Effectively Interacting. Or, Kicking Off Advice about Avoiding Jackassery

After a day of back country skiing, ice climbing, and hot springing, the first moments of 2017 found me following my dog along the Uncompahgre River trail, connecting constellation dots in the skies above Ouray, Colorado. Nudging its way into my brain even in that moment was a reminder of the course syllabus I had yet to write for the start of university classes in a few days.

Every part of this scene is worlds away from the life I imagined for myself way back when I 17.  Wherever I imagined myself, it was not as a college professor who plays outside in ways that worry my mother. I probably did assume a dog was part of the scene, but that’s where the similarities end.

So, how did I end up in this alternate reality and what the hell does all this have to do with the title of this post -“Effectively Interacting. Or, Kicking Off Advice about Avoiding Jackassery.”?

Let’s tackle the alternate reality part first. After a very convoluted post-High School path including working in restaurants and tattoo shops, moving to the flatlands, and surviving an abusive relationship, I found myself in college after all. At some point while test driving most of the majors, I discovered that Communication Studies made sense. A lot of sense. And I was really good at it. Somehow this epiphany happened in a public speaking class, which, as anyone who has taken a public speaking class knows, makes no sense.

Communication Studies (as with any major that ends in “Studies…”) doesn’t exactly scream “clear career path.” This is actually the joke at the many graduations I’ve attended thus far — “And then they asked, ‘So, what are you going to do with THAT degree?!?'” I have yet to figure out how this is actually funny, but that’s academic humour for you.

Anyway, I was fortunate enough to have supportive faculty who asked whether I’d considered graduate school and, beyond that, teaching. 10 years later, here I am, Communication Studies PhD degree in hand, teaching university.

One of the classes I consistently teach is Foundations of Communication, which is, in essence, an introduction to theories about effectively interacting in various contexts –work, groups, relationships, travel, you name it. It’s generally meant to be an introduction to the major, but I find it far more interesting and useful to teach it as a “how to” for life.

When I tell others I teach Communication, despite immediately wanting to be anywhere but in the midst of what’s sure to be a dull conversation, they inevitably feel the deeply ingrained pull of politeness that they can’t help but ask, “what classes?” True, I could be exaggerating their response, but it is how I feel when it happens. For everyone’s sake, instead of an academic explanation, I tell them my unofficial title of the class: “How to Get Along in the  World Without Being a Jackass.”(See? I told you it would all connect!)

This makes for a far more interesting conversation, because everyone’s got a story or two about that time they could have used some advice about how to avoid being a jackass. The thing with communication is that we’re ALWAYS doing it. You can’t not communicate [1], so the opportunity to mess it up or find ways to do it better are always there.

Day 1, students walk into class thinking, “This will be easy, I already know how to communicate.” This I’m not exaggerating, because they make sure to tell me it’s how they feel. Disabusing students of this notion doesn’t take long because we’ve all had those moments that went terribly wrong and didn’t have to. Those awkward moments are the basis of basically every joke ever. My fodder for examples are my own, family members’, friends’, and students’ own misadventures in interacting with others. (Y’all know I talk about you in class, right?)

I’m not going to claim perfection at it. As my mother likes to remind me, “you went to school for communication–shouldn’t you be a good listener by now?” Despite, or perhaps because of, my own (mis)communication attempts, I see it happening everywhere and am constantly thinking about how to improve it. Yes folks, I’m THAT person.

My poor friends find me putting on my instructor hat even in conversation —

“Hey Friend, Too bad that text message was so misinterpreted. Did you know that it’s a lean communication channel? Next time, what if you said…”

“Hey Friend, in case it helps, that fight you keep having with Loved One is a prime example of this thing called dialectical tensions that every relationship has. Let me tell you about them…”

“Hey Friend, do you have other ideas for your online dating profile picture? I only ask because the nonverbal communication in that one suggests…”

To their chagrin, even when not in the classroom, I’m always already thinking about how that interaction could more effectively achieve whatever the goal of the moment was. It seems I’m not the only one who thinks about how to improve their communication skills. When I tell folks that my class is, in essence, about getting along in the world  without being a jackass, their response is inevitably either: a) I could use a class like that!  or b) I know someone else who definitely needs a class like that!

This blog is an attempt to take the advice out of my head and my class, and pass it on to those folks who might find it useful in their own friendships, families, romances, work places, and throughout other spheres of their lives. Along the way, there’s bound to be tales of my own friendships, families, romances, work places, and outdoor adventures, because they are rife with examples! I’m geeky enough (or perhaps academically trained enough) to include references to the Communication concepts and theories I mention for those who might want to know more. I’m grateful enough to those who make my life possible to offer Shout Outs for those who’ve influenced the post’s existence.

May 2017 be a fruitful and adventurous year for you!

~ cdls

Geeking out on Scholarly References

[1] Thank you Watzlawick, Beavin-Bavelas, and Johnson for this gem! If you really want to geek out, read more about this and their other foundational axioms here, or dive in to the 1967 original: Watzlawick, P., Beavin-Bavelas, J., Jackson, D. D. “Pragmatics of Human Communication – A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies and Paradoxes. (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1967).


Shout Outs to …
  • Dr. Joann Keyton for calling me to her office for what I was terrified was a dressing down for some unknown offense but turned out to be an eye- and door-opening moment that started me on the path to Grad School and beyond.
  • The University of Kansas Communication Studies Department (Rock Chalk!) for kicking it all off.
  • The University of Colorado Boulder Communication Department, my academic home and testing ground through those awkward grad school years.
  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline for existing and doing what they do. If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, call. To find shelters near you, see www.domesticshelters.org. If you’re debating whether your relationship is abusive, it probably is, but you can read more here.
    •   If you’re visiting these websites but worried about the repercussions of doing so if your partner finds out, remember to delete your browsing history. Here are the directions for doing so in Google/Chrome, Safari/i-phoneAndroid, and Microsoft
  • Ouray Ice Park – for making it possible to play on frozen waterfalls with sharp pointy objects in a mere 10-minute walk from town. And for free! They’re a nonprofit venture that deserves your membership dollars just for the sake of climbing karma.
  • Packtowl’s robetowl for being the epitome of hot springing accessories. I only wish they were rewarding me for singing its praises.
  • The many adventure partners and friends who (safely) get me doing all the things I’d never imagined possible. You’re going to be hearing plenty more about them.
  • Those family members, friends, and students whose communication misadventures give me so much to work with. You’ll definitely be hearing about them in future!

Cover Image Explanation

Literally “kicking off” the new year at Ouray Ice park in Ouray Colorado. Effectively communicating is always important, particularly when your partner holds your health and life in their hands. Photo credit to Katie!


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