The longtime fans in the audience showed their devotion to the man of the hour — actor, director, author, science enthusiast and possessor of endless quips, Alan Alda — from the introduction when Carole Zawatsky, CEO of the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, gave the wrong surname to Alda’s beloved “M*A*S*H” character Hawkeye.
“Pierce!” they quickly, and collectively, corrected.
Minutes later, he walked onto the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater. And though Alda is best known for his TV and film roles, here he was speaking as author of a new book about the art of communicating, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?” The theme for much of what the 81-year-old Alda said Monday evening came down to this: empathy.
“I’ve noticed the more empathy I have, the less annoying other people are,” he said, arguing that empathy makes for better communication and connection.
Shankar Vedantam, an NPR correspondent and host of “The Hidden Brain” podcast, asked Alda about a story he tells in his book about three blunders he made in his first interview for “Scientific American Frontiers.” Alda hosted the PBS science show for more than a decade.
Alda said he misrepresented the scientist’s work back to him, touched some delicate equipment and “I wasn’t asking him questions based on what he was telling me, but what I had planned beforehand to ask.”
Vedantum follwed up, asking: “And turns out you didn’t just make blunders when talking to scientists, but also your own relatives?”
“I’m making a blunder right now talking to you,” Alda said to laughter, then told about the time his young grandson didn’t necessarily want to have a 45-minute conversation about evolution when he asked why a tree looked the way it did. Alda realized that only when he overheard another family member tell his grandson to “ask Grandpa” and his grandson replied, “I won’t make that mistake again!”
Being attuned to the other person is the key to actually connecting, Alda said.
After showing a clip from “M*A*S*H,” Vedantam asked Alda about the nature of comedic timing.
“Timing is not waiting,” Alda said. “Timing is going through something, and what you go through is different from time to time.
“It’s always a partnership,” Alda added, speaking not just about acting but communicating in general. “You don’t just spray your dialogue at someone. So, in way, it has the wrong name. It’s not timing, but engaging.”
He also mentioned the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York, which uses tactics like improv exercises to help scientists, doctors and engineers, among others, communicate more effectively.
“You get used to thinking about the other person,” Alda said, emphasizing again how important empathy is in making connections.
During a question and answer period, a woman asked Alda about maintaining good communication in the medium of texting. She said she and her mother argue more because they misconstrued the meaning of a text.
Alda was hopeful about texting. The fact that there are so many emojis and other types of textspeak shows people want to connect and convey tone, he said.
“So, I would just recommend you use more emojis,” he added.
Many audience members stuck around to have Alda sign a copy of his book.
“It added to my emotional literacy,” said attendee George Joseph. “I’m not sad I came.”
Alda himself was the draw for Elaine Whitman, but she found his message particularly resonant because she works with children with trauma. Empathy and connection are critical to healing, she said.
“He’s been a hero of mine for many, many years because he taught thousands and thousands of people the value of humanity,” she said while standing in line to have her book signed.
As Vedantem confessed he did on his Uber ride to the event, maybe Alda can leave his audience thinking “What would Alan Alda do?”