time. Ideas, relationships, people: all take time to properly unfold themselves. Today, everything feels rushed.
If someone expects or pressures you to communicate something in a way that you feel would do violence to the thing communicated, it’s important to reframe the request in order to do justice to the thing itself.
“So tell me about your journey from X to Y,” they ask, expecting an answer between the second and third course, or in the 3 minute block that the podcast host has before he wants to move onto the next question.
When they want a soundbite, give them a song. If they don’t want to listen to the song, then find someone else who will.
6. Avoiding Twitter-Brain and Clichés
GTP-3 language generators compose ‘wisdom’ social media posts for self-styled gurus that get RT’d 10,000 times (look: if they are really writing these posts, that’s even worse). And most business writing and media is littered by clichés. Phrases that feel obligatory are spewed out by brands as soon as something tragic hits the news. We are becoming drunk on unreal words. John Henry Newman used this term in one of his sermons in the late nineteenth century:
Let us avoid talking, of whatever kind; whether mere empty talking, or censorious talking, or idle profession…or the affectation of philosophy, or the pretence of eloquence. Let us guard against frivolity, love of display, love of being talked about, love of singularity, love of seeming original. Let us aim at meaning what we say, and saying what we mean; let us aim at knowing when we understand a truth, and when we do not.
It seems more important than ever. Unreal words are exhausting. They’re also highly mimetic.
A useful question: when unreal words take over the Discourse, what’s the silver bullet—what is the one truthful thing you could say (a version of Hemingway’s ‘one true sentence’…)—that might cut through the thin chatter and unearth something thick?
Or has the Discourse become so nihilistic that most people no longer believe it matters?
It matters. Words matter. Truth matters.
Maybe it is. But I’m an agent, and so are you.
The truth is mimetic too. Because it is, first principles and true things have been passed down through generations; they’re embedded in traditions, in language, and in culture. We can find them everywhere.
But when we do, communicating them will require an anti-mimetic method of expression—otherwise, they start to sound like everything else. The profound truths blend into the thin, mimetic, soup.
In our chronically online world, it is impossible to hear the sound of a distinct and loving voice cutting through the noise, spoken directly to you—one that is not broadcast. It’s impossible to hear that voice the way you would hear the first word of a loved one who showed up to surprise you at a party. Before you’ve even turned around, you know the shape of the mouth out of which it came.
Anti-mimetic ideas require anti-mimetic modes of transmission. And perhaps in today’s world, that means person to person and ear to ear. A human person is, after all, incommunicable at the core. What have we lost by not being able to look them in the eyes and at least grasp one more layer?
For truth to become positively mimetic, it has to appear and present itself in a radically different way. It can’t come in the form of that which has already been trivialized. New experiences are needed, far away from the contamination of our Virtual Chernobyl, where the words can penetrate to the heart.
Not even the ‘sharpest’ Take can do so. It floats in the thin, zero-gravity of the Hot Takeconomy of thin desires, up and into orbit where it clangs and clashes and circulates with the other sharp takes, where they sharpen themselves against one another into oblivion.
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation.