Relationship and Work Esteem

In my attempt to integrate media literacy into my communication textbooks, I've been working on the ways in which the media influences our view of interpersonal relationships (close relationships and workplace relationships). Here is an initial formulation of just one aspect of this influence. I think this might be a useful stimulus for class discussion--in interpersonal communication and in media courses--and also an interesting project for classes in which students conduct original research. The hypotheses presented here should prove suitable for such projects, perhaps even for an entire class.

Esteem and the Media

The media teaches us about what our lives should be or could be, particularly in terms of our relationship and our work lives.

Relationship Esteem and the Media

Compared to what happens on Brothers and Sisters or Desperate Housewives or any of the soaps, most people's lives are dull and uninteresting. Their lives are boring, at least when compared to the Walkers or the families on Wisteria Lane. And it's unlikely that this constant bombardment with the fantastic lives of those on television, takes no toll on viewers. In fact, it seems reasonable to propose that these programs have an effect on what we might call Relationship Esteem. Similar to self-esteem, relationship-esteem refers to the value we put on our relationships, whether friendship, romantic, family, or work. Like high self-esteem, high relationship esteem refers to the condition where we place a positive value on our relationships; we think they're good. Negative relationship esteem would be the opposite; we place a negative value on our relationships and think they are not so good.

Like self-esteem, which we gauge, in part, through comparisons with other people, we also estimate our relationship-esteem through comparisons with other people's relationships. When we compare our own relationships with those of our neighbors or with those with whom we work, our relationships are likely to be seen as relatively comparable--not great perhaps, but not terrible either. In fact, the self-serving bias in most people might lead them to conclude that their relationships are a bit better than those of their friends and colleagues. However, when we compare our relationships with those on Days of Our Lives or The Young and the Restless, they're likely to be seen as falling short of the glamour and glitz, the excitement and intensity, the attractiveness and style of these make-believe relationships (which of course many don't see as make-believe).

Surprisingly, media researchers have done little to explore the influence of the media on viewer's perceptions of relationships. There are some notable exceptions. For example, the study of parasocial relationships explored the establishment of relationships between viewers and media characters and was clearly a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, surprisingly little scientific research has been done on this topic since it was introduced in 1956 (Giles, 2002). Another noble attempt was the collection of readings by Robert Cathcart and Gary Gumpert, Inter/Media: Interpersonal Communication in a Media World, which went through three editions from 1979 to 1986 but no comparable recent volume seems to exist. Most telling is that the mass media textbooks virtually ignore this topic, although they do address media effects (but not in terms of our perceptions of our relationships). And, equally guilty, are the interpersonal communication texts that discuss relationships in detail but say little, if anything, about the role of the media. The present argument is another attempt to bridge these two worlds and worldviews by demonstrating one important connection between media watching and relationship perception, a connection that's essential to understand if we're to understand interpersonal relationships or media effects.

Of course, the reason for the media's emphasis on intensity (and we see this in new shows, advertisements, and just about any media product) is obvious. If the media presented lives that were not full of high emotions, intense feelings, and extraordinary experiences we wouldn't watch it. People don't watch boring; they watch exciting. The same is true with the crime shows. Simple shootings or poisonings are far too tame to make it to prime time; dismemberment, cannibalism, and only the most painful of deaths are shown. Anything short of this is likely to be seen as too ordinary, too common, too uninteresting.

From this basic assumption about the media and relationships, we can advance a few seemingly-reasonable propositions: Those who watch lots of television, especially relationship dramas and soaps, compared to those who watch little or no television, are characterized by:

Lower relationship esteem. There's no way a real relationship can compete with the excitement of a media relationships.
Lower self-esteem. It would be difficult to maintain high self-esteem if your relationship looks so poor in comparison with those on television
Lower positive predictions about their relationship future. Discontent is likely to dull the prospects for an exciting future or a future at all
Greater personal depression. Relationship dissatisfaction is likely to spill over and create depression and general unhappiness
Greater relationship conflict. Dissatisfaction with one's relationship is likely to generate conflict.
Greater relationship doubt and uncertainty. Seems a likely outcome--after all, these exciting relationships on television are going to make yours' seem so average that you might doubt the significance of your current relationships.
Lower relationship commitment. All this great competition (these great relationships) is likely to make you less committed to your own relationship and perhaps to begin looking elsewhere.
Lower relationship satisfaction. This seems true, by definition (almost).
Greater relationship ambiguity. Perhaps we look for situations that are ambiguous on the assumption that our relationships may be better than we thought
Shorter-lasting relationships. Relationship dissatisfaction is a likely cause of relationship deterioration or dissolution
Fewer cherishing behaviors and affiliative cues. This seems a consequence of the low relationship satisfaction
Less self-disclosure. especially about their relationship, to each other and to those outside the relationship (for example, friends, neighbors, and co-workers) We don't want to tell others about a mediocre life--it wouldn't be interesting and it wouldn't be good for our self-image. On the other hand, it's likely to increase the frequency of complaining and perhaps greater self-disclosure in some contexts.

Work Esteem and the Media

A coordinate theme is that of work esteem. For the most part, the work situations we see on television--for example, Criminal Minds, Cold Case, and the CSI, Law & Order, and NCIS dramas--are filled with incredibly competent people. These are people who know their job and know how to work efficiently and effectively. Contrast this with our own work experience and there's an enormous difference. Most of us do not work with incredibly competent people--some are competent but many are incompetent and we wonder how organizations can survive on this level of incompetence. Few of us have the opportunity to work with technology personnel on the level of Penelope Garcia from Criminal Minds or Abby Sciuto from NCIS. Those who are truly competent move on to the small group of elite institutions--whether it's Harvard and Yale in academic life or Google and Yahoo! in Internet life or Goldman Sachs and J. P. Morgan in financial life--while the vast numbers of others, continue to toil among the average and the incompetent--a sad but necessary realization. And those who are even more competent than these are, of course, created by writers.

The exception here are the shows purposely illustrating incompetence for comic effect, such as The Office. But, this type of show draws incompetence in such broad strokes that it can never be taken as real, unlike the shows that feature competence. There seems to be a fundamental difference here; drama is real, comedy is not real.

Another aspect that distinguishes the drama on television from the drama of real life is that the people on television are engaged in significant endeavors--curing people of deadly illnesses, saving lives, bringing the guilty to justice, or winning a case for a worthy client, for example. Everything they do is genuinely worthwhile. Whose work can compare with that of Gregory House or Kadee Strickland or Derek Shepherd from the various medical shows. Only few real life people are in this league.

If even part of this is true, then it's likely that workers will develop negative views of their colleagues and even themselves if they compare themselves to Horatio Caine or Calleigh Duquesne from CSI Miami, for example. And, equally likely, they'll develop negative views of their own work environment, the purposes of their work (and perhaps their lives), and the value of what they do for eight hours a day.

As with relationship esteem, a number of corollaries seem warranted, for example:
People who watch a great deal of television, particularly positive work environment shows such as the CSIs, when compared to those who watch such shows rarely or never, are likely to be characterized as having:

A more negative view of their colleagues. After all, who can compare with fictional characters.
A more negative view of their work environment. With so many competent people engaged in such worthwhile causes, your own work environment is likely to pale in comparison.
A more negative view of the value of what they do. Most work can't compare in importance to that depicted in television dramas.
Greater job restlessness that results in more frequent job changes. Dissatisfaction is likely to lead one to look elsewhere for the basic satisfactions the media tells us we should experience.
Fewer happy experiences in general and in their work in particular. Work dissatisfaction will likely spread into life in general.
Less satisfaction from working. If you're not doing anything terribly interesting, then you're not likely to experience much satisfaction
Less emotional investment in the success of the company. There's probably a tendency to invest less when there is dissatisfaction and perhaps an awareness of potential change
Less respect for the company and its officers. The supervisors and heads of departments are not likely to compare favorably to Jethro Gibbs or Hetty Lange from the NCIS franchise.
Less commitment to the goals of the company. Dissatisfaction seems to underlie and nurture a lack of commitment
Lives personal life separate from work life. Perhaps this is a way of separating the good from the bad
Less efficiency and effectiveness on the job. After all, if the work doesn't really matter (at least in comparison to the television world) why be concerned with efficiency or effectiveness.
Fewer friends from the job. This may actually prove the reverse; perhaps it comforts us to associate with people we think are less competent than we are.

Giles, D. C. (2002). Parasocial interaction: A review of the literature and a model for future research. Media Psychology 4, 279-305.
Cathcart, R., & Gumpert, G. (1986). Inter-Media: Interpersonal communication in a media world, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press.