Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Perfected art of dehumanizing

We humans have perfected the art of dehumanizing people for our own ends. We modern people have perfected the art of rationalizing this, even to the point that we believe it is Good and/or Deserved.

Reality TV doesn't help, but, perhaps ironically, I think blogging does. In snippet situations--which abound in all areas of media and life these days, from text messages, to brief interactions, from hectic schedules to ideology condensed to a talking point--we can find our brief summaries of others reinforced. Blogs and other lengthier more personal interactions force us to pause and reconsider...if we let ourselves.

It's so simple to sum up another person: she's organized, he's loud, she's a christian, he's a liberal, she's scary smart, he's so nice...

We often even think of these things as compliments. But are they? Or are they oversimplified labels that in some way dehumanize the other person? Have we snapped people we know into lock boxes, never to be taken out and examined more closely? Have we missed something key to that other person?

Here's why I find that troubling: what do we value, when we value people? And are these the attributes we seek, past the surface, if they are not displayed superficially for us to easily grasp? Some may hide deeper those things which you value.

I was thinking of examples in my own life. One of my favorites is Harry. I met Harry at work when I was still wet behind the ears despite a wedding ring, college degree, and more than a few years of professional working experience. I was, at the time, probably an ideal employee: self-starting, knowledgeable and experienced enough to have and volunteer ideas, but still eager beaver loyal and desiring to please. I joined a really cool start-up, replacing Harry.

"Why are you leaving?" I asked.

"I don't really work here. It's just a contract. I'm not into the whole working for the man, staying put thing. I work, save up, and spend the rest of my time in South America climbing mountains," he said, emulating the epitome of Cool Alt Dude.

A fairly traditional gal at heart, I admired what had to be my polar opposite. I shared Harry Adventure Tales with my husband the entire week I spent being trained for my job by Harry. I was fascinated by Harry's incredibly different lifestyle and life choices. I kept trying to get to know him. Harry, however, was unimpressed by me and I accepted that. I was Normal, Average, I had no problem Working for the Man, carrying home a regular paycheck, and missing South American mountains. I had no stories of adventure.

At the end of the week, I learned Harry had recommended I be fired.

Why would he do this? He didn't want this job -- he was heading for Chile next week anyway! Wasn't he Nice? All Cool Alt Dude let it flow? Why would Harry do this to me? I'd only tried to do my best, learn everything -- was it a problem with my knowledge or performance? No. Wasn't I nice? Yes. Then why?

Harry had pigeon-holed me and it wasn't in a good way. My neat desk indicated I was Uptight. My questions to ensure I learned my job well indicated I was High Maintenance. My carefully organized files indicated I was Anal. My excitement meant I was High Strung.

The very things I cultivated carefully to be Really Really Good and that I thought were valued highly in employees -- plus, just happened to be fairly innate to me and were my techniques for doing a good job -- were somehow twisted and sounding awful coming from his mouth.

"She's not ever going to be a fit," Harry told my boss, who thankfully ignored him. My boss, much wiser than me, probably saw past the Adjectives and Perfect Dehumanizing t0 the realness of both of us and the situation. Harry resented me taking his cash cow, however innocent I was in that decision. He had a good thing going, what with being able to eat his cake and have it too.

I wasn't wrong, Harry was Cool Alt Dude with a Brown Belt in Zen, but that didn't mean he was above feeling very human in this situation. Harry wasn't wrong, I am organized, and a little high strung, but that doesn't mean I'm not human, or much more than that string of judgments.

Harry labeled me, and locked me out. As a result, neither of us gained a better picture and understanding of Who the Human was, really. We probably never would have been friends. But, we'd have each had -- especially Harry -- a better idea of a complex person, one we might never know, or even like, but that we could accept as a multi-faceted human. (Although, I hadn't yet learned that it was an option to not like another person then -- I was still trapped in the idea that I had to like everyone and had to make all of them like me, too. Not managing that was a major failure, indicating Imperfection and Something Bad in me I had to fix.) (I am, to some degree, over this, except when it comes to people I do like, who do not like me back, or who do in some ambivalent way that does not lead to the friendship I hoped for.)

I might have understood and been more thoughtful of how it worried Harry, losing this contract and putting the very Cool Alt Dude lifestyle he so valued in jeopardy. He might have understood that Id just moved over 2000 miles from home for this job, was trying to acclimate, and was desperate to succeed for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which was not wanting to prove all our parents dire predictions of failure and ending up in a box under a bridge" true.

I might have grasped his Cool Alt Dude was a protection from the commitment and chaos he knew he'd have to someday deal with, but that he still fought and feared. He might have seen that my organization was compensation for my fear of chaos, and my social awkwardness of not knowing what to say or do sometimes.

But we each needed to know ourselves better, first, needed to understand and accept our own complexities, before we could see that others had more surface area than we initially saw, too.

With time, I came to understand that.

I came to understand that I needed to open up my personal book just the right amount to not dump too much or hide too little. Leave a bit to wondering, wanting to find out. This is not a natural skill for me, like it is for some.

But in time I learned people value that more, just as I learned that workplaces appreciated organized, motivated workers, but not as much as they valued people they liked. Offices were no different from high schools or life, in that respect.

At the end of the day, you don't hear people saying, "I LOVE her, she's so detail-oriented! That's why she's the best employee!" any more than you hear people say, "I LOVE her, she's so organized! That's why we're best friends!"

You do hear, "She's so fun, I love being around her!" Fun. Kind. Thoughtful. You know the rest. You know the things you say you like about other people, and you know you need to like other people to value them.

Those adjectives are hard to come by, though, and are nearly empty compliments.

I do worry about how so much of today's world seems to encourage and reward fast summation of other people, condensing their lives into brief talking points and their humanity into 140 characters or less.

Perhaps we are active participants in our own labeling and dehumanization.

I think of my friend Cyn explaining why she's given up on adjectives and nouns in the short social media bio sections. To attempt to paraphrase her: Verbs say so much more about who I am, through what I do, instead of just labeling myself for you. Verbs can lead to questions. Verbs make you active. Adjectives and nouns coat you in amber for viewing.

What is valuable to you and why is that valuable?

5 comments:

Kat said...

This post is so thoughtful and honest, Julie. Real food for thought.

What do I value...I value kindness and honesty in people. And a sense of humor that extends to being able to laugh at oneself, because if you can't laugh at yourself then I don't believe you really HAVE a sense of humor.

You are right about people valuing people they like. I have only realized this truly with regard to the working world in the last year or so...how far being well-liked takes you professionally. Of course we have to be good at what we do, but if you're amazing at what you do yet disliked, you probably aren't going anywhere.

Thanks for this post, Julie, it really made me think.

botheyes said...

Been there. I once lost a job after probation because I wasn't "bubbly enough." They gave the position to someone who had never held a job and couldn't type.

I had a breakthrough moment in college when a friend told me, "Games have rules." It's not fair and it's certainly not efficient, but if you take a page from Machiavelli and give people what they want, it does tend to pay off.

jeanie said...

Great post.

What do I value? It varies - workplace, socially or just on a plain human level.

In the workplace, I am the girl who wants THINGS TO HAPPEN - so if you jump on board my bandwagon, no matter how socially we may not match I probably value.

Socially, I like people who think and listen - but hey, I also like people who like looking for the good no matter what - and I really like people who are friendly and open.

Erica said...

You touch on a very good point that people even though how "cool" they seem to be, can act just as human and let emotions drive their actions to deal with their own insecurities.

I also agree that blogging actually does help get passed summing people up into a first impression categories as nice, cool, friendly, or whatever other adjectives we often use to describe a person we barely know.

Most of these "compliments" usually are empty, but what can you really say about someone you barely know? Perhaps we just use these as fillers until we get to know someone better? Blogging is so unique in this way because you can get to know someone you haven't even seen in real life and get to know their many facets (or at least the ones that they care to share) and you end up feeling like you really know those people.

I know that I'm guilty of dehumanizing people and putting them into the same old categories, but getting deeper into the blogosphere has shown me that it really is possible to get to know people on a whole different level, and be able to create a little bond, even with something as little as a comment, and that would mean so much more than just saying, "oh she has such a nice blog" (whatever that means, anyway) and it becomes a mutually beneficial relationship.

I know that taking the leap to put my thoughts and feelings online has gotten me to open up in so many different ways. Sharing my knowledge and opinions, even though it might not reach TONS of people, at least can get to a few people and help someone understand life through my eyes, insecurities, emotions and all.

I love that you're so organized, but enjoy you because you're so real, honest and jubilant, and that's more valuable than most can even imagine, and that's important because you ask the questions others are afraid to ask, and are a true and genuine person. Most people admire that, and aspire to be that way. Stay real ;)

Julie Pippert said...

Kat, great things to value and so true about sense of humor.

botheyes, so true.

Jeanie, I am such a do-er, too. I also find that i tend to spend more time focusing on the doing than, per se, the planning, which is funny how people take that sometimes.

Erica, what a thoughtful and honest comment, thanks. I agree about blogging. I have found that it, more than anything, reminds/teaches me that there is aways more to the story. No matter what you see, there is more to the story. Does it make you look for nuances more? I think what you share does do all of that.