We have a universal need to love and belong, to feel connected, and to perceive that we are understood and accepted. In the recent weeks, parts (not all) of the world are sometimes (not always) reeling in confusion with re-arranged priorities and routines. My favorite moments recently are the ones where I spontaneously recall that health is suddenly being challenged and prioritized and realizing I forgot, at least for a little while, about the changing world order. By my observation, we’ve suddenly pulled health to closely follow a longstanding “safety first” mentality. I wonder if we’re renewing our understanding of “health and safety” as twinned concepts. But in our search for safety and security, I’m afraid the ways that we communicate are not serving our mental health extraordinarily, and I believe it’s because we are avoiding honesty with superficiality.
Full disclosure: I’m writing this because I’m tired of people asking me, “what is it like” where I am. Whether people abroad want me to report on the state of Germany’s health or friends nearby are curious for me to share my experience, I don’t have confidence that my response can fully encapsulate the world around me, and I don’t want to try to summarize. (Also I had to go to tutoring in fifth grade because I didn’t perform well on the summary questions in standardized testing.) Here’s what my answer might be now:
Germany has 16 individual states who make their own decisions with federal guidelines, guided by a scientist as chancellor; I appreciate you soliciting my perspective, but I don’t feel I can adequately answer. I am one person in one apartment in one neighborhood, and I am not fluent enough to read all the local news… Germany’s managed rather well, but I’m not a scientist or an economist. I haven’t crunched numbers, I’ve stopped reading most news (it doesn’t matter…!) and I’m much more part of a foreign community than any local perspective. I’ve moved apartments twice since mid-March, so the concept of “normal” is totally out of reach for me in the first place. If anything, I feel this crisis has barely touched my life.
I hope this reads as mildly irritated, because I am confused, and I like you, I want to be coherent. I want to be understood, too, but I’m afraid I can’t communicate concisely. I’m noticing that my conversations drag on and repeat themselves, suggesting that we’re not getting what we’re asking for. Or at least, I’m not giving what others are asking. When I talk with friends, family, even networking digitally with strangers… I’m afraid I can’t adequately respond. Maybe it’s time to stop skirting the question. Maybe we need to be a little bit more forward with the fact that many of us are confused and trying to make sense of our changing identities (or contrarily, confused that we’re stagnant while others are panicking) and that suddenly the world some of us thought we understood is not the current reality. I don’t think we’re going to get there with “how are you?” on the phone or by text or Zoom or…
I’m reminded of numbers 5 and 6 on a list called “8 Things Gay Guys Should Start Saying to Each Other (More Often)” — which I think is more aptly prescribed for all humans in modern society. I encourage you to read the whole list, and I’ll shortcut you here:
- I’m a strong person, but I’m hurting right now.
- I’m afraid of opening up.
Maybe we can seek connection not by asking others to summarize what’s going on, but rather by directly sharing what we need, think, and feel. Yes, I’d rather be strong than be vulnerable, but vulnerability is a path to greater strength. I would encourage us to try conversations that might include:
- I’m finding it hard to feel connected in the ways I’m most used to. I’m glad to have you in my life. I know I would really appreciate a hug right now, and it would feel wonderful to have that desire acknowledged. Can I do anything to support you?
- I’m doing the best I can, but some people I know have shamed me for not taking this as seriously as them. Being shamed doesn’t encourage me to keep trying my best.
- I have lost my routine and the constant change has made me feel [insert emotional word here, e.g. numb, sad, dazed]. Would you be open to listening to my experience?
- With so many new experiences, I struggle to make sense of the world around me. I know I’m not alone in this struggle, but I do feel that I am alone.
- Many people are grieving as our identities and the people around us change so quickly. I have to admit that I feel sort of untouched by the new world order, and I feel uncomfortable that I’m not struggling.
Signage is the other concept that has challenged my thinking on belonging recently. I’ve learned the German word for “current” through reading countless signs that encourage people to stay 1.5-2 meters apart “in der aktuelles Situation”. I see it in English texts, too. Everyone’s talking about the “current” situation, and part of me thinks that we’re doing ourselves / each other a disservice by not naming the reality. Then again, it might be unfair to universally prescribe meaning to an experience that everyone perceives differently. If I were making these signs, I might forget about the introductory clause, and jump straight to the point, avoiding the emotional-avoidance, like technical writers are taught. Good error messages don’t say “Oops! Something has gone wrong,” because the vagueness leaves space for the user to interpret they should be concerned or that they screwed up. Implying abnormality can evoke shame, which triggers disconnection. Don’t blame the user; blame the product or the documentation.
In this vein, we could create a better sense of communal belonging if businesses post signs that say:
- “Please save 1.5 meters for yourself, and we look forward to serving you shortly.”
- “You’re welcome here. We appreciate if you give space between you, staff, and other customers, and we’ll give you space in return.”
- “Thank you for trusting us with your time, money, and health. We invite you to take at least 6 feet of space between yourself and others.”
What do you think of my revisions?
And can you help me belong by confirming any of my observations? Are there conversation formats or messages that have made you feel especially appreciated and maintained your sense of belonging in recent weeks?