Finding balance in the second half of life

Posts Tagged ‘communication’

Not So Simple, Really

In Community on April 23, 2012 at 5:57 pm

I’ve about had it with KISS. You know: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

I’ve been fuming about this since I heard an interview on NPR way last fall. The reporter asked a person who’d helped with social media during the uprising in Egypt what advice he had for the Occupy Wall Street folks. “They need to Keep It Simple, Stupid,” he said.

And I thought, but you’ve missed the point. They’re saying it’s not simple. They’re saying we need to learn how to have difficult conversations, to include diversity, to acknowledge disparity. If they were to keep it simple, they’d perpetuate the very things they’re protesting against. It’s simple for one viewpoint to be allowed to dominate as the only reality; that’s what makes dictatorships so efficient. It’s much more difficult to make room in a society—or in a community—for the diversity that our democratic ideals suggest we value.

This KISS phrase haunts me. I object to the “Stupid.” I didn’t allow my kids to call each other “Stupid” (and it was a dictatorship—simple!); in my house, the repercussions for that were as bad as for swearing. I’m not sure we’ll have reasoned discourse with each other until we assume that we’re all smart people. And if you say it’s directed at the speaker herself? Same issue, and then some. If you think you’re stupid, then maybe I’m not so interested in hearing your point of view. If you think you’re stupid, maybe your perspective is not so grounded in a healthy humanity.

And then that “Keep It Simple.” “Keep” implies that we are in control, that it’s up to us to decide whether it’s simple or complicated. It denies the reality that there’s a whole lot going on around us—the weather, the economy, geopolitics, and, that most complicated of all, each of the individuals in each of the communities of which we’re a part—that we don’t control, even if we wish we did.

I can’t quite commit, either, to the notion that simple is better. A hard-boiled egg is simple, and tasty, too. But I made gnocchi with roasted vegetables and spinach pesto, and that was awfully good, too, though hardly simple, in preparation or flavor. My kids made great simple drawings when they first held crayons, but I’m not ready to eschew Van Gogh in their favor.

I like the idea of finding the simplicity beyond complexity. But saying that we must keep it simple sidesteps the idea of all of the work it takes to find that path. Remember that quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes? “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That, after all, is how Steve Jobs made money—and changed our technological lives—with Apple products: “You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

It’s taken me some time, but I’ve finally come up with an alternative to propose: Instead of KISS, let’s RICE: Recognize It’s Complicated, Einstein.

First, let’s assume the best of each other and of ourselves. We are smart people, or we can be, if we demand it of ourselves. And our relationships will all be stronger if we assume that other people are pretty smart, too. Maybe they’re not smart in the way that we are or in the way we have come to expect; maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we have a more accurate view of the world and understanding of what we’re up against—and what we have to celebrate—when we value each other. (I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t easy. Phyllis Schlafly? Sarah Palin? But maybe “hard” is better than “easy,” as “complex” is richer than “simple.”)

Then, let’s not put ourselves in control of the universe. It takes some effort to peel off those super-hero clothes—they’re lycra, after all, and pretty clingy. But the sooner we acknowledge that we live in communities and in a world that we don’t control, the sooner we can start acting more responsibly. Pretending we’re more influential than we are only makes us frustrated and angry.

And, finally, let’s get comfortable with complexity. Comfort with complexity and ambiguity are understood as signs of the intellectual agility required of leaders, and for good reason. Seeing complexity helps you to be more certain that you’re getting the whole picture; it also helps you adapt as required by things beyond your control. And if you’re not recklessly simplifying, you don’t suffer the unintended consequence of eliminating possibilities.

Sound complicated? Good. RICE, baby.

—Lois Maassen

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Words Mean Something

In Community on January 24, 2011 at 6:51 pm

“This bag is compostable,” I said to my spouse-ish one. I wanted him to know that our favorite local coffee shop, which is pursuing a fairly radical zero-landfill goal, had changed their coffee bags.

“Not for ours,” he said.

“What?” I didn’t know why we couldn’t compost a bag.

It took us only a little while to figure out that when I held up what looked like a brown paper bag and said “compostable,” my SO’s brain translated to “recyclable.” And he knows that our recycling resource won’t take kraft paper.

“See?” he said, when we’d figured out our miscommunication. “Words mean something.”

Words mean something, I said to myself in a church meeting the other evening. Someone referred to a person who attends our church but is not a member as an “adherent.” I was struck by the word—it isn’t part of our usual vocabulary, it seemed.

I brainstormed alternatives (I’m not always an attentive meeting participant): guest, visitor, hanger-on, groupie, advocate, disciple, transient… and at the end of the list, I said to myself, “adherent” is exactly right. We may not know whether they share our faith or proselytize on our behalf: “disciple” is too much. They’re valued members of our community: they’re no longer “visitors” or “guests.” They’re not “groupies” because they are full participants. Whether or not they are members, “adherents” are people who have stuck with our church community.

The care taken by this community to find the right term for people who have joined us in all but an official, administrative way reflects the desire to welcome, to affirm, to include. The word chosen reflects the reality we look to create together.

And that’s the conclusion I wish more conversations had led to over the last few weeks. It wasn’t productive for people to argue about whether there is a straight line between Sarah Palin’s crosshairs map and the shootings in Arizona. And I don’t know whether it’s possible to measure the effect of overheated debate, violent metaphor, and partisan vitriol on a disturbed, armed individual.

And, frankly, it seems about as interesting as trying to figure out who really started the fight among my three kids in the back of the Taurus station wagon in 1994. If we all know we’ve been failing at having real dialog, as both speakers and as listeners, let’s all work to do a better job, starting now.

The larger question, it seems to me, is whether we can recognize that “words mean something” in the shaping of our future together. Can we develop a vocabulary that bridges divides to define the world we can agree we’d like to live in?

Honesty and substance are prerequisites, of course. I saw last week that Politifact had named “government takeover of health care” as the number one lie of 2010 because… it wasn’t true. And compare these names: “Affordable Health Care for America” versus “The Repealing of the Job-Killing Health-Care Law Act.” A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but who would know both of those pieces of legislation are attempting to address the same thing?

Those examples reflect my biases, but I make no claim to the higher ground for progressives. Seems to me that insults directed at you are more memorable—because more painful—than insults that you happen to agree with. So I don’t trust my judgment about the honesty or willingness to engage on substance of the either the right or the left.

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal at least a decade ago that talked about the dangers of jargon in the corporate world. Jargon is exclusionary, the author argued. When words mean something other than what they might appear to mean, and when new words are manufactured, you create a company—or a country—in which there are insiders and outsiders. You’ve made it more difficult to know whether you’re having a meaningful exchange. When someone says “dog,” for example, you need to know whether they’re referring to a failing program or a golden retriever.

It’s jargon that’s also often right next door to propaganda. What’s the image called to mind by “alien”? By “immigrant”? How is an “injured soldier” different from a “wounded warrior”? If I call my neighbor Doug, who hunts deer, a “gunman” or a “shooter,” how will my relationship with him change?

What if, instead of metaphors of violence and conflict, our metaphors were creative and harmonious? “Kitchen table” instead of “war-room,” a “pantry” instead of an “arsenal”: I’m both more comfortable and more optimistic with images like those.

Words mean something to all of us, together, in community. It’s not enough for us to use words carefully in our own heads, in our families, with our neighbors, in our churches, in our political parties. If we use words only to solidify our own points of view, we’ll soon clog our democratic arteries. What would happen if “help me understand what you mean by that” tripped off our tongues as often as “you lie”?

We need words to acknowledge our differences without judging them, words to find our common ground. Our collective ancestors found common ground—although it wasn’t easy—when they collaborated on the preamble to the Constitution, when they listed as our common goals a more perfect union, justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, and the blessings of liberty for us and our posterity.

Words will describe—and therefore help us to shape—the country we want to become, the world we want to become. And every word means something.

–Lois Maassen