Since the dawn of humanity, philosophers, scientists, and puppeteers alike have been asking the same penetrating questions: Do we have free will? Do we actually make choices on our own, or is our behavior determined by powerful forces from our environment such as nagging guardians, instructors, our outlook calendar, or the snarling pit bull next door?

During my first year of college I came to the conclusion that by the time I was aware that much (if not all) of what I did was, indeed, a function of my upbringing and surroundings, it was too late for me to undo the effects. The die had been cast. My language, my actions, my very methods of reasoning—all had been shaped before I even realized what was going on.

So, I came up with a plan. In order to regain control of my will, I would act in ways that were opposite to my proclivities. Surely, this would put me back in charge. Ah, but this thought too had been shaped by my life’s experiences and was therefore hardly a choice, so I’d do the exact opposite. I’d follow my natural desires. Wait a minute, this couldn’t be right . . . and thus I swirled down an infinite loop of circular thinking until I eventually stumbled on a philosophy of my liking: habitual spontaneity. I try. 😉

And so I plodded along unfettered by concerns over free will/determinism until one fateful day—the day I stopped smoking. Along with the absence of my addiction came a test of my free will. The test was cleverly disguised as the great outdoors, but it was a test nevertheless and I couldn’t easily escape it.

Here’s how the free-will test worked. The very first day after I quit smoking I walked outside to take in the view, swim in the pool, and act like a nutter, etc, and looked upon the ground before me and spit. I hadn’t ‘spit’ in more than ten years. From that moment on, every time I was outside for any extended period of time my spit button switched immediately on. It was creepy. I couldn’t not spit. When it came to the outdoors, I was little more than a loogie-marionette, jerked into action at the mere sight of an open space before me.

As a child growing up in Savannah I had lived around swamps where, like all of my childhood friends, I spit every time I looked over the water. It’s what boys did. Children, I’m told, often push their food off their high-chair tray, not solely as a means of rebellion, but as a method for learning depth perception. Perhaps my hard-wired act of spitting when I was outdoors was an extension of this mechanism?

In an effort to re-captain my spit reflex I tried personal pep talks. I’d approach my backyard and think, “Don’t spit, don’t spit! You can do it!” But then I’d get distracted (“Oh, what a pretty leaf!”), lean against the nearest object, and—patoohee—I might as well have been a cowpoke leaning over a spittoon.

I mention this problem of reflexively jumping into inappropriate actions not because I want to enter the free-will/determinism debate, but because it’s highly relevant to something I do think a great deal about—one’s interpersonal skills. Here’s how the two topics relate. Much of our daily social interaction is tightly scripted. We engage in similar conversations so frequently that they become routine. In fact, if pressed, not only could we say what needs to be said without really thinking about it, we could act out both sides of the conversation, all without a hiccup.

The good news is that these patterned responses free up our brains to muse about a great many other things. The bad news is, once we start into a script, it’s hard to change what we do and say. We follow the script much like a well-worn and familiar path—actually, more like a railway.

For example, one evening a friend of mine asked me to request the new HOT fry sauce (a local product) when I ordered our food at a local hamburger joint. I entered the queue, waited my turn, and then the clerk started into the counter script.

“May I help you?”

“Why yes,” I replied—and off we went. I didn’t merely know what I was going to say, I knew what the clerk was going to say. He was going to ask me if I wanted fries and a drink and when I said yes, he was going to ask: “Large?”

Of course, once I switched into auto pilot, I flew through the interaction without much thought and, you guessed it, I didn’t ask for HOT fry sauce. I was never going to ask for the fry sauce because the interaction was programmed from the beginning. I started into the counter script, and once I did, I fogged over, coasted along, and stopped making my own decisions.

This particular issue becomes important when one wants to improve their ability to communicate. There are ways to bring cognition—and with it, the hope for change—into highly routine interactions if only you can remind yourself to do so. For those of you who have found it hard to change your ‘routines’, here are a few hints for breaking the bonds of pre-programmed scripts.

Put up a Sign. Physically or Metaphorically. This was the original solution (that I’m still working on btw) to my problem. I posted a sign (on the outside porch post) that simply stated “Don’t Spit.” I would read it just before my spit button would come into play and I eventually broke the habit. (Until I moved that is. HaHa)

(to be con’d…………)