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Jun 28, 2020

The quarantine and the relational self

Today I stumbled across a fascinating 2002 paper, The Relational Self: An Interpersonal Social–Cognitive Theory, by Andersen and Chen. The theory goes like this: we do not have a unified knowledge of our own self. Rather, relationships with various significant others create “possible relational selves.” We cannot activate all of them at the same time, because the body of self-knowledge is so huge. Something in the immediate situation triggers a recall of a particular version of the self. “For example, cues in one’s workplace are likely to elicit the set of cognitive, affective, motivational, and behavioral responses associated with one’s “professional self,” whereas cues in a party setting elicit knowledge reflecting one’s “partying self.”” This explains a lot about our situation at the quarantine. We all are missing the cues of the workplace, which makes it difficult to “wake up” our professional selves, and all the associated abilities, attitudes, habits, and motivation. This is why it feels so awkward to teach, write, think, and communicate from home. In the absence of these cues, we are literally not quite ourselves. The home environment triggers a more domestic version of the self, one inclined to rest, be entertained, or do brainless domestic or yard work. Doing more complex work for work requires an extra effort. Even recalling the right information takes a little longer. Writing a simple memo takes twice as much time. I can only admire my colleagues who have to teach online. Good teaching requires mobilization of the very specific version of the self that can be dramatically different from all others.

I was working in my office for a couple of hours last week, and the two large screen on my desk just felt amazing. It was as if someone just cleaned my foggy glasses, and the big world became suddenly visible. That says something about the importance of these visual cues for finding the right frame for my mind. Seeing what I see around me actually tunes up my brain in a particular way. It is just nice to understand that our problems are not a sign of weakness or laziness, or lack of willpower. And I am pretty sure it is not just me. Signals I get from others are similar. People struggle with something undefinable and invisible and feel guilty that they cannot put their fingers on it. On the surface of it, the transition should be easy. And yet, weirdly, it is not. People try to hate Zoom, but it is just a lightning rod. Something larger is going on. The thousand details that went missing from our worlds together sucked the oxygen out of us. If you believe the Andersen and Chen, other people make the most powerful cues. We need them – not necessarily to communicate, but just to be there, in the same building, on the same campus. We can still call or zoom any time, but somehow it is not the same.

We may have underestimated the difficulty of the transition to the distant work. In the wake of the crisis, with all the adrenalin going, we all did really well. When the routine settles, one can usually expect that things get easier. But in this particular case, the routine brings new challenges. As we are planning for four more months of this new normal, I worry just a little. Of course, humans are creatures of adaptation, not just of habit. We always adapt, find ways around the obstacles, rewire our brains, and find different kinds of cues to call up our professional selves. I just want to convert my general optimism into a more specific help we can provide to each other. Maybe the first step is not to ignore or trivialize the problem. It is indeed difficult to work remotely in the industry like ours. And it is even more difficult to do it for extended periods of time. I usually at least pretend to have a solution, but in this particular case I have none. Tell me if my worry is misplaced. And if it is not, we need to figure out what to do.

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