A Few Helpful Hints Inspired by Buber: Regarding Complicated Roommate Dyads
University of Colorado at Boulder
Throughout both adolescence and young adulthood many individuals will be faced with relational roommate tensions. Such tensions can arise from issues as simple as eating another roommate's food to more complex issues such as violations of privacy. These relational tensions may challenge past healthy friendships or perhaps prevent the development of new friendships. Over the past year a fellow roommate and I have been struggling with a communication problem of exactly this sort. Understanding Martin Buber’s theory of Genuine Dialogue can provide individuals with a helpful alternative lens in which they can view their communication problems.
Understanding Buber’s Theory of Genuine Dialogue
After analyzing and interpreting the literary works produced by Martin Buber, three useful and noteworthy concepts arose. For the purposes of this paper, as well as the previously mentioned communication problem, this paper will highlight the following, (a) genuine dialogue (b) monologue and (c) the narrow ridge. Through the use of Buber’s “I-Thou” theory of relationships it may be possible to shed light on past and future problematic relational roommate dyads.
The main premise of Buber’s theory begins with the idea of “genuine dialogue,” otherwise termed as the “I-Thou” relationship. Buber believed that genuine dialogue can be obtained between two people “no matter whether spoken or silent” (Buber 1955). Buber further states that, “each of the participants really [must have] in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turn to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them” (Buber 1955). More simply, genuine dialogue can be understood as a momentary experience in which both participants are consciously aware of the other. Buber’s theory suggests that in order to be fully aware of the other as a full and complete individual you must engage in the basic movement of turning toward the other (Buber 1955). One should note that the act of “turning toward the other” should not be applied in a literal sense rather a metaphorical one. Buber realizes that genuine dialogue has become rare, however, individuals should still continue to strive toward such “I-Thou” relationships for they are much healthier and fulfilling. It should also be noted that Buber is not suggesting that these two individuals must or should agree with one another, but rather, embrace an awareness of the other.
In contrast to genuine dialogue, Buber identifies “monologue” as an “I-it” relationship. An I-it relationship can be understood as a relationship in which the other is being objectified. Buber also distinguishes two very different types of monologue, technical dialogue and monologue disguised as dialogue (Buber 1955). Technical dialogue is characterized specifically by the exchange of information between two individuals. For example, Buber may consider dialogue between a teacher and student in a classroom as a form of monologue. In addition, monologue disguised as dialogue can be referred to as moments in time where individuals may feel as though they are engaging in genuine dialogue when in fact they are not (Buber 1955). Examples of this include situations such as debate, chit-chat, and lovers talk.
The Narrow Ridge
In Buber’s theory of I-thou relationship adhering to “the narrow ridge” can provide individuals with a healthy and productive way to create dialogue in conflict situations (Arnett, 1986). The narrow ridge can be understood as “a communication style that genuinely takes into account both self and other… One must be open to the other’s viewpoint and willing to alter one’s position based upon appropriate and just cause if necessary” (Arnett, 1986). By applying the main concepts of Buber’s theory we can aim to uncover the causes as well as solutions to complicated roommate dyads.
Application of Buber’s Genuine Dialogue Theory
Buber’s theory clearly highlights the key indicators of individuals engaging in monologue. This paper will apply Buber’s genuine dialogue theory to analyze the problematic communication behavior between my roommate and myself. By taking a closer look at our relationship through a dialogical lens the conflict interactions can be minimized. Buber portrayed the ideal form of dialogue as communication as ”two persons who profoundly disagree with each other and yet struggle to make each other present even as they stand their own ground” (Czubaroff, 2000). Therefore through the application of genuine dialogue, Buber’s viewpoint can afford roommates experiencing tension an ideal thought process to better handle such communication problems.
I will begin this application with a brief overview of the communication problems between my roommate and myself. We began living together nearly six months ago and to this day we have not been able to form a bond of any sort. The interactions we engage in on a regular basis are short and in most cases nonexistent until we both engage in a fight. For example, recently we were faced with a situation in which my roommate had taken something out of my room without asking. Because this was not a onetime incident I knew that since I couldn’t find my shirt anywhere in my room, that it would be in hers. I reluctantly entered her room when she was not home and retrieved my shirt. When she came home she realized I had entered her room without permission and immediately started screaming at me. She wanted to know why I couldn’t have waited until she got home to ask for my shirt. And why I thought it was okay for me to enter her room without her knowing about it. In response I screamed back at her yelling, “Well if you hadn’t taken the shirt out of my room without me knowing, I would have never had to enter your room in the first place!” Through the application of Buber’s theory we can understand that the problem between us was that we were obviously engaging in monologue. I was yelling at her about how I felt and she was yelling at me about how she felt. Neither of us however, were trying to understand why the other felt the way they did. After our yelling match was over we both walked away still oblivious to the others intensions or feelings. Although we did not engage in dialogue during this fight it does not mean we have to continue engaging in the same unproductive behavior. Through the use of Buber’s theory of dialogue we can both look at the situation in a new light.
Buber would describe our previous behavior as polarized communication (Buber 1955). I understood my own point of view and she understood her own, however, neither of us were aware of the other's point of view. In order to overcome this hostile pattern of monologue disguised as dialogue we must first both realize our tendencies to think that we are engaging in dialogue. Once this can be achieved both my roommate and I need to apply Buber’s idea of the narrow ridge. We both experienced an invasion of privacy and while we might not find the other justified in their privacy invasion, we must strive to understand where the other person is coming from. This does not mean that we need to come to an agreement; rather, we must set aside our preconceptions and pre-existing tensions and be truly open to experiencing the other. If this can be achieved, individuals such as us will have the opportunity for genuine dialogue to occur.
Critique of Buber’s Genuine Dialogue Theory
Buber’s theory of communication can be applied to many relational settings not only those between roommates. When applied, his theory can help individuals involved recognize and analyze their communication problems. Buber’s theory provides individuals with a unique lens that can possibly help them view their communication problems in more productive ways. Overall, the theory of genuine dialogue affords individuals with new ways of recognizing and analyzing their communication problems.
While Buber’s theory of genuine dialogue does address several key issues behind communication problems, it does not however provide a solution or process for individuals to apply, in order for them to achieve genuine dialogue. This is a significant oversight on Buber’s part. In order to find a process that would address these issues one must look to Carl Rogers, a similar phenomenological theorist who does provide individuals with essential characteristics needed to achieve genuine dialogue. Rogers defines dialogue as a “therapeutic relationship” and according to Rogers there are three necessary characteristics for dialogue to occur (Rogers, 1957). Unlike Buber, Rogers believes that ways of talking can promote the possibility of dialogue (Rogers, 1957). For example, the use of “I” statements during disagreements affords individuals with a sense of congruence. Congruence can be understood as a genuine, transparency where the persons involved are aware of their own feelings and express them (Rogers, 1957). Congruence happens to be Rogers' first necessary characteristic for genuine dialogue. Through both Buber’s theory of genuine dialogue and Rogers' theory of therapeutic relationships, individuals facing communication problems can both recognize the issue as well as solve it.
Overall, Buber’s theory of genuine dialogue affords individuals with innovative ways to view and analyze their communication problems and patterns. By viewing communication problems through Buber’s lens, individuals such as my roommate and I, can begin to resolve the unhealthy patterns of communication between ourselves. Most importantly Buber’s theory allows individuals to recognize the communication problem at hand, and in turn, address it in a way that is beneficial for both themselves and the “other.”
Buber, M. (1955). Dialogue. In Between man and man (R. G. Smith, Trans.; pp. 1-39). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Czubaroff, J. (2000). Dialogical rhetoric: An application of Martin Buber's philosophy of dialogue. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 86(2), 168-189.
Marquess, D. (2008). Dialogue in roommate relationships. University of Colorado at Boulder. http://www.colorado.edu/communication/meta-discourses/Papers/App_Papers/Marquess.htm
Rogers, C. (1957). The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21(2), 95-103.
Ronald, R.C. (1986). Communication and community implications of Martin Buber's dialogue. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.