I just finished reading the survey that Northeast Michigan Council of Governments and the City of Alpena conducted to help the city update its comprehensive plan. And then, because that wasn't enough fun (I'm serious, it was enjoyable), I read the results of the Alpena County survey that was recently completed also in partnership with NEMCOG. Reading through the results elicited many reactions from me. Among them were feelings of happiness, pride, disappointment, anger, frustration, hope, and excitement. Sometimes I laughed out loud (especially at the response of "duh" to the question, "Should the City encourage tourism/recreation?"). Other times I wanted to find the respondent and correct their apparent misinformation. Sometimes I was confused. Mostly though, I was intrigued.
One thing that really stood out to me was the variety of comments, especially among the answers to the question, "Do you think the people of Alpena share a sense of community?" Responses ranged from, "I believe the people of Alpena share a sense of community," to, "I have encountered an attitude that shows that the citizens of Alpena have no respect for one another," and everything in between.
These responses bring to mind a few concepts from the communication courses I instruct. Without boring you with details about the Communication Accommodation Theory, selective attention/exposure and self-fulfilling prophesy, the simple explanation behind these is that we have an impact on our own reality and perceptions. These concepts tell us that people tend to respond to us in the same manner we communicate with them (for example, if we are positive, those responding to us tend to be more positive) and that we tend to seek out information that reinforces our current beliefs. Although I don't like using it as an example, consider political news sources. If you tend to lean right, which station do you tune in to? And if you lean left?
In a way, self-fulfilling prophesy sums this all up and tells us that when we believe something to be true, we tend to act increasingly like it is indeed true, whether it is or not, therefore creating a cycle. The cycle might be spiraling in a negative or positive way, depending of course on the tone of our beliefs and perceptions.
Enough with the technical nerd stuff. The good news with this is that once we are aware of our communication behaviors we can change them. After reading the survey results I believe these concepts can explain some of what is going on in this community (and probably not just this community). This isn't to say the survey results are bogus and the governmental units that conducted these surveys should not take steps to improve. There are two sides to everything. There is certainly some personal responsibility in the way we view our own community and in the way we form our perceptions.
So what are some steps we can take to make sure we aren't living in a false reality or falling into a negative cycle of community perception? We can increase our self-analysis. We can take a less mindless approach and a more active approach. Recognize that we have a role in our own perceptions. If you don't like the perception you have, what are you doing to change it? Filling out the survey was a great way to give input to the city and county, but I suspect that for some who are caught in a negative pattern of communication and perception formation, even if changes are made it won't change their negative perception because they will still choose to see the things that reinforce their beliefs.
Our perceptions have to be formed through a more conscious process. And if we use a more conscious effort, and still feel there are things that need to be changed, then taking action is a great next step.
I wish I had more room to write. I am really passionate about the power of purposeful communication. I do hope the organizations take these recommendations seriously. Surveys are great tools for planning. I also hope that we as citizens can recognize our own perception limitations as well as our role in improving areas we think need improvement. Everything has two sides and these surveys are another opportunity for us to sharpen our skills and grow individually and as a community.
Jackie Krawczak is the executive director of the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce. Her column runs bi-weekly on Tuesdays.