The Malcolm Gladwell Guide to Emparenting

So I’ve been listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (for the second time, on my ipod…) and I’ve been struck by how many of his ideas and insights jive with the principles of Emparenting.

One of the many interesting points that he makes has to do with the subtleties of persuasion.  In many cases, it’s not what we tell people that makes them do what we want; it’s how we carry ourselves and what we do.

In one surprising study Gladwell talks about, the unconscious facial expressions of three major newscasters reporting on the 1984 presidential election were analyzed, and a significant correlation was found between their body language and the voting behavior of their viewers. While the anchors of NBC and CBS remained fairly neutral when discussing the various candidates, the body language and facial expressions of ABC’s Peter Jennings were found to be more “optimistic” when talking about Reagan.  Despite the fact that in more overt ways ABC tended to have a liberal bias that was hostile to Reagan, polls conducted found that ABC viewers were significantly more likely to vote for Reagan than people who watched the other channels.  A similar study carried out during the Bush/Dukakis campaign found strikingly similar results.

Another interesting point has to do with how our conversational styles and rhythms affect those around us.  As it turns out, there’s a reason lowering your voice and whispering when your kids are shouting is much more effective than trying to out-scream them.

Gladwell tells the story of William Condon, a researcher who actually spent a year and a half studying a 4.5 second film clip, in which a woman says to a man and a child: “You all should come around every night, we never have had a dinner time like this, in months”.

Condon broke the film into 1/45 second segments and watched it obsessively, until he began to observe certain patterns: there was a rhythmic, physical dimension to the conversation, an “interactional synchrony” of micromovements. They may have thought they were having a simple conversation, but they were also engaged in a very intricate and harmonious little dance.

Subsequent research has shown that even people with very different conversational styles develop a harmonious rhythm when they speak to one another. The volume and pitch of their voices – not just their physical gestures – fall into sync.  Similarly, even day old infants move their heads, elbows, hips and feet in sync with the speech patterns of the adults around them.

So yeah, kids really are little emotional barometers.  And next time we are about to raise our voices or whine at our kids to stop whining, it may not hurt to remember that the best way to set a positive tone is to adopt one ourselves.