The film “When Harry Met Sally” is rife with examples of interpersonal communication victories and utter failures. The main characters- Harry Burns played by Billy Crystal and Sally Albright played by Meg Ryan-are captive to each other’s company during a car ride from Chicago to New York and quickly find they maintain very opposite viewpoints on much of life, especially relationships between men and women. The premise for the argument and the remainder of the film is the disagreement as to whether or not women and men can be friends without sex getting in the way.
Harry maintains it is not possible, and Sally takes the opposite position. Throughout the film Harry and Sally display a number of different communication traits. Their style of communication is determined largely by the way they regard themselves and the way they perceive others. These factors of communication provide for a rollercoaster of interactions throughout the film. The way that one regards themself, a relatively stable set of perceptions about one’s self, is referred to as self-concept (Adler, Proctor, Rosenfeld 56).
Self-concept is a reflection not only of the physical attributes but also the emotional, moral, value, and preference characteristics of personality. The way that someone feels about those qualities will determine their self-esteem, part of the self-concept that determines self-worth. Typically it is thought that a high self-esteem is preferable over a low self-esteem, and while that is largely true, a high self-esteem doesn’t necessarily mean that person will enjoy interpersonal success.
A high self-esteem may lead people to think they are more successful than the rest of the world sees them. It’s easy to see how people with an inflated sense of self-worth could irritate others by coming across as condescending know-it-alls, especially when their self-worth is challenged” (Adler, Rosenfeld, Proctor 56). There are many examples of Harry exhibiting an inflated sense of self-worth in the movie. One such clear example is famous cafe scene in which Sally fakes an orgasm. To summarize the conversation; Harry and Sally are discussing their relational pursuits since their previous relationships fell apart.
Harry concludes that he is a master of love-making and that because he is able to fully satisfy his dates it is excusable for him to skip staying the night. Sally is appalled by his behavior and in typical Harry fashion he brushes it off, concluding that he is just more adept at the dating game than Sally. It never occurs to Harry that the women he is certain are “having a good time” could possibly be faking it. It is at this point that Sally fakes an orgasm at the table, at which point Harry must concede he may not be the stud he thought he was.
This somewhat extreme example drives home the point of several facets of self-concept and the potential dangers of how easily it is influenced. Men and women are both susceptible to forming concepts of self based on comparisons to others, a process referred to as social comparison. Both sexes are influenced by magazine ads, billboards, television and movies, and other forms of advertisement that tell viewers how they should, look, act, and perform. People make self-worth determinations based on how superior or inferior they are to the subjects they use to evaluate their own characteristics.
Social scientists call these subjects reference groups. During a lunch meeting with two of her friends Sally engages in a discussion about other women, and her lunch company, in which they compare themselves based on their current relational status. This is a small scale example of women basing their self-worth off the comparative successes and failures of others. In the realms of entrepreneurship and sales there is a strong pull to make assessments of self-worth based upon comparisons of one’s peer group. In the sales organization it is often built in to the culture, reporting, and rewards systems.
My experience has shown that the tendency to compare aspects of self-worth against others is very high and constantly reinforced through media. In my current role as an account executive the organization places the entire roster of account executives and their daily production on the company’s intranet site for everyone to see. You cannot access your numbers and reports without first seeing this report. Over the course of the last five years I have heard numerous people compare themselves and make assessments regarding their ability based on how the rank relative to others on the account report.
I have learned, however, to avoid reviewing the report in order to maintain a higher self-esteem, which in turn creates better results, and becomes self-perpetuating. According to a 1993 study in the longitudinal consistency and change in self-esteem form early adolescence to early childhood by Block and Robbins, between the ages of 14 and 23 exists the potential for great changes in how the self-concept develops and is shaped. The study also concluded that more males increased their sense of self-esteem during this time than did females.
After people approach the age of 30, most selfconcepts remain relatively stable without significant conscious effort (Adler, Rosenfeld, Proctor 63). A realistic self-concept should change over time as it reflects the reality of current circumstances and previous experiences. The tendency, however, is to resist those changes and instead seek out others than confirm the self-concept. The powerful effect that selfconcept has on personality and thus interpersonal communication skills reaches beyond the present. Self-concept can actually affect future outcomes through expectations of an event which influences behavior based on those expectations nd ultimately make that outcome more likely. This phenomenon is referred to as self-fulfilling prophecy (Adler, Rosenfeld, Proctor 64).
Each morning I train a friend in Crossfit, a fast-paced, grueling modality that is a cross between Olympic style lifting and circuit training. The self-fulfilling prophecy is readily apparent in the quality and outcome of these daily workout sessions. Each night when I text the next day’s WOD (workout of the day) to this friend I receive back a response that ranges from “Bring it! to “That is going to suck! ” from him. Over the course of the last year I have noticed that the response he provides has great bearing on his performance the following day. As a result I have made the conscious effort to provide an note of encouragement and support on those instances when he expresses a negative attitude to help negate a self-fulfilling prophecy of poor performance. The great culmination of the effects of self-concept as seen in the film occurs when several of the constructive elements come together in one scene.
Nearing the end of the film Sally receives news that her previous long-time boyfriend, Joe, is getting married. Suddenly the managed identity-presenting self-or public image that Sally had been holding up can no longer be maintained. In numerous conversations Sally has maintained to Harry that she is over Joe, much to Harry’s skepticism, and now the pain is too real for Sally to maintain the front. In desperation she calls Harry and asks him to come over. The seemingly inevitable happens and they have sex.
Harry falls back on his long-time belief that a man and a woman cannot be friends if sex is involved, and interestingly Sally seems to feel there is some truth to this as she concludes their actions were a mistake. Harry’s prophecy has come true in some sense. The emotionally charged situation, coupled with complications from their friendship and their own self-image work together to deconstruct a beautiful friendship. One reason that they begin to drift apart is in their differing perceptions of the situation. Harry seems to be able to move past the issue, at least outwardly, while Sally remains attached to it.
Research suggests that women are better at remembering disputes while men are better at forgetting them (Adler, Rosenfeld, Proctor 211). This theory is played out during their friend’s wedding Harry and Sally engage in a defining argument in their relationship, one which results in the two severing communication for s Harry’s perception is that their sexual encounter is old history, three weeks past, and Sally maintains that the wounds are still fresh. The months following this argument show Harry trying continuously to reconnect with Sally, but his efforts are in vain.
Differences in perception and the ability to communicate that perception and emotions have much to do with differing personalities (Adler, Rosenfeld, Proctor 209). For example people who are considered to be extroverts, those high in openness to experience tend to be imaginative and independent. Those on the opposite end of the scale are more down-to-earth and conformists (Gazzaniga, Heatherton, Halpern 579). In addition, the very perception one has of the personality type of another can have considerable impact on the style of communication (Gazzaniga, Heatherton, Halpern 577).
The film, in a rare Hollywood moment, does an excellent job of incorporating many of the subtleties of interpersonal communication with personality and conflict resolution to paint a believable picture of a relationship. Interactions between Harry and Sally throughout the film display the effects of selfconcept and the role that perspectives of others play in interpersonal communication. The self-concept, though resistant to change, can be molded with considerable conscious effort and the support of others, and the perception of others has as much to do with their actions and reactions as it does with our own self-image and self-esteem.