Symmentropy in Small Doses

When I started this series of posts on the importance of stories in promoting harmony in the activities of a family, I intended to tell the stories as examples of one family's struggles to care for their dying mother to illustrate the foundation of symmentropy. After six of these posts, I have been overwhelmed by the response as people have contacted me with the their own experiences and questions about the ways stories are so important. So, I am changing the format just a little and will add one post explaining the theory behind the examples of each of the 12 guidelines for symmentropy. This is the first of those posts and will feature less story telling and more dot connecting. I will get back to the stories in the next post.

First, a little bit about symmentropy. I am trying not to describe the statistical applications of non linear approaches to measuring communication that was the soul of my research. Those who want to read calculus, fuzzy set theory and time series analysis can go to Google Scholar to find plenty of information. All that math caused symmentropy to happen, but communicating with each other in relationships, families or businesses rarely allows us time to do the math. We need the summary talking points to make this kind of theory useful when we are in conversation. I developed the twelve principles of symmentropy as a logical structure to explain the calculations, but quickly found that most people wanted to read the twelve principles and skip the math. Human terms and human interactions have to be the guidelines for efforts at understanding each other better.

Stripped down to its essence, symmentropy documents that human communication only works as a dynamic system that demands creativity and a sense of beauty to achieve clarity over the long run of conversation. We are taught from the day we first use words that we should expect a very nice one word to one word correspondence between what we say and what someone thinks we mean, but life is messy and that nice, linear expectation only helps in creating the mess. Once we are taught the way everyone hopes things will work, we begin the process of learning how to manage our conversations to survive in the real world.

Cultures create simple sets of rules to help us communicate with each other that are very helpful for handling day to day tasks. When you walk into a grocery store with a list, you do not need to know any information about the employees or owners to successfully purchase everything you need for even the most festive occasion. All the communication you need to do follows the rules of courtesy and doing retail business. If it ended there, symmentropy would not be needed, but you go to the same store many times noticing how clean the parking lot is or how many times the employees greet you or how often the apple that fell on the floor gets put right back in the stack of apples creating a relationship between you and the store. While you are preparing dinner or pouring your morning coffee, you remember the details of your story about going to the same store for a year or more and you realize that you like going to that store or that you think you might try a different store to see if it is cleaner or has more of the items that you just can't seem to find. The strict rules of the communication needed to buy a loaf of bread do not cover the range of emotions that we might have about feeding the family because those rules are linear and do not include the points for artistic impression. Anyone who runs a successful retail business knows the importance of the complete shopping experience and the value of the stories that we tell our friends as it is called word of mouth advertising.

A simple trip to the grocery store involves more than the cultural rules necessary to prepare a meal, so think about the complexity of the communication needed to manage a company with ten or twenty or more employees. Yes, the rules get us started, but they do not prepare us for the day Bill shows up for work in a dress, announces that she is transgender and would like to be known as Gayle from now on. It is easy to say, "treat her with the same courtesy that you did last week", but the reality is that such a major change requires more information because we thought we knew who Bill was and what he liked, but we do not know Gayle or what she likes. We have to learn about her as if she was a brand new member of the team.

Symmentropy proposes twelve guidelines that will help in communicating with Bill/Gayle to make sure that the working environment benefits everyone. I lack the ego to claim that I have solved all possible problems in interacting with others, but symmentropy takes the cultural rules that are vitally important and adds reasonable expectations for responding to the enormous range of possibilities that exist in the simplest of communication situations. It does this by recognizing that we want to be understood but we also want a sense of beauty and balance in our interactions.

Symmentropy begins with the idea that we use communication to manage the amount of information that we want in our relationships with people and organizations. This whole conversation begins here because our most valuable tool in managing information is storytelling. I developed symmentropy to cover communication in personal dialogues, groups or mass media, but no matter what form the communication takes, the most basic skill that we all have to master is storytelling. Our stories are the foundation of everything else that we do in communicating with each other. If Bill had shared his story with his coworkers, the arrival of Gayle would require less effort to understand the meaning of her dress and new hair style.

The last four posts have featured people using or not using their skill as storytellers to provide meaning to their actions. Giving your spouse a grater for Christmas may not sound like it would be appreciated until you know the whole story. A grater becomes a sensitive gift that deepens affection in a relationship when there is a story that focuses on what that gift meant to both of the people involved. Never talking about a brother that died before you were born may be an act of privacy or callousness or any number of other things but without the story, it is not possible to know what the meaning of that omission. My artist tells the story of coming home to tell her mother about the challenges of being a young adult only to be greeted with the conversation ending, “I do not need to know those things.” In a family that shared their stories, this gives the appearance of personal rejection. Of course, it could also mean that my artist's mother just wanted to be a mother and not a best friend. Only the stories that we tell provide that meaning.

All of these stories demonstrate symmentropy in action. Symmentropy does not judge any story to be better or worse for the events or people involved, but it does judge the outcomes in terms of what the communication means. Today, I can look at these stories and say that some have turned out well while others have created problems. Two years from now, there may be more stories that are added that explain more about what happened or is happening that can completely change this assessment. Looking at the outcome of a story today does not mean that the same outcome will apply tomorrow. This is what makes symmentropy, human communication in general, nonlinear because the outcome will change as we learn more or manage what we know differently.

The first principle of symmentropy says that we use communication to manage what we know and what it means to us. For story Chip, it means that the basic skill for doing that management is storytelling.

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