One of my many jobs when I was in my 20’s was in a Harry and David call center. Originally, it was only meant to be a temporary, Christmas season job – October-December. But this was the year that they implemented a new computer system and sometime around the solstice discovered that a very large number of recipients had not received their gift baskets, towers of chocolate, or first installations of the fruit of the month club. By this time, I had proven myself as both computer literate and an over-qualified worker, so they asked me to be one of the elite few to remain well past the holidays for damage control. Over the next few months, we went through stacks of orders gone wrong and, when the computer system was up and running (still a tall order in the heady days of the early 90’s), deftly tried to assuage irate doctors, receptionists, and guilty grandchildren with refunds, reshipment, or just plain empathy.
During the frequent computer outages, we literally had nothing to do. We would wheel our chairs together and shoot the shit. The most interesting member of our special ops unit was a retired guy who had worked for the CIA as a language expert. We played his parlor game of guessing where someone was from simply by hearing the accent. He was freaking amazing. This was way beyond guessing the South after hearing a “y’all.” His invariably accurate guesses would be something like “you were born in Michigan, upper peninsula I think, but then moved to northern California before you were a teenager, although you have tinges of Boston – did you go to college in Massachusetts?” It was uncanny. I envied that kind of expertise that comes with years of experience, probably why I recall it to this day.
But some expertise does not result in greater connection to others. For example, for some folks, music is both pleasure and torture. The growing ubiquity of sidewalk speakers announcing each merchant’s musical brand, the Starbucking of cafés, and buskers in the subway chew on their brains like an earwig, often despite being accomplished musicians themselves. Some estimates are that 7% of Americans suffer to the point of severe agitation when they hear the non-autotuned soundtrack for the arrival of birthday cake. These people have absolute or perfect pitch.
On the surface, absolute pitch appears to be a marvel, an ability to envy. Being able to name any note played or to recall the key of any song after hearing it only once years ago might be a great parlor trick akin to the CIA guy’s geo-linguistics. But the tones of both professional and amateur music-makers never achieve the perfection demanded by absolute pitch and are therefore torturous, like a din of fingernails on a blackboard. The music of the world is inescapably off-key.
Although I have the good fortune of only possessing relative pitch, I have developed something similar that undergirds my status as a single man.
I am a beta male, an observer, a witness to the emotional language we share with each other and with ourselves. As a child, siblings would safely bitch to me about the annoyance of another sibling or the rigidity of our mother. I yearned to understand the muddle of feelings and intentions, the he-said/she-said world of interpersonal relationships, the coexistence of blindness and insight. So began my approach to becoming a competent human being.
My first serious girlfriend exposed how little I knew of my own emotional landscape. Through intimacy and learning a deeper emotional language, I started to overcome that deer-in-the-headlights speechlessness whenever I was emotionally challenged. I began to understand sadness and depression. The next long-term girlfriend came with a teenager in tow. I learned more about anger from that boy than anyone else. After that, I met friends from my karass who taught me about the safety and trust in sharing any emotion, including anger. With them, I also came to understand shame as profoundly important emotion, a motivator for a great deal of behavior and a strong undercurrent of my depression. Finally, I have become an official expert as a scientist who studies – measures and theorizes about – the purpose and meaning of emotions. Now, partly as a result of a steady stream of students that I have mentored over the past decade, I have come to understand anxiety. More ubiquitous than shame, I see how anxiety runs the world. I have become an emotional “expert.”
Like all clusters of experts, because of this expertise, I gravitate toward those who share insight into human relations and self-awareness. Like a musician with absolute pitch, I prefer to play with those who appreciate an A at precisely 440.000 Hz. Like most people, a frequent topic at the dinner table is divining the reasons for this behavior or that social problem, except in my circles we tend to rely on a common language and prefer the criteria of scientific evidence. This emotional literacy is a source of meaning and intimacy for me.
On the other hand, humans on the whole are bulls in emotional china shops. They frequently bang into each other like riders on invisible bumper cars, dismayed by sudden and inexplicable whiplash. The expertise I have developed allows me to often see those bumper cars. Perhaps in the same way that synesthetes hear color or feel numbers, I have a non-linguistic sense of people’s emotional states as they careen into each other. I can “see” the mix of longing and foreboding in the woman at the table next to me as she tries to connect with her man across the table shielding his panic by feigning confusion and interest. At times it is like watching the first few minutes of the Usual Suspects and figuring out it was Kevin Spacey the whole time.
This is where the absolute pitch metaphor breaks down a bit, however. One result of this emotional literacy is compassion, an acceptance of the world as it is, combined with a desire to support those who wish to improve it. Witnessing the couple at the table next to me is not agitating, not a scrape across the blackboard. However, the other result is consistent with those with absolute pitch – feeling somewhat socially distant or at least selective about whom I am interested in spending time with. Low self-awareness and emotional rigidity are turn offs, a matter that has certainly contributed to my singlehood of late. My dating experiences of the past decade have been frequently something out of a Seinfeld episode. There was the fast talker, the one who failed to ask a single thing about me during a 3-hour dinner, the one who spoke only about her ex-husband, the one who craved certainty to the point of never moving house or travelling. My lack of interest in date #2 continues to be due to unshared emotional literacy.
Lest I appear too arrogant about this literacy, it should be clear that expertise does not mean perfection. It is a process, a moving toward greater understanding that inherently comes with greater comprehension of what is not known. I strive to sing on key but there are many times that I fail to get there, especially when figuring out harmonies. I strive, imperfectly, for self-awareness and using my emotions for good and not evil. But here is the fallout of the isolation borne of emotional literacy: I have not been particularly challenged emotionally in a decade. The jolts as I ride my bumper car have not been violent. Friends do not demand much – we get together and do things and then go home to our separate castles. If I am being intransigent about something, they can let it go. If they are in a less social phase, it does not impinge on my goals or happiness. I am a team of one.
As a result, I may be literate but I am reading mostly only what I have written. I know there are whole chapters of my self-narrative that are bullshit. There are plot lines that are pure fiction, characters that don’t exist. Sure, I have been able to examine and correct many dysfunctional stories I tell myself, but there are some that can only be challenged by someone with a vested interest in being a co-author.
At least that is the story I am telling myself, the song that I am singing, right now…
id = "notes"
Bokononists will understand what I mean.
 I trust that the movie has been out for a sufficient amount of time that this is not a spoiler.