Addiction to the big C

Addiction to the big C[1]

I admit it. I’m addicted to communication. Most likely, you are too–if you spend time watching anything that falls under the category of “Reality TV.” My biggest communication vice is The Amazing Race. Seeing as how this show is a treasure trove of the many different types of communication that exist (and is therefore worthy of scholarly examination), I will take the liberty of removing it from my “guilty pleasures” list.

If you aren’t familiar, here is the premise: eleven pairs of people compete to win a million dollars by solving puzzles as they travel around the world facing various obstacles. Now here’s the real premise: communication, communication, and (aargh!) more communication. It is wildly successful because it is a study on how people communicate and the dramatic consequences (large—winning a million dollars, and small—getting into an argument) of failing to communicate. The eleven pairs are a mix of different types of dynamics—mother/daughter, father/son, best friends, long-married, newly-married, newly dating, grandparents, co-workers, the list of possible combinations goes on. The pairs are defined not just by their relationships to each other, but also by their occupations (Season 4 had Air Traffic Controllers), interests (Season 15 had poker players), and even physical appearance (Season 12 had “dating goths”). The ultra-competitive nature of the game requires that individuals be (among other things, but most importantly) highly skilled, strategic communicators—with their partners as well as with the other teams.

The main drama occurs organically[2] when partners on a team are unable or unwilling[3] to communicate (or better yet—both!). Individuals have to read (or listen to) the instructions for a challenge, understand what the goal is, and then come to an agreement with their partner regarding the best way to accomplish that goal. The first episode of Season 19 has a bonanza of communication examples, so I’ll focus on that for the purposes of this discussion. Often, teams immediately get flustered when they get in their cars to drive to the first location—particularly because one person is responsible for driving and the other person is in charge of navigating. For anyone who doesn’t know how to read a map, communicating the correct route and cardinal direction to the driver, becomes a challenge in itself![4] Snowboarders Andy and Tommy quickly determined that the easiest thing to do was to just ask someone at a gas station how to get to the airport. They are one of the first teams to arrive.

Friends (and Former Vegas Showgirls) Kaylani and Lisa decide the same thing and end up at the same gas station (though not at the same time as the snowboarders). Unfortunately, they discover that Kaylani’s passport is missing. Thanks to the immediate stress of the situation and its implication (they would not be able to continue racing without it), the communication between the two friends breaks down and they begin bickering on their way to the airport. When the girls get confirmation that no one else (from the other teams) had found and turned in Kaylani’s passport, they break into another fight:

Lisa: It’s over.

Kaylani: Ok. I’m not gonna sit here and follow you around. You’re acting like—

Lisa: Don’t follow me around then.

Kaylani: Ok. We need to come up with a plan. Communicate with me.

Lisa: What plan?! You have no passport. What freakin’ plan?

Kaylani: You need to communicate with me!

Lisa: Communicate what?! You have no passport!

Kaylani: Where are we going to go?

Lisa: I’m going nowhere because you have no passport!

Kaylani’s plea to Lisa is a great example of the basic requirement of communication. It can only occur if the parties involved are actively engaged in the process of sending and receiving information. In a miraculous turn of events, Kaylani has her passport returned to her thanks to some ridiculously serendipitous circumstances: the guys that had given the snowboarders directions are the same guys that find her passport. They use twitter to communicate that they had run into a team from the show (and the crew filming it) and that they had found another team’s passport. A random woman sees his tweet and notifies him that Kaylani can’t be contacted (there’s a no-cell phone policy) and that he should get the passport to LAX immediately. Now that’s communication at its best!

Using communication in a different manner, are ‘dating’ couple, Ethan and Jenna, who purposely decide not to communicate to the other teams that they are winners of the reality show, Survivor. They believe that if other teams know this information, they will have a larger target on themselves. Unfortunately, their popularity on Survivor makes it impossible for them to fly under-the-radar. Their non-communication strategy backfires and the other teams realize that Ethan and Jenna can’t be trusted. Interestingly, the Olympic snowboarders are hoping to communicate (via their laid-back demeanor and looks) that they are “slackers” and not to be viewed as threats [Inner monologue: you made the Olympic snowboarding team. Who could possibly believe you are slackers?!].

One final, shining example of a communication fail (I must stop somewhere–there’s enough material to write a book), is the Confuscius challenge. One person from each team has to listen to a recording (over a pay phone) of a famous proverb from Confuscius, remember it, and then repeat it verbatim to a waiting monk. The sweet irony in this challenge is that the quote itself touts the importance of preparation as a requirement for success. Many of the teams heard the recording, but didn’t really listen to it. Twin sisters Liz and Marie took the cake when Liz could not manage to successfully repeat the proverb after more than 20 attempts. This is a great example of how crucial it is to do just as much listening as talking when you communicate. Liz was focusing so much on her role as the sender of the message, that she did not pay enough attention to first being the recipient of that message.

From our homes in different states, my siblings and I watch every episode and re-hash it on the phone, discussing the many ways in which we are convinced that we would have done better (duh!). From these strangers’ weekly communication successes and failures, my own family’s communication is strengthened. The great thing about The Amazing Race is that it does just that–gets people talking about communication, thinking about it, and (for those brave enough to get on the show), challenging themselves to be better communicators.



[1] No, that is not a subtle reference to the Showtime program called The Big C. But I do recommend it. Laura Linney is fabulous!

[2] Rumor has it that the same cannot be said for another reality show, The Jersey Shore, which has been compared to Pro Wrestling for its supposed staging of fights. And yet, one could argue that even then, there is still value in analyzing the points where communication breaks down.

[3] The explosive connection between brother/sister team Justin and Jennifer, comes to an unfortunate boil in Episode 2 when Jennifer willfully and stubbornly, refuses to communicate, further frustrating and upsetting her brother.

[4] Always amusing to me is how most people fall into two camps when it comes to giving directions. Some use mileage, others use landmarks. I prefer the latter, but will also default to time (ie. How long does it take to drive downtown?). In my experience, time seems to be the easiest way to bridge the communication gap between the other two communication styles.


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