Why ask why

Since I started writing again, I’ve purposely avoided tackling the topics of the moment: COVID, racism, civil unrest. There’s already so much being written on all sides that I feared my voice would just add to the confusion. And to be honest, it’s safer.

It doesn’t feel right, though.

It’s hard to keep it light when so many things weigh heavily on my mind. I am heartbroken about what’s happening across the country: Minneapolis, Kenosha, Portland, Los Angeles. Pick just about any city right now and you can find protests and violence ravaging the streets.

While I don’t condone violence–against humans, animals, property, or anything else–if we ONLY look at that, we’re missing the point. It’s too easy to focus on an end result and make sweeping judgments. When we do, we’re just treating the symptoms.

Why aren’t we asking WHY?

Why are people so frustrated and angry? Why does an entire population feel disenfranchised? Why do people feel they have to break things or cause unrest to be heard? Why aren’t the rest of us listening?

We have built a society that systemically discriminates against people who are not white. We didn’t admit Black people into college for a really long time, and when we did, we didn’t let them live there or use the libraries or do any of the things they needed to succeed. We didn’t let Black people get union cards back in the day, so they couldn’t find work in the trades. We didn’t let black people get loans so they couldn’t make investments in businesses or houses or their own prosperity. I could go on, but hopefully you see the point.

Fast forward to today. Even when laws have changed, the cultural effects continue to be carried forward. Attitudes, neighborhoods, expectations, beliefs, stigmas. Some of us won’t even acknowledge a problem ever existed at all.

There’s a tweet going around the internet about an idea for a new reality show:

ok hear me out….a reality show where billionaire CEOs have to live off of their lowest-paid employee’s salary for a month

— eva ☻ (@evamarieluter) August 30, 2020

If you follow the thread (which is now ginormous), someone commented that it wouldn’t be a problem for the billionaire since s/he would just invest, build wealth, and get the heck out of there. Yeah, right. Understandably, many people responded to remind that person that when all your money goes to rent and food, there isn’t anything left to invest. The debate got pretty toxic, but isn’t this the same point we need to examine for Black people in our country?

How could we ever expect anyone to work their way out of dire situations when all of their resources went to survival? And we refused to provide the tools–education, jobs, certifications, access to credit–that would help them change things? Even if those things are (arguably) available now, they’re already way behind. And again, the cultural effects remain much more deeply entrenched.

Before you start giving me anecdotal illustrations of people for whom this was NOT the situation, I’ll agree with you. Yep, right now. I agree. Not every Black person suffered in the same way. Many became prosperous and “lived the dream.” (Whose dream is debatable, but that’s for a different day.) But many, many, many more–the overwhelming majority–fell victim to a system designed to keep them separate at best and unable to function at worst.

I’ll also say this: I don’t have the solution.

What I do know is that we will never, ever make any progress toward peace and justice if we only address the symptoms. If we only address the violence and looting, it will keep happening. We need to treat the whole disease to find a cure, not just the symptoms.

Start by asking what brought us here. And don’t forget to listen to the answers.

Us and them

In one of my former jobs, I led a team of people serving all departments in the company. We were responsible for global branding, identity management, and creative services, among other things. My reporting structure was at the corporate level, which made a ton of sense given our charter to serve everyone.

At one point, company politics changed that dynamic, and for a period of time I reported through one of our divisions. That wasn’t supposed to change anything my department handled (and it didn’t), but other divisions panicked. They no longer viewed my department as neutral and assumed we would give priority to our reporting division. I had been working pretty hard to build credibility with the panicked division before the change, and in one fell swoop it disintegrated.

So we started over.

Although we worked really hard to change their perception, I still felt a rift. There was an “us and them” feel to our interactions, and eventually I realized it had found its way into our language. The division liaison who worked with us—great guy, btw—would talk about my group as if we were part of the division where I reported. In turn, my team responded accordingly. WE do this. YOU could try that. And so on. The very language we used started to separate us from the beginning of any conversation.

That’s when I became the language police. To the amusement and often irritation of my team, I would stop people mid-sentence in meetings to remind them that we worked for everyone, so we were part of everyone’s “we.” Instead of aligning ourselves with one division, albeit unconsciously, we made the verbal effort to be inclusive. I earned my share of eye rolls, but I can’t count how many times I said things like, There’s no THEY here. We’re all the same WE.

Eventually our relationship with that division improved. By the time my reporting structure was moved back where it belonged in the corporate chain, we enjoyed working with that division more than any other. I credit the power of language for helping us get on the right track.

I think about this situation a lot amid our current political climate. So much of what I hear from people around me, in the news, on social media—everywhere, really—comes with an overpowering dose of “us and them.” The Dems do this! The Rs do that! Liberals! Evangelicals! You! We!

Stop it, everyone. Just stop. Take a minute and think about who will listen to what follows when the very beginning of whatever you have to say draws a line in the sand. Are you on MY side or THE OTHER side?

Don’t get me wrong; I have some very strong beliefs about what needs to happen in this country. I will neither present nor debate them in this post; I want to stay on point and not lose anyone’s attention because of a particular issue. I’m trying to illustrate that the language we use powerfully affects our ability to have meaningful conversations with each other.

So here’s the thing. Let’s stop making broad categorizations that immediately define US and THEM when we’re trying to talk to one another. Even if I generally identify with a particular group, I guarantee I don’t espouse every single belief of that group—and I doubt you do either. So let’s stop identifying each other as “uses and thems.” Let’s stop telling each other why the other person is wrong. Let’s focus on sharing what we believe and why—and LISTEN when others are doing the same.

This is hard stuff. I know what I believe and why I believe it; why waste my time listening to opposing views? My answer boils down to this: what we’re doing now clearly isn’t working. The vitriol that surrounds us every day is staggering. No one is blameless on this.

It’s time to have conversations rather than posturing for battle, and it starts with watching our language.

Words matter.

Sit down and shut up

A few times a month, I have to interview people for articles I write. The key isn’t to ask a lot of questions; it’s to ask the right questions to get the interviewee talking. The best sessions take place when I barely say a word.

Even though I know this, I often struggle to keep quiet. I want to identify with that person, relate similar experiences, share success stories, and sometimes even–oh, bite your tongue, Tammy!–offer advice.

But that’s not my job.

A story interview isn’t a cocktail party where people posture to outdo each other. It isn’t a networking event where everyone trots out her useful skills in a thinly veiled dog-and-pony show. And it certainly isn’t an interview of ME where I need (or get) to lay out my resume and regale the person with my accomplishments.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of wanting to impress–but it’s not about me.

It doesn’t matter that I went to the school my interviewee just described.

It doesn’t matter that I work in the same field in my “real” job.

It doesn’t matter that I’ve traveled to the same country or eaten the same foods.

It doesn’t matter that I agree (or disagree) with his point.

All that counts is that I’m there to learn, and unless I’m asking questions to elicit further information, I always learn more with my mouth closed.

Someone else’s validation of my resume or academic credentials or thought processes or travel history or food preferences or whatever else I feel compelled to share doesn’t change who I am or what I’ve done. So why should I feel the need to insert ME into every conversation?

Wait–I just said conversation. Weren’t we talking about interviews, not everyday exchanges?

Well, crap. I guess there’s really not that much difference. No matter what the scenario, I always learn volumes when I use my ears more than my mouth. I said it earlier: the best sessions take place when I barely say a word.

Tammy dear, remember that communication is just as much about the intake as it is about the output.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” –Steven R. Covey

(Thanks, KMN, for preaching this relentlessly. Maybe someday I’ll finally hear it.)