Trending Again: Emoting at the World Economic Forum

The World Economic Forum at Davos is known for a lot of things: its idyllic mountain setting, its overstuffed buffet of discourse and debate, its wide array of business leaders, politicians and policy-makers, plus its celebrity-studded parties and unmistakable undercurrent of exclusivity and elitism. I returned to Davos this year after a few years' break, and saw all of that in full force.

A few newer trends stood out: a wider discussion of the threats to capitalism than I'd seen in the past; a good deal of fear and blame-mongering around the state of the global economy and some leavening optimism around technology and innovation. But the thing that struck me most clearly at Davos this year wasn't about the content of the discussion; it was about the style.

Presenters and panelists alike fretted, enthused and expressed like mad, vividly sharing their fears, hopes and feelings about the state of the world. They were emoting all over the place. Emoting, according to the Free Dictionary, is 'to express emotion, especially in an excessive or theatrical manner.' I saw a lot of it.

Emoting isn't unique to Davos, of course. It is a global trend (and Davos is better at picking up on trends than at almost anything else). It is hard to peg exactly when the emoting trend picked up steam. Perhaps it is rooted in the talk-show confessionals and reality show explosion of the past two decades. Or perhaps the massive growth of online content has created a context in which the mere expressions of ideas cannot break through the clutter unless accompanied by the emotional detritus of sobbing YouTube videos and sad-face emoticons.

Personally, I blame it on President Bubba. Bill Clinton made it acceptable and even cool for a guy, the most powerful man in the world, to emote. Emoting became, under Clinton, the mark of a caring leader and a powerful public speaker. Think of the scene in Primary Colors when John Travolta, playing presidential candidate Governor Jack Stanton, a proxy for Bill Clinton, spent hours in a Krispy Kreme donut shop emoting with the clerk and assorted other patrons. It was the peak advertisement for emoting-as-leadership.

Emoting is often confused with empathizing — 'identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives.' Clinton famously felt our pain and, to the extent that he did feel it, that's empathy. But the words "I feel your pain" can have another meaning too: that is, I feel pain because I have to deal with the presence of someone who is in pain. That's not empathy; that's emoting.

The difference is important. Empathy is pretty much an unalloyed good. It opens us up to others and it makes us more mindful, more thoughtful, more kind. Empathy is not self-indulgent. Emoting, on the other hand, is most often a cry out for someone else to empathize with you. Feel my pain, please!

Over the past decade, I have noticed more and more emoting by members of governance bodies — boards and governing councils, for example. When management comes forward with a recommended initiative or investment, members of the governing body respond not with thoughtful critique and advice but by emoting: 'this makes me nervous,' 'I worry about the employees,' 'this could create uproar in the capital markets.' Simply emoting is now considered useful and appropriate behavior. There is no need to think about how to overcome the fretting; emoting is the only job. Such behavior sends a clear signal to management: "You have produced an unpleasant emotion and made me uncomfortable, which I have signaled by emoting. Now, it is your job to make me comfortable. Please don't make me emote again."

This was a dominant current at Davos. Lots and lots of emoting — about inequality, instability, inequity, inefficiency, inhumanity, insufficiency, etc. I think it provides comfort, but in an odd sort of way. The Davos crowd includes many power-brokers, world leaders and economic titans. Getting a chance to emote together in a big group is probably a relief from the day-to-day life of running an unruly world.

The big question to me is: Is that as good as it gets? Could a group like this, rather than mainly emoting to one another, focus more on creating breakthrough strategies for moving the world forward? Maybe I have strategy too much on the brain these days, but I tend to think that in the absence of a sense of strategy, problems feel overwhelming — and feeling overwhelmed leads to emoting. If on a number of the issues worrying the Davos participants there was a focus on where to play and how to win, I suspect emoting would decline and strategic breakthrough would blossom.

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