Social Anxiety in Black Mirror: White Christmas

SATV-BlackMirror

Black Mirror is one of my favorite shows on television. It’s like a modern version of The Twilight Zone, an anthology series exploring the ramifications of technology on life in the present and near-future. “White Christmas,” the seventh overall episode of Black Mirror, touches on some ways in which technology might help people with social anxiety in the future.

Matt (Jon Hamm) is a sort of self-help guru who serves as a wingman for less confident young men, such as Harry (Rasmus Hardiker), who struggle to meet women. Matt watches through a camera planted on Harry and speaks into his ear, guiding him in real time about what to say and do.

MATT
Don’t worry. That’s why I’m here.

Matt tells Harry what clothes to wear and how to fix his hair in order to make him more attractive.

MATT
Remember those breathing techniques we talked about. Okay? You’re going to do fine.

When we get nervous, we breathe short and fast through our upper chest. Remembering to breathe deeply through our lower stomach helps keep us calm.

MATT
You need to pick your spots when you want to talk out loud.

For me, knowing when to jump into a conversation is always tough. I sometimes wish I had a wingman in my head to tell me the appropriate times to speak up.

MATT
Trust me, if you walk in there like you belong, no one’s going to say anything… Remember. Always move with purpose.

If we present ourselves as confident through our body language, people will see us as confident, which will help us act more confidently.

MATT
Come on. Confidence. You can do this.

We don’t need a wingman in our ear to tell us this. We can tell ourselves.

Matt looks up info about the woman, Jennifer (Natalia Tena), on the internet and relays it to help Harry. He also gives him field-tested jokes and anecdotes to use. We can try similar tactics by practicing and memorizing conversation starters ahead of time in case we get flustered and can’t think of something in the moment.

MATT
All right, Harry. Your best bet is to just go over and start talking to her. You just want to establish a rapport.
HARRY
Okay.
MATT
Don’t be scared of her.

We all know this inherently, but it’s easy to forget it in the moment if we don’t have a wingman in our heads to remind us.

Harry and Jennifer talk about working up the courage to quit her job…

HARRY
It’s like when you want to jump into a pool, and you’re worried that the water’s going to be cold. But you know moments after you jump in that it’ll be fine. It’s the fear of the shock that holds you back. Ultimately, the only thing you’re worried about is the transition from one state to another, and that can’t hurt you because it’s just a state change.

This same logic applies to all fears, including social anxiety.

HARRY
And it’s frustrating ‘cause you’ve always got these ten voices in your head saying, “Don’t do it” and another ten in your head saying, “Do it”.
JENNIFER
Which one do you listen to?
HARRY
The “do its”.
JENNIFER
Really?
HARRY
Yeah. If you don’t like it, you can just cut and run. You know, get it over and done with.

It’s the initial fear of approaching someone or speaking up that is the most powerful. But once we do it, the fear often dissipates with time and repetition. If not, then it’ll be over with soon anyway, and we can move on.

MATT
She likes you.
HARRY
It’s cheating. I’d never have even had the nerve to talk to her.
MATT
Aren’t you glad you did?
HARRY
Yes. But it’s just a bit of a nightmare having you, you know, all of you in my head, watching us. Telling me what to do. I just want to talk to her myself. And it’s a bit of a head-fuck. I kind of want you all to go away.

Also watching Harry is Matt’s other clients. The truth is we can do this without cheating. We can be our own wingmen inside our heads by learning and practicing these techniques beforehand and building our confidence.

Matt helps Harry pick up Jennifer, and I won’t spoil what happens, but in true Black Mirror fashion, things do not turn out happily ever after. And that’s only the first third of the episode.

I could see some kind of “virtual wingman” technology like this becoming a reality in the near future. Even in the present, it’s mostly possible. Something like that could potentially be helpful for people with social anxiety, though I’m not sure if it would be ethical. However, I think something better and more legitimate lurks a little further in the future. There won’t be a real person like Jon Hamm or some self-help guru in our heads. It will be an artificial intelligence (A.I.).

Either through augmented reality glasses or brain implants, we could have an A.I. program guiding us and telling us what to say and do at all times. Reminding us to breathe, stay calm and focused. The A.I. could be programmed like a professional psychologist to guide us in the moment. But it won’t be some invasive voice. The A.I. will speak in our own voice so it would be like we’re talking to ourselves. Except it would be the A.I., providing expert therapy in real time.

This type of technology could work to help us in all areas of life, not just social anxiety. Depression, addiction, anger, violence, and just about any other mental health problem. The A.I. could recognize the negative thought patterns developing in our heads and help us to ignore/change them in the moment before we act on them.

It’s not that the A.I. would reprogram our minds and change us into a totally different person. I mean, it could if you wanted it to. But ideally, the A.I. would help guide us to be our best selves—at all times. I often wish I could be my “normal self” with other people in social situations that make me nervous and uncomfortable. A.I. technology like this would help me be able to do that. Who knows when (if ever) that kind of technology will come. Until then, I’ll have to continue reprogramming my mind the old-fashioned way, through practice, meditation, and mindfulness.

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