Thoughts on a Train

On a packed London train from Kentish Town to Peckham on a nippy Monday evening, I watched two young women take their seats in front of me. They didn’t know each other. One was wearing a Barbour scarf that matched her business casual office outfit and the other wore a t-shirt and jeans and a jacket that seemed a little too big. Serious faces. It must have been a long day.

The train pulled forward as they took out their smart phones. It was one of those train carriers where the seats are facing each other. Makes for a nice chance to mingle, if you’re so inclined. But on Monday evenings in Londontown, most people are not so inclined.

So I kept reading my book with one eye, while observing my two neighbors with the other. I wondered what went through young Barbour lady’s mind as she glanced over her seatmate’s shoulder and read the texting conversation that appeared to be taking place on the phone that wasn’t hers. I also wondered what t-shirt woman was wanting to say with her eyes when she gave a short and silent stare back to Ms. Barbour, as she adjusted herself in her seat a minute later.

And then we sat there for the next half hour, all three of us, in such close proximity. No words. No smiles. Just three strangers sharing a strange space.

We people can be so good at huddling together, while remaining apart.

IMG_1777We stand on a train and look at the floor and pretend we don’t notice our neighbors, when in reality we are all very conscious of each other’s presence. We work hard to keep our so-called cool and make it seem like we have it all figured out. We pass one another on the street as if we couldn’t care less. As if we need nothing and no one and can’t be bothered to acknowledge the people around us.

Honestly though, none of us has it all figured out. You don’t and I sure don’t either. We all have our moments of loneliness, self-doubt, anxiety, embarrassment, frustration, and sadness, and we were all born naked. Not one of us wants to be rejected and we all need support and connection to thrive.

In the grand scheme of things, all we have is each other.

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Five Ways to Give Poor Advice

Giving poor advice is a form of art. Like other forms of art, it requires both talent and diligent practice. Here are some simple techniques you can use to hone in on your poor advice skills. All you need is a brief moment of silence (optional) and a vulnerable person who has not asked for any advice, opinions, solutions, or guidance whatsoever (essential).

  1. Give it at once. Do not waste time waiting until your target person has finished explaining their concerns. Poor advice must be shared as quickly as possible. You do not want them to think you are really listening.
  1. Pay no mind to objections. Know that your person may attempt to redirect the conversation or disagree with your solution. Although you may feel tempted to stop the advice-giving due to feeling unappreciated, do not give in. Similarly, ignore any hesitation by your person and proceed as planned. They will appreciate you later.
  1. Impose your worldview and values. Do not forget this part. What you believe goes. Likewise, what worked for your aunt last year will definitely work in this situation too.
  1. Show superiority. After all, you have figured out how to live. It is your responsibility to reach out to those unfortunate others who have not made it as far. Your person might even claim that their problems are complex. You know better. Now tell them!
  1. Be adamant that your person follow through with the advice. Poor advice is like good wine – it should never go to waste. Use words like “must” and “should”, and be clear that not doing what you suggest will be a mistake.1936896_100012509999_4257113_n

In rare cases, these steps may not suffice. You may have encountered an ungrateful soul who insists on finding their own path or stubbornly rejects your unsolicited help. If so, your best course of action is to exit the conversation with an audible sigh and an at-least-I-tried expression on your face, thereby communicating your concern for their wellbeing. One day, they will regret not taking your word. Who could possibly find their way without your clear and simple directions? And when that day comes, you better mention you told them so…

Ad Feminam: On Picking Sides in a Complex World

I watched a short debate on TV today where two people disagreed passionately with each other and reached no conclusion. Of course they didn’t agree. One was deeply invested in something the other saw as completely wrong, which meant neither was about to change their position. The classic TV debate recipe. I already had my mind made on this issue and before they said a word I knew whose side I was on. I started watching with anticipation that “my man” would wrap the debate around his finger and use a set of solid arguments to make his point.

Should have been an easy win if you’d asked me.

And it was… Until he had to make a comment on her appearance, gender, and age. Took him less than six minutes to go there. She happened to be a woman, young and attractive, and him pointing that out was accurate. But was it relevant? Nei.

How am I supposed to pick sides when both sides are messed up? Why did “my man” have to use his male privilege to make his female opponent aware of her appearance and attempt to tell her what she should be doing with her life as a young, attractive woman. Can we stop acting like Trump? Can we just stop right now and start debating each other with relevant logic and facts and opinions only?

20150822_190159Wikipedia already figured this out:

Ad feminam is defined as appealing to irrelevant considerations about women, in particular, prejudices against them or stereotypes about them, rather than giving an answer to the contentions they made.

And while we’re at it, how about we stop using our (white/male/able-bodied/heterosexual/upper class/imperialist) privilege to “win” debates and start talking to each other as equals.

On Racial Battle Fatigue and Nice White People

Battle fatigue is an outdated term for the mental impact many soldiers experience after military combat. We’ve made up new terms throughout the years and now this type of “fatigue” is generally referred to as post-traumatic stress. The impact is real. Humans are not wired to thrive under extreme stress for long periods of time and when people get stuck in traumatic situations, bodies and minds are bound to suffer.

The terrorist attack/hate crime in Charleston, SC, this past week brought on yet another wave of vicarious trauma to millions of black Americans. People of color have been systematically traumatized by direct and vicarious (indirect) physical and mental violence for centuries in this country and with every new act of brutality, old racial wounds reopen. The mental impact hits not just the families and friends of those targeted, but millions of people who are reminded once again of the ongoing oppression and lack of safety in their own communities.

20150519_144125So while some are going through emotional pain and personal reactions to crimes that hit too close to home, the rest better pick up the slack and confront the racism that allows this to happen over and over again. And by “the rest”, I mean white people and people with enough energy left to fight racism in America. Racism is not relevant only to black Americans. It is a massive, insidious, systematic, social problem and each and every one of us is tangled up in it.

Talking won’t fix racism. Direct social and political action is needed and white folks must realize that this is where most of our collective energy needs to be channeled. Talking, however can challenge personal biases that contribute to the larger problem.

So here is where it gets sticky. Nice people don’t want to rock the boat. In fact, nice white people who witness other nice white people act or speak in racist ways, “let it go” all the time because they don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. As ironic as it is, research suggests that highly agreeable people are more likely than less agreeable ones to engage in behaviors that harm others – if they are expected to do so. In other words, agreeable, nice folks may be less likely to stand up for others if doing so means going against social expectations. And speaking against racism in a social setting where you are not “supposed” to be confrontational flies right in the face of social expectations.

Niceness isn’t bad in itself, but if being nice means sitting politely while people of color are being oppressed, kept in poverty, excluded from positions of power, ridiculed, assaulted, shot, and killed, then what? It’s like bullying. If you’re a bully, you cause harm. If you witness someone else being bullied and choose to do nothing, you allow harm to be caused.

Dr. Robin DiAngelo wrote a great satirical summary of the “rules of engagement” when confronting white people on their racism. These rules are a part of the unspoken social contract that states that we must not talk about uncomfortable things like racial oppression if we can possibly avoid it. This social contract makes it close to impossible to give any kind of racism feedback to a white person, without being seen as completely rude and inappropriate (check out another great article here on White Fragility). As Dr. DiAngelo pointed out, these rules rest on two basic misunderstandings:

  1. “that racists are bad people”, and
  2. “that racism is conscious dislike”.

So, if I challenge a friend on a racist remark, chances are that friend will feel highly uncomfortable, confused, and offended, as if I were suggesting that he/she is a bad person who consciously dislikes people of color. Most of the time that is not the case and we have to stop acting as if we are allergic to feedback.

An English guy in the 18th century once said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” If we are ever to get out of the racism swamp, we MUST challenge each other to do better and stop perpetuating this mess. And this means allowing our fellow humans to hold up a mirror for us so we can see our own shortcomings. It will be uncomfortable – but that’s how we grow.

International Students: Bring on the Money!

During the 2013-2014 academic year there were 886,052 international students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate program in the U.S.

Let that sink in for a minute. We’re talking about close to one million people here.

What does this mean for universities in the U.S.? What do these students bring and what do they gain from their time spent on American soil?

IMG_3208 (2)One thing they do bring is money. It is becoming increasingly evident that international students are a financial asset to educational institutions. In fact, international students bring in millions of dollars for many large universities, due in big part to them paying a higher tuition (even three times higher) than U.S. students who are from within the state. One example is the state of Indiana, where $688 million in economic benefits are gained yearly only from international students. Moreover, as pointed out by the New York Times, some universities have started to charge foreign students additional fees, making their presence even more profitable. Although they may at times need services that domestic students can do without, the net result is profit.

Another common perspective is that international students are fortunate to get the chance to study in the U.S. and gain academic knowledge to bring back to their home countries. I know many foreign students feel the same way. Thousands of them each year spend money, time, and a ton of effort trying to get into universities in the U.S. and a partial explanation for that is that sometimes students do not have equivalent educational opportunities in their home countries. That was my own story anyway, coming from a small country where graduate programs in counseling psychology were nonexistent. And then there is the imperialistic notion of Western (American) supremacy that leads a whole lot of people in our global village to believe that knowledge gained in the United States is more valid than knowledge gained elsewhere.

In sum, internationalization is the new buzzword for many colleges in the States. Universities gain money and foreign students gain education. Simple enough.

Except, high quality education is not a one-way street. And it’s not all about the money.

Educational excellence is not reached by gathering fresh minds and telling them how to think. It is reached by sharing information, shifting perspectives, encouraging critical discussions, allowing for personal reflection, applying theory to real-life situations, and graduating students with knowledge, skills, dedication, and abilities to exchange ideas with other humans in the world.

So when people talk about all the money foreign students bring and how lucky those students are to get to soak up American wisdom, a critical piece of the story is left out – the part on the immense educational benefit of a culturally rich college environment.

An educational system that reflects true appreciation for diversity provides invaluable opportunities for students and faculty to hear different perspectives on all kinds of topics, challenge preconceived notions about the world, experience intercultural friendships, practice second-language skills, and examine biases and stereotypes that emerge in classrooms and conversations. And when I say true appreciation for diversity, I mean not just admitting culturally diverse students and taking their money, but engaging them with inclusive teaching methods, valuing their input and ideas, encouraging critical questions and comments, re-evaluating discriminatory procedures, getting rid of biased course material, and showing openness to feedback at all times.

This is relevant to all students. When we do this well, international students and cultural minorities get the message that their presence is not just tolerated, but truly valued, and cultural majority students learn to grapple with new ideas, reflect on their position in the world, and engage in difficult and important dialogues.

The problem is that when the benefits of real, inclusive, mind-stretching, and cooperative diversity are not consistently highlighted, U.S. students and professors may sadly come to the conclusion that they have little to gain from interacting with international students and miss out on chances to broaden their worldview. They may also indirectly contribute to the segregation of international and domestic students on campus and the devaluation of foreign ideas and values that all too often occur in academic settings.

International students have this amazing ability to give us a little glimpse of the big world beyond our backyard – as long as we pay attention and hear them out.

How to Say What You Need to Say

If you learned right now you only had a few hours left to live, with no ability to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having expressed to the people in your life?

Assuming you do have the ability to communicate, what stops you from saying what you need to say?

Some of us have been socialized to not share how we feel. Many families avoid uncomfortable conversations and discourage open expression of feelings and concerns. Sometimes we get silenced or ridiculed when trying to say what’s on our mind. And some of us walk around with the idea that in order to be strong, we need to never be vulnerable.IMG_1122

But the things left unsaid can get heavy. The longer we carry them, the heavier they get. Personal truths, unspoken apologies, feelings towards those who mean more to us than they know…

The simplest way to let go of the weight is to say what we need to say – to a trusted friend, to a therapist, or directly to the person we need to address.

I personally have found this remarkably difficult, but the more I do it anyway the easier it gets. Now, this does not mean that I like being vulnerable. The last time I was about to tell someone exactly what was weighing on me, my heart was beating out of my chest and my hands were shaking. Not pleasant. But afterwards I felt like I had put down an immense backpack and the relief made it all worth it.

So how do we do this? As far as I know, there is no fixed recipe for authentic expression, but there are some things we can keep in mind that could make the process just a little smoother:

  1. Find the core

Ask yourself what is the most important part of all the things you would like to get out. What weighs on you the most? Finding the core of what you need to say helps focus your attention. You don’t need to say everything at once.

  1. Set your objective

Be honest with yourself about what you want to accomplish. Perhaps you would like other people to change, but this may not happen. Similarly, we cannot control the outcome of the conversation. What we can do, however, is to focus on the process. The act of expressing yourself needs to be practiced over and over again, regardless of the outcome. By making the objective be expression for the sake of personal growth and emotional relief, there is no way to fail.

  1. State your intention

Before you start, let the person know what your intention is. Oftentimes, people react to personal sharing by giving unsolicited advice and telling us how to stop feeling the way we do. This can be pretty unhelpful. To make this less likely, express that you simply want to share how you feel, talk about something that has been on your mind, clarify something that may have been obscure, or whatever else you are wanting to do. If needed, let the person know that you are not looking for an opinion or a solution, and that you would simply want them to hear you out.

  1. Focus on your own feelings

Here is something important: No one can tell you how to feel. Your feelings are all yours and you are the one who gets to define them. Therefore, when you focus on your own emotional experiences, disagreement becomes irrelevant. Your feelings are valid, even when others feel differently. Try not to minimize your feelings (e.g. “I am hurt, but it’s not a big deal”) or use hesitation words (e.g. “I guess I sort of feel a little frustrated”). Whatever you feel is okay.

  1. Show interest in mutual understanding

Once you have shared what you wanted to share, the listener might be feeling some kind of way. If you care about the relationship, it might be a good idea to express interest in hearing them out as well. If they do share, try to listen as non-defensively as you can and ask them questions to get a better idea of where they are coming from.

  1. Ask for what you want

Most people I know are poor mind readers. They do not automatically know what I want from them unless I tell them straight up. I can wait and hope and leave hints, but this can get very confusing. Asking for what you want is not a sign of weakness. It is the simplest way to let others know how they can be helpful.

  1. Observe

The process of being authentic is scary and liberating. As you step outside your silent comfort zone and start expressing yourself more openly, you may notice reactions within yourself you did not anticipate. Maybe you’ll find yourself avoiding eye contact. Maybe you’ll feel a knot in your stomach. Perhaps you will feel tempted to shift the focus away from yourself. It’s all part of the experience and nothing is wrong with that.

  1. Repeat

This may feel like the strangest thing to do, but the more you practice openness, the more it becomes a part of your way of being. Being authentic and open does not guarantee that others will respond with acceptance and understanding, but it can free up a lot of space in your mind and heart. And putting the weight down can feel pretty amazing.

Bonding vs. Bridging

I sat this weekend in Teachers College at Columbia University and listened to Dr. Isaac Prilleltensky talk about prerequisites for peace. And by peace he did not mean simply the absence of violence, but the presence of justice, wellbeing, and opportunities for all. Dr. Prilleltensky is a leading scholar, researcher, and writer in the area of individual and community wellbeing and his talk covered a lot of material, but the concepts of bonding and bridging got particularly stuck in my head.

IMG_2825In short, bonding refers to our tendency to relate to people who are like us in some way, whereas bridging refers to the times when we reach out to people whom we perceive as being different. This is of course nothing new and many writers and thinkers have examined the human (and the evolutionary) habit of favoring those who are in our in-group, while looking with suspicion at those who belong to the out-group – basically all those who are not in our own circle.

It is easy for people of privileged groups to get comfortable with bonding and put little, if any, effort into building bridges. After all, if you have privileged status in society, bonding with those who are also privileged or have a similar social status feels good! In circles where everyone is on the same social page, there can be this cozy sense of community and shared meaning, and little risk of anyone bringing up uncomfortable topics like oppression and inequality. As soon as the party gets more inclusive, perhaps to the point of people of less-privileged groups joining the space, things can get more complex. Suddenly the party people have to decide whether to keep the conversation at a superficial level so that everyone can appear to relate, or really make a conscious effort to listen to each other and broaden the conversation to cover both shared and unique experiences. This may not sound too difficult, but the thing is that unique experiences of less-privileged people often have to do with social location and that can bring up aspects of reality that may be hard to acknowledge for those who are not directly affected by oppression.

An Icelandic family friend once had a conversation with my mother where she shared her frustration with immigrant employees at her workplace, whom she perceived as always hanging out with each other instead of socializing with the Icelandic staff. When she was asked if she ever approached them first, she got flustered and stumbled on her words. Perhaps she had never thought of that. And perhaps that would have required her to make an effort to understand experiences that are very different from hers and work to create a common ground on which to build a possible friendship.

Listening to Dr. Prilleltensky, I thought of my own experiences as a foreigner in the U.S. and how that opened the door for me to redefine my in-group. Without the friends and family that had surrounded me back home, I found myself connecting very strongly with other international students and now I wonder if that was perhaps an example of bonding and bridging happening at the same time. Our shared experiences of being foreigners in a sea of (mostly white) Americans and our exhaustion from juggling the demands of a U.S. higher education program created a sense of cohesion and safety. At the same time, we reached across racial, cultural, linguistic, religious, and class differences and built stronger friendships than I could ever have imagined.

Dr. Prilleltensky and I agree that both bonding and bridging are important. They represent some of the fundamental processes of human interaction and in order to create decent societies we have to do both. However, what I find very interesting is how people of privileged groups sometimes feel entitled to bonding, while expecting people of minority or underprivileged groups to do all the bridging. Immigrants are given the side eye for hanging out with each other in Icelandic lunch rooms; international students are criticized for not engaging more with domestic students; Latinos are supposed to assimilate and stop speaking Spanish to their kids; African Americans are expected to integrate. Meanwhile, dominant groups at times reserve the right to keep to themselves, stay in their suburbs on the weekends, send their kids to after-school activities with other kids who look like them, and invite some but not others to dinner on Sundays.

This isn’t helpful. Because for minority groups and underprivileged populations, bonding creates an essential opportunity for sharing resources, getting support, expressing feelings and ideas safely, and gathering strength before heading back out into a society that does not view them as equals.

At the end of the day, we all need to bond. And then, we need to reach out to each other to make sure that everyone gets a place at the table. Bridges are best built from a position of equality and shared power. And safe bridges make this world a lot more interesting to navigate!