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larissa green

junior copywriter, TED

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In an individualistic world where autonomy is a requirement for human-involvement, should conversation be mandatory?

As a 23-year old female, working at TED with amazing people and amongst the greatest of minds, I find that when one introduces themselves to another, our personal walls dissolve rapidly. From watching speakers cheer each other on during auditions, and watching the personal connections develop in such short time, it's almost as beautiful as watching their brain's dendrites connect all sorts of seemingly impossible things during presentations.

However, walking around my neighborhood of South Williamsburg, my soul burns when the eyes of my peers pierce it with their unrivaled fervor of judgement and apathy [that I secretly hope is false.]

Within all of us, young and old, is the drive and will to connect--so why do we give blank stares to the glow of our phone, instead of smiling back at the faces across from us? Why do we put so much weight on assimilating to the standards of others in order to feel accepted?

I want to ask the TED community to start a conversation where we can all be honest about how we generally feel speaking to others in public. Because, as a former journalism student turned creative-writing graduate, I wonder if we would all be happier knowing that everyone we pass by is a potential friend, lover, or soulmate.

We tell our most painful secrets to strangers in stream-of-consciousness outbursts, but refuse to communicate wholly with the ones closest to us. Why?

Why do you choose anonymity or intimacy?

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  • Gord G 50+

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    Jul 5 2012: What should be mandatory is thoughtfulness. Conversation is the veil of intellect. Considered action is the substance of real interaction. It takes actual commitment.
  • Jul 3 2012: In the spirit of your questions, I am going to risk being very grandfatherly by revealiing my first impression of your questions; please do not take offense: You are so 23!

    At your age I could not talk to strangers. I am now 62 and I can start a conversation with anyone anywhere and within the first three exchanges determine where I want to go with it. I think this is a skill that we learn through experience, and as we do the discomfort passes.

    Just yesterday I started a conversation with a co-worker whom I hardly know, and we talked about the relative values of sexual gratification and intimacy between the ages of 20 and 40.

    In a different TED conversation I made the point that conversations with people outside of our usual social circle are necessary to provide us with others' view of the universe. The notion that our five senses, from our own singular life experience, can provide us with an accurate idea of this huge universe is laughable. And still, most of us think we are right about things; its those other people who don't understand. Sometimes I think that all self confidence is an illusion. But many people do succeed.

    Often, we avoid intimate conversations with our family members because we have way too much to lose.

    To answer the original question, no, conversation should not be mandatory. But its wise to seek information from a wide variety of sources.
  • Jul 2 2012: larissa,

    "Why do we put so much weight on assimilating to the standards of others in order to feel accepted?"

    Is it about being accepted or being understood? Often becoming accepted in a social setting is really just a path to becoming understood. People want to be understood because if they don't feel understood they often feel isolated, and isolation can be emotionally debilitating; where being understood can be emotionally uplifting. By "assimilating to the standards of others" they develop a form of communication that helps them become understood. (this could be called "the path of least resistance").
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    Jun 26 2012: At 10 to the -34 reality dissolves and all you see is energy and vibration between states of energy and being. Individuality is a state of perception and the more we have conversations about our perception of our own individuality the more we dissolve our constructs and if played correctly the more we see unity and cohesive patterns and systems emerging that require or benefit from our participation....so yes conversation is a part of it - but so isa shift in perception and a training of the mind for compassion and collaboration through dissolving constructs which seem so real....
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      Jun 26 2012: Raja, how do we learn toplay it properly , as you suggest?
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        Jun 27 2012: Hi Deborah, by learning to observe the observer or the actor (i.e. you). If you can have a part of your mind observe your every action, reaction, thought and mood you will find yourself being able to retune at will and bring yourself back on demand to a more participatory less ego driven state of individuality. It does not mean you lose your identity, just your clinging to it. There are techniques I have seen and some I have learned - first would be Mindfulness - which is a form of meditation that begins by observing the breath and then your body and then your mind as you observe yourself acting in the world and each thought that comes...have a look at it. There is also a lot of Yoga (Raja and Kriya Yoga) around this as well. Or centering. Or martial arts actually help too - like Tai Chi and Qi Gong. They all help you learn to observe the actor which is your individuality and then open you up to your larger more universal self - the real observer...
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          Jun 27 2012: Thanks Raja! in my psychology degrees we learned a lot about mindfulness but I do find that the clots in my brain change my focus and thus make me less mindful and more chatty which is sort of horrifying.
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    Jun 15 2012: You know that little voice in your head? The one that says "head down, be safe, don't do that, don't talk to strangers"? That voice is what keeps people from interacting.

    People are afraid:

    -Of being rejected
    -of being robbed
    -of finding out your missing something
    -of looking strange to others
    -of how they sound
    -of you
    and
    -of themselves

    People who don't smile at strangers are scared or do not have respect.
    • Jun 21 2012: reach out in the darkness
      reach out in the darkness
      reach out in the darkness and you might find a friend...
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    Jul 11 2012: I have to agree with what Barry Palmer said--you are so 23! Don't take that as an insult, though. I was there as well.

    I know that when I was young, I was contemptuous of my middle-class small town/ suburban neighborhood after experiencing urban life in college. But, now that I am nearing 50, I can see that I was raised in a great neighborhood. With great neighbors. And parents sacrificing themselves to provide all of us kids a safe, healthy and happy childhood.

    That said, Middle-aged I would not be so keen, however, to judge the world. Williamsburg is probably not dead, but thriving. You likely just have to learn where and how to look. Having traveled all over the USA, I have been universally impressed by how, down deep, most people from all over are decent. And just want to live, love and work for something worthwhile.

    Learning this took some doing--but it was fun. I just had to slow down, be it at a Starbucks or waiting in line at the DMV, and ask a stranger, "How's tricks?" And be more interested in them than in my own ideas. Though I frequently get a startled, "deer in headlights look", most often people were open. And I mostly just listened, seeing myself reflected in them.
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    Jul 3 2012: Hello Larissa,

    two simple facts may immediately disqualify my thoughts on your interesting question. At first I am German and secondly a graduate engineer and both species are not well known for being great communicators ... :o)

    But the way you described both scenarios in which you perceived this opposite forms of 'collectiveness' became so alive, so congruent with my experiences, that I will give it a try.

    The group of people you are comparing, their 'spirits' and the circumstances in which they 'engage' are quite the opposite of each other. At TED it is easy to get into a conversation, because if you meet someone you don't know it becomes obvious to start a conversation by talking about TED itself. And frome there it evolves.

    So having something in common truly helps a conversation to get started, as it gives a good 'reason', almost a justification to the fact that one stranger starts to talk to another.

    I experienced, that lacking this 'virtual' justification for a first encounter things usually become difficult to many, as just a view are brave enough to go without it or have the rare talent in creating one just out of 'thin air'.

    The interesting thing is, that most people actually don't mind having a conversation with someone they don't know yet almost all of them are lacking this very talent to create this 'virtual justification' to start the initiative. This state could actually be seen as the 'ice age', as it creates this so called 'ice' which is almost literally to be broken in between people to communicate with one another.

    So if you do this famous experiment, smiling at people you don't know and for no better reason that sharing the same planet, the reactions are interesting. Children up to a certain age usually smile back, big time, as they haven't learned the concept of false intentions yet. Beyond that age it differs from a honest open smile to irritation to grouchy(ness?).

    Good reasons have been lost these days, so let us find new ones... :o)
  • Jun 30 2012: "Mandatory" or "compulsory" doesn't seem to work in the context you propose. It can and probably should be encouraged as a social development necessity but social systems go awry when we talk about forcing people to do something that is by nature happenstancial.
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    Jun 26 2012: I think our innate fixation to always look good at all levels and our general fear of uncertainty, play a huge part in making this kind of choice. Also the context we are in; the context will always affect our choices.
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      Jun 29 2012: You are always so clear sighted, Helena and you make such good comments. How is that beautiful nephew?
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        Jun 30 2012: Hi Debra,
        Well thank you and idem.
        My nephew is growing strong and healthy, thank you for asking. He is almost walking and we are all head over heels in love with him; he is simply adorable.
        Hope you are keeping well and fully recovered from your operation.
        Lots of love,
        Helena
  • Jun 26 2012: I detest small talk. I detest even more people who try to turn every chance encounter into a social opportunity. When a stranger says "hi" to me in an elevator, I think what they're really saying is "I can't stand to be alone with my own thoughts for 5 minutes, so I want you to entertain me."

    Casual encounters like that are utterly meaningless. The only way to truly connect with people is to talk for more than 2 minutes, about more than just the weather. That requires creating a time and a place for conversation, which is doable but requires more effort than most people are willing to put in. The reason why people "socialize" more and more over the internet is because it requires little effort to do so. I don't think that is a bad thing, since the internet removes many of the biases and inhibitions that plague us in real life.
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      Jun 26 2012: Maybe they plague you and you detest them -- but I really don't. I enjoy them and explore my thoughts and perceptions of society and people through interactions with other people.
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        Jul 11 2012: Men v Women there... Sexuallity exists on a spectrum... but, as linda suggests, men don't like small talk. Men who say they like small talk, are lying to you because they want to have sex with you : )

        Men are introverts and women are extroverts. I'm obviously overstating this and exaggerating a bit, and also... Thank god. I always revert back to Dave Chappelle "If a man could fuck a beautiful woman in a hole in the ground... He wouldn't buy a house". If I met a beautiful woman was down for it, I could totally just chill by a stream with a fishing line, and live in a home made hut.

        That's how society collapses... Women just stop toying with men, and start humping like rabbits : p

        To be fair, I think there are two reasons women love small talk, that make perfect sense. I think you get more information out of it than we do... Women are much better at intuiting personality through body language etc. Men don't get that... we hear about the weather, and it bores us.

        The other reason, is that men are usually unhappy, especially in a poor neighborhood. So when you walk up to them with a smile on your face, and ask them how they're doing... They think "You look happy, why would I bother you with how i'm doing? Move along". Meanwhile if a man walked up to them with a smile on their face "Hey how are ya?", "Bugger Off"... "Alright".

        You're basically just forcing them to pretend everything is okay in front of you. "How are things? Jeez lady... Do you watch the news? They suck". Instead we're polite, we fake a smile and send you on your way.

        Why don't you talk to strangers? Have you read youtube comments? Those the people you really want to introduce into your life? There are some pretty awful human beings out there lol.

        Logic defies extroversion... but it is an absolute necessity that one become engaged in a community, in order to find happiness.

        I don't like anonymity, I'm me here, just as eccentric, honest, and crazy as in real life.
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      Jun 26 2012: Dear Lee,
      On one of the other questions someone is offering free hugs. I would offer you one, but she is way cuter and much younger. Please seek her out. You sound like you need a hug!
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      Jun 26 2012: Lee, I think how you feel is partly due to you being a man as men are not as "chatty" as women nor as social. And again, I say "partly" as there are other factors too, like culture (even though yours is similar to the questioners and these responders), that play a role in how one would reply.
      • Jun 28 2012: I feel this way because I'm an introvert. We all feel this way - we just don't often say so because society thinks that introverted feelings are wrong feelings. But I'm tired of apologizing for the fact that I want my interactions with other people to be meaningful.
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          Jun 29 2012: This is NOT evidence of introversion, sir:
          "Casual encounters like that are utterly meaningless. The only way to truly connect with people is to talk for more than 2 minutes, about more than just the weather. That requires creating a time and a place for conversation, which is doable but requires more effort than most people are willing to put in. The reason why people "socialize" more and more over the internet is because it requires little effort to do so. I don't think that is a bad thing, since the internet removes many of the biases and inhibitions that plague us in real life. "

          Introversion deserves more respect and almost always offers more.
  • Jun 26 2012: (Part 2) response to that, I grew up to abhor Americans because of the culture around me that hated it. We are who we are not because we decided to be that way, but because of the arbitrary factors that affected us to make those decisions.

    So where does a human being deserve to be judged contemptuously? I argue never. Ever. Not in greed, not in murder, never.

    That is not to say judgments at all shouldn’t be made. You can say a person’s tall, a person’s short, without having it affect your overall judgment on the person; it is when we believe our judgments are important does it affect our ability to empathize. And I believe no judgment should be important enough to cause such a barrier to empathy. And I think we should be advocating for that more.

    Now this is all not say that people don’t need to feel as though they are responsible for their actions; we do, it is absolutely a needed social construct. But we don’t need contempt.

    And if we were able to change this culture of contempt, I think we would see a large change in stranger-engagement. Although it could also happen the other way around (:
  • Jun 26 2012: I love this topic. Empathy, compassion, is really what I believe allows us to create relationships, care about each other, love, motivate us to help each other.

    I think that the general norms of judgment in our society have played a large part in leading to this scarcity of stranger-engagement in our culture.

    The culture part, I believe, is important to point out. It is not as though all people who do not engage with strangers are apathetic.
    There seems to be a common uneasiness in personal engagement with those one doesn’t know, putting one’s self out there among those who do not. It’s scary, especially because it’s uncommon; the more common it is the more often people would be influenced to do it.

    Contemptuous judgment is the root problem, the reason why our culture has become this way. It’s an extreme barrier to empathy. And I argue that any judgment that allows one to de-value a human being is not only morally wrong, but logically as well. And morally wrong because it’s logically wrong.

    Sorry, I’m a little long-winded (:

    But, I posit this question: which should we judge a human being based on: the biological factors that were genetically pre-disposed without choice from the being, or the environmental factors that happened to affect them to make them who they are?

    Would you judge a person with a severe genetic learning disability for not being able to talk coherently?

    Likewise, don’t we all act and believe what we do because of the environmental factors that happened to affect us? Isn’t that why we see the trends we do across groups? These environmental factors are almost always impossible to trace, which I believe has led to this belief that people “deserve” the judgments that they receive. But all our actions and beliefs and thoughts were influenced by some environmental property. I grew up to be racist because that was the culture. I grew up to abhor racism because that was the culture. I grew up to abhor muslims because of 9/11 and the culture’s
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    Jun 26 2012: I personally think it's very simple: we're genetically inclined to survive and we'll do that by any means. What means are chosen is down to the individual, but until we can prove free-will then all these "choices" we make may not be choices at all and may just simply be what our genetic code is telling us to believe. I do find, however, and this is purely from experience from a single life, that those who have more faith in themselves and more inner-peace, are more open to sharing and connecting with others. As a previous sufferer of anxiety I used to fear connection with others out of distrust. Then through self-examination and a whole world of experiences that are too much for me to bother writing right now (a lot of which came through studying Taijiquan, Taoism and Buddhism), I realised it was a lack of faith in myself. People flock in fear, politics breeds fear.
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    Jun 21 2012: Well Cliff,
    If we observe the pattern of TED questions being asked .. Most of them which I responded to were based on global reform , peace and happiness . Here are few links which I felt connected to people :

    http://www.ted.com/conversations/11736/what_if_planet_earth_was_just.html?c=480046

    http://www.ted.com/conversations/12032/have_documentaries_or_narrativ.html?c=479455

    http://www.ted.com/conversations/11992/what_mistake_defines_you.html?c=479459
    TED conversations and TED community help people communicate virtually . Well thats my opinion,
    Hope it helps.
    Thanks
  • Jun 21 2012: I hold yard sales and get to speak to my neighbors.
    I can't stop them on the street.
    But standing there considering a purchase
    they share their lives.
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    Jun 20 2012: I dont think any answer here is wrong or comprehensive. It is an individual characteristic that encompasses everything stated so far.

    I do think there is one aspect to your question that hasnt yet been discussed. In referance to your question on the prevalence for online communication.It is addictive behaviour, as in classic pavlovian conditioning sense. We are excited at the prospect of communication when the bell or ring is sounded from the phone or email. We can also be visually conditioned via online communication by the "you have mail" or in TED'S case "such n such has answered your post!" This type of conditioning is very strong and is hard to recognise if you are not vigil in keeping aware of it.

    I am certainly not suggesting any conspiracy, it is merely modern living that we have all agreed to emerse and allowed to be immersed in...a culture of classical and suggestive conditioning via different mediums.

    I dont think this conditioning is any more prevalent than any other reason stated below. But I do feel it is part of it.

    Thank you for this interesting discussion.

    ...on a side note go ahead smile, talk and be happy doing so. You are the driver of your own bus, keep steering.
  • Jun 19 2012: Dear Miss Green. You raise an important issue. Connecting through social media is an easy way to create a role and image you can controll more then real contact and interaction in daily life off screen. Words, messages, videos and pictures are always a reflection on a screen.They create and serve goals. Thats part of a living digital life.And its not bad as long as they don't substitute or hide natural habbits when people meet off line. If natural curiosity and openess is not changed by "digital habbits" strangers can become friends when they can find a shared expression and understanding of eachothers vulnerabilities and desires.
  • Jun 18 2012: I sometimes don't discuss something important to close people because they are very familiar, and I already know, what they are going to say. But talking to strangers may bring a fresh, unbiased perspective.
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    Jun 18 2012: Yes, too many times have I been the stranger listening to others at a bus stop pouring their deepest secrets to, but some of the closest (as in per amount of time in proximity) person's I know barely even speak to me about their own thoughts. When they do open up, it is usually something very superficial and leads to a superficial relationship.

    Sometimes we expect those closest to us to be secretive, so we can have an ongoing "mystery" to solve. This "mystery" is sometimes called "living a lie" and we all do or have done it. I find it strange how I can easily become an open book at any given time, but get very little reciprocity at the end of a conversation. Some say we must constantly gauge the trust-worthiness of others, but I want to challenge everyone to trust one another more and to try to "go with the flow", though without consenting to illogical situations.

    Trust is difficult, and as the band Green Day has said "...sing along to the age of paranoia...", and paranoia is in all of us, but some more than others. Personally, I see the prevalence of my own paranoia, so I try to reverse that by finding small things to change in my life. I try to expose myself to many situations in the world, so I won't feel as paranoid, but I have found that the more I saw, the more I could have feared, but I won't.

    As time passes our experiences begin to make more sense. When we continue living for a better less self-centric outlook of the world, I believe, we will begin to have healtheir flourishing relations with everyone. Trust will usually begin to build. Fear will be lifted through understanding. Excercise Empathy Everyday!

    Thanks for reading my thoughts. =)
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    Jun 15 2012: I think that there are varied 'levels' of social interaction for a reason.

    Logistics is the first. If everyone stopped and talked to everyone they passed in the street, nothing would get done.

    When we ask "how are you", it's usually not meant to be an invitation to disclose your deepest secrets and feelings - it's social lubrication.

    Social networks have their function; support group, theirs; family, transactions, fleeting "hellos", lovers, friends, colleagues, interest groups and so on.

    They all have their functions and fulfill different people in different ways. I for one would become irritated if every conversation had to have a certain level of depth.

    In fact, you'd end up with a lot of 'facade' conversations where people aren't really listening to each other, merely going through the motions.
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    Jun 14 2012: To All:

    I apologize if it seemed as though I was projecting my own feelings, but I do want to mention that I really enjoy talking to strangers and not a person goes by without seeing a smile from me. However, I just want to employ the ideas of the TED community to shed light on what would happen if simple humanity was restored in the form of small talk, a smile, a wave, a stare for longer than 3 seconds. I love making new friends, but as I grow older I become scared and nervous from direct observation, of how hard it is to get to know people already in groups. I seek adventures, and love sharing personal stories and experiences, I just am curious as to what happens to people in their past or present that doesn't allow them the joy I get from getting to know the passerby.

    :) Thanks for sharing and have a great weekend!
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      Jun 14 2012: Don't apologize for projecting feelings. We all do it. If you want a world where people talk to each other, smile and wave, DO IT. There is nothing to stop you. But just realize the reserve you see in other people is motivated by something, fear, experience, hurt. So to do what you seek, you will need to develop trust. In all honesty if someone in an urban setting walked up to me and started small talk I would check where my wallet is. Trust is not easy to develop in the three seconds you have.

      But it is worth it. Give it a try. If nothing else you will be known as 'the nice crazy lady in 4B.' I guarantee soon people you see every day will say HI to you first. My husband was like that. Knew all the ladies at the grocers, the bank tellers, the gas station attendants. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. He liked it that way.
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    Jun 14 2012: On one front, I think Nietzsche nails why with the famous quote "Every deep thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood". Fear of judgement is something that amplifies greatly the closer our relationship is with each other.

    On another front, it also seems to be a preferred outreach mechanism in our psyche. Our "real life" social networks tend to be much, much smaller than our potential online networks. The obvious limiting factor is geography - unless you have the means to travel, your localized social network is immediately limited by proximity and chance.

    From this I might develop 15 close personal friends, but only 1-2 of them will share in, say, a love for philosophy or even the same musical tastes. In some cases, I may literally find zero people in proximity that share in those areas of interest.

    From that, I think we subconsciously classify the people we know relative to our interests, and assign internal hierarchies to them. Then, when a social thought comes to mind, we internally decide if that information will be understood, or well received by any of the people in our immediate circles. If the answer is no...we look to other alternatives... a blog, a forum, twitter.. facebook... where the potential for finding people who will care and do care is much greater.

    If you remove technology from the equation for a moment - look at how pervasive things like keeping a personal journal or diary have been throughout time, you see a similar pattern. Not just for historical recording purposes - in many cases these were being used as an outlet for deeply personal or controversial thoughts ideas that they believed wouldn't be well received by their peers. In a sense, the diary represented a disconnected desire for the same basic need to be heard.

    Technology then seems to provide two services that are appealing - anonymity (even if people ridicule, it's not like you actually know them) and reach (hundreds share in my passion vs 1-2)
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    Jun 14 2012: Lots of questions here. Let me start with the lack of connection between strangers. In overcrowding situations people withdraw from each other. I really like the work of John B. Calhoun and his theory of behavioral sink. I know it is rodent studies but there is some truth for humans as supported in later studies. So people withdraw from each other when there are simply too many people. It's a self preservation move. Look at your neighborhood. People live on top of, underneath of, next to, in back of... We withdraw to be safe. When we are once again safe, we can begin to connect as you witness during the TED events

    In less populated rural communities, the withdrawal is not as intense. People feel safer and connect more with their neighbors..

    Also I think you are projecting way too much on your neighbors. Sometimes a blank stare is a blank stare with nothing behind it. The creative writer in you projects apathy and judgment. Not a bad thing, but just don't present it as accurate.

    And finally, I am a hard core introvert. I don't speak to anybody unless i absolutely have to. Close community or not. I am much happier that way.
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    Jun 14 2012: You have asked several questions here. I will respond to a couple of them.
    I have no discomfort about speaking with people in public, though I expect any of us will often be misundertood when we speak. In terms of what keeps people from disclosing their ideas to others, of course the dislike of being judged is a big issue. Some people overestimate how severely judged they will be, but judged we often are. Many potenetial listeners do not live with a philosophy or perspective of assuming positive intent, for example. Prejudices are tiring to deal with, whether the prejudice is related to age, ethnicity, level of education...This discomfort makes people speak less and less authentically than they otherwise would.
  • Jul 12 2012: Should have added that the comment was to the question, not the person.
  • Jul 12 2012: Original
  • Jul 11 2012: Walter, who are you referring to?
  • Jul 11 2012: Walter, who are you referring to? I hope not to my friend Larissa.....
  • Jul 11 2012: Keep your mouth shut!
  • MR T

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    Jul 8 2012: Hi Please can you explain to me what that question means?