The effects of another’s demeanor: Draining and diminishing

I argued yesterday that a demeanor just is the manner in which one ‘conveys’ or embodies a specific form of life. By saying this, I sought to clear a space for the consideration of demeanor, quite apart from that of behavior, conduct, action, and discourse. In the final paragraph, I suggested that this definition gives us a few clues concerning why simply being around a certain someone–in an office, on a train, in an elevator–may be at once draining and diminishing. Below, I want to show that ‘draining’ and ‘diminishing’ refer to two separate, but related, phenomena.

What is draining about being in the presence of someone with, say, a cold demeanor is that one feels as if one were ‘coerced’ into occupying a form of life in which coldness is markedly borne. Someone with a professional demeanor or a boisterous demeanor can drain one, but for different reasons. To say afterward that one feels drained (or exhausted or heavy, etc.) is to imply that one has endured, suffered, or borne having had to inhabit or occupy an alien form of life in which this demeanor shows forth. It is, if you prefer, rather like sharing a locker with someone who breathes heavily on everything around him.

Apart from feeling drained, the other feeling is one of having diminished powers of seeing and acting, a dimmed aesthetic sense, an obscuring of what is most important. There is a sense of disorientation: of having been turned away from what matters and of not having a way of finding one’s way back. This feeling, which is at the same time a thought, highlights the sense in which we have lost our world: the form of life that is embodied fully in or conveyed by our own demeanor. In the presence of this person, we feel (in this respect) drawn away from our form of life, and thus it may prove more difficult–in some cases, impossible–to appreciate, say, the textures of tree bark. The temporary loss of our ability to create something out of the fecund interactions with the beautiful world may also be lamented.

In sum, one feels drawn down and into (occupation) as well as away and abroad (disorientation, obscuration).

It is a separate question, one that I leave unconsidered today, what the nature and effects one’s environment may have on the possibility of one’s living radiantly. But the two implications of the argument above concerning the effects of demeanor upon the possibility of one’s flourishing are direct and clear: first, that being in the presence of the wrong kinds of others can, over a time enough period of time, cause us to be exhausted (the claim about ‘being drained’ by virtue of occupying an alien form of life) as well as to lose sight of, or access to, our powers of living beautifully (the claim about ‘being diminished’ due to the temporary severance from one’s form of life); and, second, that being in the presence of the right kinds of people can prove nourishing, inspiriting, and uplifting.

A gentle demeanor spreads warmth, thereby staying with me, whereas a cold demeanor can make me cold, aloof, and ennervated. Doubtless, being in the right company will prove vital for leading a radiant life.