Doing some last minute studying with my fellow grad students earlier this evening, I put out a hypothetical—if the Comm Theory exam gave us a question in which we picked a theory and picked what we applied it to, I was going to apply Howard Giles’ communication accommodation theory to Groundhog Day and I would copy and paste my answer as my blog entry for today.
But, that was not allowed to happen, and I didn’t even use that theory in any of my answers.
However, that doesn’t mean I cannot write about it now.
First, let’s backtrack a little. Last fall, for a different class, we had to read and evaluate someone else’s thesis. I ended up choosing The Effects of Nonverbal Synchrony on Perceived Trust: An Extension of Communication Accommodation Theory by Judith Ann Reiten (1993). She made some of the connections I might make below, between Giles’ theory and similarity attraction theory and neurolinguistic programming, particularly to measure trust through synchrony (mirroring and matching).
You may leave now and come back tomorrow, but trust me, this will not be as dense as many of my entries have been, regardless of what I just threw at you.
Anyway, the theory is fairly simple. When we are interacting (i.e. communicating) with others, we adjust our behaviors to the actions of those others. We mimic one another, basically. This is convergence. It isn’t a 100% rule, of course; we can also diverge by exaggerating our differences, and the process can be non-mutual; that is, one person might be converging while the other is diverging. It doesn’t have to be a conscious process, though in the case of Phil Connors, particularly on “date night” it is definitely done consciously.
Lakens and Stel (2011) tell us, “Coordinated behavior patterns are one of the pillars of social interaction” (p. 1). For Phil, it is not even real social interaction on date night, it is methodical manipulation of self—
(throw in a little of Ting-Toomey’s face negotiation theory or Burke’s identification, Mead’s symbolic interactionism or Baxter’s relational dialectics, Altman & Taylor’s social penetration theory or Berger’s uncertainty reduction, or even Burgoon’s expectancy violations theory (and I could go on and on with this list), and you’ve got a lot of angles to look at Phil’s attempted seduction of Rita)
—to get what he wants. Everything he says and does is just a means to an end. Later, he will figure out—or so we can assume—how to do thing for the sake of doing those things rather than just to achieve selfish ends, but on date night, it is all about the seduction. Just a minor example, watch Phil and Rita walking beside each other as they approach the Cherry Street Inn on Phil’s most successful date night; he walks directly beside Rita—their steps seemingly in sync—and he looks to her as she talks, listens and responds. Each action is focused on her. The aforementioned Lakens and Stel found that “individuals walking in synchrony were rated higher on rapport and entitativity”—defined as being part of a social unit—“by observers” though, specifically limited to those where the matched walking rhythm appeared to come naturally (p. 9). Phil’s behavior, because Rita doesn’t know of all the research he’s done in the time loop, would appear natural (though maybe unusual) to her.
The basic motive behind Phil’s choice of approach relates to Byrne’s similarity attraction theory—“ as one person is perceived to become more similar to another, this will increase the likelihood that the second will like the first” (quoted in Reiten, 1993, p. 2). Reiten cites Giles (1987) explaining how "the more a speaker is perceived to adapt their linguistic features (speech rates, pauses, utterance length, and pronunciations) to that of the listener, the more favorably the speaker will be evaluated and the more the listener will 'converge,' or adapt his linguistic features in turn" (p. 2). Phil starts the date night sequence by asking Rita personal questions:
What do you want? What do you like? What do you think about? What kind of men are you interested in? What do you do for fun?
So, what do you want out of life, anyway?
Are you seeing anyone?
What are you looking for? Who is your perfect guy?
And, he gets answers—
I guess I want what everybody wants, you know: career, love, marriage, children.
Well, first of all, he’s too humble to know he’s perfect.
He’s intelligent, supportive, funny.
He’s romantic and courageous.
He’s got a good body, but he doesn’t have to look in the mirror every two minutes.
He’s kind, sensitive and gentle. He’s not afraid to cry in front of me.
He likes animals and children, and he’ll change poopy diapers.
Oh, and he plays an instrument, and he loves his mother.
—but he doesn’t really use them just yet. Instead he keeps going. He figures out her favorite drink then orders it before she does the next day. He figures out what she toasts to when drinking, then toasts to it the next day. Offscreen, he figures out her family has a cabin in the mountains, so he references living at high altitude. He finds out she studied 19th-century French poetry in college, he… well, he laughs about it, but the next day he recites some lines in French. Building a snowman, he references wanting kids because back in the Tip Top Café, Rita said she wanted them.
Phil’s problem is that he got all those answers but moves past them. He only fakes being romantic and being sensitive or gentle. He hasn’t the opportunity to act courageously or to cry in front of Rita or to change poopy diapers.
(Imagine a scene in which, ostensibly to impress Rite, Phil grabs some random baby who he knows from time loop experience has a dirty diaper and changes it. That would come across a little weird.)
He expresses a like for children which seems genuine enough (the first snowman scene, notably, is not the first time Phil and Rita build a snowman together; it’s just the first one we see) on the first iteration we see but is artificial the next time we see it. In Rubin’s original script, Phil manages to get out of Punxsutawney to visit his mother, but his own mother points out that he only visits her,
Because YOU were lonely. When’s the last time you visited me because I was lonely? (Rubin, 2012, p. 59)
And, Phil only manages the instrument thing later, when he has given up on the seduction. At least if we don’t look at the film too cynically, anyway; then, Phil learns to play piano because it’s a pleasant and reasonable way to pass the time, not because some innumerable amount of days ago Rita mentioned it.
The problem is, perhaps, that Phil is trying all the stuff he is trying deliberately on date night. None of it is quite real, so the effect is not what it should be. As Wheatley et al (2012) point out, “company alone is not enough” (p. 589). Phil, at best, manages Rita’s company on those date nights. The connection is only ever as real as his own half of it is. Finding someone (a mind) is just the first step, Wheatley et al explain. “Actually connecting with another mind means the difference between surviving and thriving in a social world” (p. 593).
Interestingly, the next line there—“Getting from mind detection to mental connection requires the ability to predict how another mind will behave”—is almost proven incorrect by Phil for a while there. He can predict how Rita will behave, and he is turning himself, for the most part, into someone whose behavior she can also predict. But, no matter how much work he puts into it, as long as he is fundamentally faking it, the connection remains imperfect.
Additionally, Wheatley et al argue, “The ability to read and embody the experiences of others as they unfold dynamically is a prerequisite for successful social interaction” (p. 594). On the one hand, this demonstrates Phil’s failure on date night, because he never embodies Rita’s experiences fully until later—see any past discussions in this blog involving Daughton (1996). Also, Rita’s being let in on the truth of Phil’s situation on “god day” is, in these terms, the time that Rita gets to embody Phil’s experiences (as much as she can, at least), thus marking the first (and maybe only (see the very next sentence)) genuine interaction between them. Finally, since Phil never actually tells Rita about the time loop on the last resumption (i.e. at the Banquet), there is no “successful social interaction” here in these terms. The connection remains both flawed and incomplete…
Which brings to mind a topic I have never covered: Does Phil tell Rita about the time loop after the movie ends?
A question for another day.
Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to apply every communication theory to Groundhog Day… separately… and thoroughly.
Lakens, D. & Stel, M. (2011). If They Move in Sync, They Must Feel in Sync: Movement Synchrony Leads to Attributions of Rapport and Entitativity. Social Cognition 29(1), pp. 1-14.
Rubin, D. (2012). How to Write Groundhog Day. Gainesville, FL: Triad.
Wheatley, T., Kang, O., Parkinson, C. & Looser, C.E. (2012). From Mind Perception to Mental Connection: Synchrony as a Mechanism for Social Understanding. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 6/8, pp. 589-606.