Sunday, August 11, 2019

Incomprehensibly lovable

I have been unmotivated for a very long time to post in this blog. It doesn't seem to have caught people's interest, and I am disinclined to talk into a void or ring into a cacophony that is not interested in the chords I seek to strike.

Nevertheless, I stumbled into a conversation today in which I was eager to participate, and thus for my own convenience, if not for anyone else's satisfaction, I decided to repost my contribution to that conversation here.

*On the subject of language fluency*

What an interesting conversation! For me, studying foreign languages has increased my sensitivity to the difficulty of *all* communication. It has also increased my feeling of grateful wonder when successful communication happens.

As others have pointed out, "fluency" is a relative concept.  One can speak with varying success with members of a people group, or a discipline, or a workplace, or even the participants in a personal relationship. Yet no matter how much one believes one knows and understands, I feel there is a huge amount that remains unknowable (even in the parts we assume that we know).

What is fluency really about, then? Do we seek to understand or get along with people only in order to complete other tasks? Do we want to connect with people, and if so, what if misunderstanding and permanent gaps in knowledge are  necessary parts of that connection?

For many years I have felt daunted by the mystery of communication. How does it happen at all and what purposes does it serve? Many people are familiar with the color question: we both call a thing blue, but is what I see the same as what you see? For something so basic it doesn't seem to matter what you or I see: we don't get in a fight over it. (Or do we? Now I'm remembering that dress meme.)

Whenever we successfully communicate, do we only *seem* to understand one another (a different way to say it is that we seem to flow together) because the differences in how we understand something do not interfere with our goals, and therefore stay invisible? In so-called success, do we wrongly conclude that we understand and thus miss out on further understanding? Perhaps just as importantly, do we miss out on the chance to never understand parts of another person and thus be reminded of our limitations and that they are as complex as we are?

Countless times, I have thought that another person and I understood one another only to learn, through feelings or events, that I was wrong. The same goes for professional situations. How much is my relative fluency worth, then, in languages I should supposedly know by heart? Would any level of detailed knowledge of the vocabulary of a given situation prevent such failures? I doubt it.

I used to say to people, "would you rather know me or love me?" Part of what I meant by this is that knowing harshly reduces a person to a set of problems that can be solved, whereas loving accepts their irreducibility and participates in life with them anyway.

I have chased "knowing" many times in life, hoping it would give me more power and rescue me from various failures. Bad idea! Fluency sounds to me like a synonym for control, even in the seemingly simple matter of learning a language. I think it starts from a good place -- the desire to connect with people (and, to be honest, to tickle my brain) -- but if I do not remember that I can never entirely know anything or anyone, I risk pursuing false goals straight through the people I supposedly would love to engage with, but who in light of that false goal seem to be blocking my success.

Sometimes I wish that we could approach every single communication event as a cross-cultural one. I wish we could adopt an attitude of hospitality, compassion, and humble eagerness to learn (including mistakes). I wish we could adopt this attitude even with the people we assume are most familiar with. With an approach like this I feel like we could catch glimpses of how unfathomably complex and lovable we are.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

London, Part 3 - Exploration

My budget had contracted substantially by the time I reached London. I spent a little bit of money (I could not pass by the opportunity to visit St. Paul's Cathedral, the Tower of London, or Westminster I wanted to meet my goal of eating out at least once in each city I visited), but to my great satisfaction, and that of my wallet, London cultivates many free and fully-realized cultural opportunities.

Monday, February 26, 2018

London, Part 2 - Arrival and first impressions

I arrived at Paddington Station, London, at about quarter to five in the afternoon of a hot Friday in mid-July. The second I stepped down from my train an urgent task required my attention: find a Visitor kiosk and buy the Visitor Oyster Pass within fifteen minutes, before the kiosk closed. Adrenaline surged as I scanned a sea of bobbing heads, train schedule displays, colorful shopfronts and signs pointing to various platforms and tube lines, all sprawled about a terminal that seemed, at the moment, as large as a sports arena. I cinched my big pack tighter to my back, hiked the small pack closer to my front, wiped the sweat from my brow, and lumber-hustled toward the nearest visible station agent.

Immediately my body was grateful for the rest it had received in sleepy Bath (it would take my mind about a day to recognize that gift). My Bath host had lived in London when she was younger and expressed both appreciation for the abundant experiences it had given her youthful self, and relief that her older self no longer had to endure its frenzy. Those first moments I spent making my way to the Visitor booth in Paddington gave me a glimpse of what she meant, and my awe before London's largeness, busyness, and complexity only grew over the next five days.

Friday, February 23, 2018

London, Part 1 - Life Purpose, Perspective, and Departure

I returned from London more than six months ago (and I wrote the first draft of a blog about London one month ago). It took me quite a long time to revisit the week I spent in that incredible city and craft some thoughts about it. The question of why it took so long does not bring any surprises: I have not picked up the proverbial pen because my hands have been busy wringing out my morbid fear that this is my final visit-in-memoriam to Spain, Italy, Greece, and the UK.

Today, I am not there except in my imagination. I worry that once I've commemorated London and walked on (spoiler alert: I recount my time in London in my next blog post), all these experiential and emotional monuments that sprung up inside me as I journeyed, as I met people, places, and myself, will be cloaked from my view, the paths to them erased. I am afraid that the stiff-collared custodians of opportunity are stingy and punitive, that they are quietly shifting the boundary rope back to where it belongs, behind my back, with each step I take. The territory in which I can experience life (I worry) is shrinking. Social pressures, economics, physical wellness, and whatever other routines which have defined so much of my life so far are restoring their rule. When will I no longer even be able to remember or feel any evidence of last spring's adventure?

This is an old topic, I know. I carry on about the dramatic emotions that this trip conjured in me, or that I have conjured in myself as a way of understanding and remanifesting the trip (even while I was on it, perhaps, but especially now to defy everyday inertia and keep the larger, brighter me and the glimmer of Europe which it contains alive). In addition to worrying about myself I wonder constantly how common such feelings are - the hope and exhilaration, the despair and panic which follow, the slow, quiet surrender to normalcy. I wonder what conditions would enable us to adopt hope and persistence as skillfully as we learn to give in to the status quo.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Designed to Discourage

How many of us have encountered people, businesses, or systems that advertise some kind of good but only yield frustration? How often are we puzzled by the gap between a stated purpose, and what we actually experience?

We participate in many services and systems and many of them, to put it mildly, have flaws. Dating, job-seeking, grocery shopping, transportation, taking turns at a deli counter, deciding what to eat for dinner or wear to school. Queueing to get through a revolving door, competing for merchandise in auctions, donating to an institution or trying to succeed in a business venture.

Do we believe we can improve these experiences for ourselves, our customers and communities? Do we want to? If yes, how do we proceed? I believe a good place to start is to recognize gaps between promise and delivery, and that we have choices about these gaps.

What follows is my draft exploration of such issues. You will not find proof or scientific rigor here, and I do not promise profound revelations. If anything, I hope to advance the cause of stating the obvious, which we often seem quite bad at doing. Talking about realities that we experience, or sense, that we are aware of consciously but do not admit or only instinctively and therefore don’t know how to admit, can be healing and productive.

(Also, please note that I will discuss relatively mundane opportunities to effect change in free and civil circumstances. I do not presume to speak for, or offer advice to, those who need solutions to dire situations.)

Friday, January 26, 2018

Timeless in Bath, Part 2 - Stonehenge

One morning, during my time in Bath, I took a Scarper’s Bus Tour to Salisbury, or in other words to see Stonehenge. People seem to have mixed reactions to this site, ranging from awe to profound disappointment. I stand, mouth agape, among the awed.

Quick plug (I have no special loyalty to or arrangement with this company): The tour was timely, the bus was comfortable, uncrowded, and had huge windows allowing great views of the countryside. I found the driver friendly and knowledgeable, pointing out several fascinating features along the drive, including the Westbury White Horse - a chalk drawing sculpted into a hillside below an Iron Age fort. The price of the tour covered tickets (no standing in line - yay!) as well as an audio guide (this would have also incurred a fee). I found the tour well worth the price.

Ticket and audio guide in hand, I was set loose for a couple hours to wander and wonder. The territory of archaeological interest around Stonehenge is actually quite extensive. In fact, just from the parking lot to the visitor center and stones is 1.5 miles! Normally I would have relished that walk, but due to my timetable I was obliged to join a queue for a short, park-furnished ride that ferried me to the historic site itself. The wait for this ride was only perhaps 15 minutes, so it was not long after I debarked my tour bus that I stepped down, my stomach jumped, and my nerves tingled with the knowledge that I was about to pass through a looking glass into ancient history.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Do you want to deliver the value that your audience needs to receive?

“Discover the real problems.” - Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

Guiding principles of user research:
- You are not the user
- Keep an open mind
- University of Minnesota, User Research and Design course, Brent Hecht

Do you want to deliver the value that your audience needs to receive? ​It is a design thinking question, and I pose it to anyone (myself included) who wants to contribute to the world. “Delivering value” applies to many of our situations. You might want to manufacture a product, give a speech, provide a humanitarian service, or participate in a relationship. Your “audience” might be a user base, a room full of business associates, a stranger on the street or a life partner. In all cases, the basic concerns remain the same.

Originally I intended to preach about designing your deliverable to meet the goals and understanding of the people who use it. However, I am relatively new to the world of design and don’t have the experience or authority to start handing out road maps just yet. What I have is growing awareness of and excitement about the landscape of this discipline. Its insights have broadened my perspective and creative output, and so I can speak with enthusiasm about the topic given in the title, as a migrant to this land inviting others to join me.

Our starting point is not how to design, but why we should care about design. Our audience benefits - we benefit - if we embrace that our audience’s goals may be different than ours, and that delivering something of value to them takes a special attitude and special effort.