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In my last post I started studying what Social Complexity really means. I argued that the quantity of people or complexity of tasks doesn’t produce social complexity. I even argued it takes only two people (or just one!) to have complex patterns emerging.

In this post I will look at the phenomenon of ordinary, daily interactions, which actually reveals to be a very complex matter – even if the context of interactions don’t involve complex topics such as “organizations”, “working processes”, “technology”, “CAS” etc. The basic human interaction is complex by nature. Read on to find out why!

Complexity of interaction

When one starts to analyze the different elements of ordinary interaction, it quickly proves to be quite complex phenomenon. The term “interaction” itself already points towards action that happens in between people.

In this interaction people are constructing and maintaining social reality. There are multiple different elements that are important in order to understand that interaction. These aren’t usually consciously thought of, but people do take these into account unconsciously:

Role means the “whole of expectations” that is directed at an individual who is acting in a certain function. The function is defined by the context and the results of given interaction moves. Whenever two or more people are interacting they also form common understanding about the form and the content of the interaction. It means that those people agree how the interaction rituals are going on – who has to right to speak in which parts of the interaction. This also affects how the content is understood. It is also important to understand that the interaction utilizes both verbal and non-verbal communication. Not only the meaning of words, but the gestures, tone of voice, gaze and the posture are affecting how those words are interpreted.

All this alone is enough to enable very complex and unpredictable patterns of interaction to emerge. But this is not all, people are also reflexive. They take into account multiple factors about the other participants of the interactions, the cultural environment, the history of previous interactions, etc. All this also plays a big part in what is going on.

This reflexivity can be learned by studying the details of interaction rituals and the different moments of choices. When we are having an ordinary dialogue it usually feels quite natural and easy, without any conscious efforts to affect anything. However, this is actually a kind of illusion. For example, in any given interaction episode there are multiple places where the participants are making choices on how to continue. They also create expectations for how the dialogue continues by asking questions that expect certain answers, etc. The moment of interaction is very important to really understand the meaning of what is been said.

Persuasion skills

In a given dialogue there are very often strategies used to affect other participants to believe what is been said. Common strategies are:

  • Reciprocity and being a likeable person
  • Seeking commitment in order to make the other person do something he resists at first
  • Following example or authority (conformity)
  • Suggesting there is a rare opportunity at hand
  • Asking something big first to make smaller request seem appropriate
  • Small steps strategy

All of these strategies are very often used quite naturally as habitual patterns, not even thinking about them consciously. But of course these strategies can also be studied and practiced consciously.

Another important skill is the “facework” that Ervin Goffman made famous. Whenever we have a difficult topic to talk about (sensitive, judgemental, unbelievable) we seek to cover the faces of ourselves and others. We will be self-reflective and anticipate how people would react if we’d talk in a certain way. By selecting different categories we can seek to “appear normal”. We can also “act” feelings that are suitable to the role we possess. For example as a parent we can appear worried in a situation that seems to require that (even though we know there’s really nothing to be worried about).

There is also a field of discursive social psychology that studies the different strategies to produce plausibility in a speech or writings. Michael Billig’s “Tradition of new rhetoric” studies also these strategies from the point of view of rhetoric methods. These methods include:

  • Bringing the subject of talk apart from speaker’s own intresses
  • Justifying the talk by assuming certain speaker categories
  • Adjusting the level of commitment to what is told
  • Justifying with consensus, expert opinions or self-explanatoriness
  • Utilizing details or narratives
  • Quantifying or using extremities in arguments
  • Anticipating counter-arguments

All of these methods are usually also used quite effortlessly as habitual patterns. Of course one can put more effort to these kinds of methods and prepare the rhetoric in advance. Still the dialogue itself can be unpredictable and require lots of improvisation.

Interaction and culture

All of the above mentioned strategies are very much connected to our culture. It is important to notice that whatever categories are brought to discussions can affect participants’ roles and status in the future. The words themselves come from the cultural resources, but there are always variability in the meaning of those words. In fact the meaning can vary even inside specific episode. The words give meaning for the reality as the reality can only be seen through the cultural concepts.

Discourse analysis is one approach to study the words and practices that are constructing the social reality. Discourse is concept developed by Michel Foucault. His view was that it is the device which society utilizes to “speak through” individuals. In other words it is the cultural resource that limits and enables people to verbally construct their view to reality. Given discourse has usually multiple repertoires for interpretation and these can all form different viewpoints to the reality. A skilled conversant can use these repertoires creatively to persuade others to believe what he is saying – or to e.g. build certain identity and role. Whenever the discourse and the actions of people are in a conflict, people have to give accounts on what is happening. These accounts build believable narratives on why the conflicting activity happened and in which way it is culturally acceptable.

Of course it is also possible to take meanings from multiple discourses too. The dialogue is continually transformed in accordance to how other people react to it. There are no total beginnings or ends in a given dialogue – it is always anchored to the continuum of previous interactions.

Identity in interactions

Besides cultural structures, meaningful dialogues also build micro-level structures. George Herbert Mead introduced the idea that people see themselves through the eyes of others. Mead saw the self from two viewpoints – the me as an object and me as a subject. With these two viewpoints the inner dialogue became possible. Me as an object is the part of self that is often the topic of dialogues with other people. It is learned by mirroring the attitudes of others (particular or generalized) towards it. Me as a subject is the part of self that acts spontaneously and which is much harder to take as a topic of conversations with others. Me as a subject is also born in social interaction but as it is rarely reflected with others it also changes slowly.

So, you could say there are always sides of self that are more easily changed in interactions and parts that are really hard to change. This alone is enough to create conflicts as the change between these socially constructed viewpoints happens in different time-frame. Thus there are often conflicts that emerge as inner dialogue. Also the dialogues with other people are very relevant to this inner dialogue. In conversations we can get more resources (e.g. concepts, viewpoints, vocabulary) for our inner dialogue and thus to the building of our identity.

Internet brings here many new elements, such as flocking behavior in social media. This is of course very much a field of complex adaptive systems. The identities that are formed in social media are quite post-modern – this means that it is relational to many different communities and relationships. The “core of identity” is quite hard to grasp. This has both possibilities for marginalized identities such as some extreme fundamentalism, but also possibilities for positive growth.

The moments of choice in interaction

According to Ervin Goffman the culture is a basic institution of the society. Everybody are involved in that institution some way or another. Wherever people are discussing the current of culture is present. There are lots of different possibilities for participating – especially in our digital age. However, even if one has many opportunities to participate, it does not mean there would be lots of opportunities for affecting things.

The most obvious possibilities to affect the course of action (or dialogue) is when there are moments of choice. These moments are momentary and related to specific places of conversation, which means that the timing is very important. If dialogues are thought of complex phenomena, and I think they should be, it is easy to see that there are always lots of unpredictability as well as predictability involved. The moves of people will always be somewhat mysterious. John Shotter calls this the “mysterious moment”. Unpredictable moments can lead to important insights and so they should not be avoided.

Conclusion and Different approaches for studying the daily interactions

As we saw, the daily interactions are extremely complex phenomena. I would seriously question any claims that the quantity of people, complexity of topics / tasks or certain level of disagreement needs to be present in order for complexity to emerge. It is enough to have two regular people talking about ordinary daily topics to create a complex phenomena. In fact, I think that it is enough to have even one person reflecting in his inner dialogue to start creating complex patterns of dialogue.

The findings of this vast complexity of ordinary daily interactions are coming from several different areas of research:

  • Dramaturgic social psychology (Ervin Goffman)
  • Conversation Analysis & Membership Category Analysis (Harvey Sacks, Emanuel Shegloff)
  • Social Constructivism (Kenneth Gergen, John Shotter)
  • Discursive social psychology (Jonathan Potter, Margaret Wetherell)
  • Rhetoric social psychology (Michael Billig)
  • Complex responsive processes (Ralph D. Stacey, Douglas Griffin, Patricia Shaw)

So, as conclusion I want to say that whenever you are walking to your cafeteria and having a mundane discussion about the weather, you are in fact participating in complex pattern of interaction. Whenever you are writing a blog post or posting to social media, you are participating in complex patterns of interaction. Human beings are complex by nature, it isn’t something that builds up in certain conditions. You could say it is human condition.

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