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Congressional “Dating” and the Power of Symbolism

All major presidential speeches are laden with symbolism. This time, the symbolism was especially potent, pervading not only the speech and the surrounding ceremonies, but Congress and beyond.

Much had been reported on Members’ efforts to “mix it up,” to sit together instead of heading to their usual perches on opposite sides of the aisle. In the days leading up to the speech, it was even referred to as “dating,” and, interestingly, fraught with some of the same social complexity and awkwardness teenagers encounter.

I was as doubtful as anyone that this effort would be more than an empty gesture. So I was quite surprised — stunned actually — by the outcome.

Instead of the constant interruptions we’ve come to expect during the SOTU, like the loud cheering, booing and frequent standing ovations, Members were quieter, more subdued.

While the former behaviors during this particular speech make for good theatre, the latter encouraged a more civil and respectful tone than I ever recall seeing

Just as at a sports event, sitting among the fans of your team encourages a boastful and in-your-face group dynamic. When, however, we are seated among fans of the opposing team, we are more inhibited and not as free to root for our team so loudly and, perhaps, obnoxiously. Close physical contact forces us to respond to subtle shifts in body language, which are rich in meaning. Call it empathy, call it respect, call it fear of being beat up… I call it a natural, human instinct to ensure a communication goes smoothly.

Furthermore, the mere act of sitting next to and getting to know someone with different views makes it all the more difficult to demonize that person down the road – or the next day when Members of Congress had to get back to work solving our very serious problems.

The downside is the speech was less entertaining. I actually thought it was boring. But what was sacrifced in drama was gained in a more civil tone. I hope the new symbolism lasts.

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Copyright 2011 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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