I have this little half-jingle going round my head about foxes and boxes. I look it up. It’s from When We Were Very Young by A A Milne:
Once upon a time there were three little foxes
Who didn’t wear stockings, and they didn’t wear sockses,
But they all had handkerchiefs to blow their noses,
And they kept their handkerchiefs in cardboard boxes.
Only the foxes aren’t in boxes. It’s handkerchiefs. Boxes though. I get the feeling that there’s a lot of stuff in boxes these days, and not only peaches and chocolates or even handkerchiefs. People too.
Do you know what boxes you are in? I filled in a preferred supplier form the other day: “What is your ethnic group?” There was a list with 18 choices, and my group had English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish all lumped into the one box – boxes within boxes: tick.
“What is your religion?” The box is much too small for me to write what I’d like to write: “Catholic in a Salzburg Baroque church last month listening to musicians from Munich, Muslim for one day a while ago at an amazing lecture on mediaeval Islamic astronomers, rooted in the Church of England one quiet moment in an English country church; Buddhist that peaceful time in the ashram – and those Methodist hymns …” Run out of space, what next?
“What is your sex?” “I’m a woman.” Yes, but what kind of woman are you? Hetero? Gay? Lesbian? Bi-sexual? Trans? Pansexual?
Even as I write these words I feel myself losing you. Talk about boxes seems a bit dangerous. Might I be displaying prejudice here? Did I get the labels correct? Am I anti anything I shouldn’t be anti?
Alright, I’ll try to explain better. First, there is a huge amount of sorting into boxes in our current world. Sorting gives us information; information allows us to make decisions and decisions are useful if not necessary. Also, sorting gives us straightforward decisions, so that saves money. Think of the difference between marking a public exam paper where you have to assess the merit of a piece of reasoned thinking and one that has multiple-choice answers. The latter is much easier – and cheaper. (“Here’s an idea! We’ll make it more accurate by increasing the number of boxes. What about 1 to 9 instead of E to A*?” Yeh, right …)
With the best of intentions we do this stuff in business too. Whether it’s MBTI, FIRO, DISC Personality Testing, Keirsey Temperament Sorter, INSIGHT or one of numerous others, we categorise people. I know, I know: it’s useful. With the best of intentions also we test for health and social care, “Can you fill a kettle?” “Can you pour boiling water into a cup?” “Can you safely climb stairs?” Now we know what help you need.
Now, apart from the fact that results are not quite as cast iron accurate as we’d like to think (a nonogenarian I knew with dementia had an amazing ability to perform like someone 20 years younger just and only on test days), my question is this. Maybe we begin to believe that knowing people and getting the best of people is that simple? – That once you know that (in a self-reporting questionnaire) they come out more as a thinking rather than a sensing person you have all the information you need to know them and what motivates them. I don’t think I’m that simple. Do you?
In addition, I suspect that the more we divide people into boxes, the more we focus on people either being in our box (one of us) or being different from us (alien, not one of us).
Arundhati Roy in her second novel published recently introduces us to a mishmash of different characters deliberately hard to define or categorise. Roy confesses that she just loves “all this kind of lovely muddle of stuff.” For all that, her purpose is highly serious. Describing the situation in India, she writes,
Caste is about dividing people up in ways that preclude every form of solidarity, because even in the lowest castes there are divisions and sub-castes, and everyone’s co-opted into the business of this hierarchical, silo-ised society. This is the politics of making a grid of class, of caste, of ethnicity, of religion. And then making the grid ever more fine is very much part of how you rule the world, saying, ‘You’re a Muslim, you’re a Hindu, you’re a Shia, you’re a Sunni, you’re a Barelvi, you’re a Brahmin, you’re a Saraswat Brahmin, you’re a Dalit, you’re gay, you’re straight, you’re trans –”
There are many, many boxes and, as she says, putting people in boxes doesn’t help world peace.
I’m attracted to people who don’t easily fit the boxes. Arundhati Roy herself was the daughter of an explosive relationship between a high status Syrian Christian mother and a low-status Bengali Hindu father. Yanis Varoufakis, Greek ex-Finance Minister whose excellent latest book I read last month, was son of an equally unlikely pair. His father, George, was a communist, imprisoned and tortured for his beliefs, and his mother was a member of a paramilitary right-wing group (“Stasi stuff”) tasked with ‘keeping an eye’ on George. Children outside the grid of boxes have to find their own way and grow up to think for themselves.
It’s easy to despise or hate people who are in a box you’re not in, once you’re able to label the box. As Mathilda’s father Mr. Wormwood (thanks Roald Dahl) shouted at his daughter, “Listen, you little wiseacre: I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it!” We could add: I’m Remain, you’re Brexit; I’m well-off, you’re on benefits; I’m English, you’re an immigrant; I’m fit and healthy, you’re disabled; I drive an eco-car, you drive a four-by-four; I’m Labour, you’re Conservative; I went to private school, you went to a local comprehensive. And vice versa, and on and on, even to the extent of, I love my kind, I hate your kind; I’m good, you’re evil: I deserve to live; you don’t deserve to live.
But even our current tyrants were babies once. Could we rein back on boxes? In times of crisis we manage it. Men in the trenches, rich and poor, educated and ignorant, were forced by the constant presence of death to remember that we are all human. Sometimes when children die, as in the Manchester bombing, we all suffer together in mutual recognition of childhood – through our own childhood or through having children of our own – and we come together through that common link.
I realise that each one of us is at the centre of our universe – every single person in the centre of their world, making their own sense of experience with the hand they’ve been dealt, not immune to vulnerability or heartache or moments of joy. It’s hard to realise though – to really get it. In those moments when we do get it – when we think of others as two-legged, human, complex, unique, strange, just like us, then, and only then, we have a chance of connection. And boy, do we need human connection on our planet right now.
Let me try that form again:
That’s more like it.
September feels like a new start for many. Have a great month.
As always – my books – translated into ten languages:
The Art of Conversation
What an important topic! Conversational skill isn’t really about being articulate and having a fund of things to talk about – though that’s what most books on the subject would suggest. It’s more about being at ease with who you are and knowing how to connect with others – pure consciousness even! Only then do you have authentic and satisfying conversations.
Butterflies and Sweaty Palms
This is a book about performance anxiety – offering 25 different strategies to perform with confidence. But it’s not just about presenting and performing – you’ll find its ideas useful for eliminating anxiety throughout your life.
Voice and Speaking Skills for Dummies
The perfect resource to discover the power of your voice, understand how it works and use it like a professional, whether in meetings, addressing an audience, or standing in front of a classroom.
Voice of Influence
“The body language of sound”. Like body language, your voice gives you away. Find your authentic voice, speak powerfully and influentially, and reach people on a deeper level.
What holds you back? You might think that your own particular set of difficulties, setbacks and doubts don’t fit any coaching model. But you’d be surprised how a simple conversation with a coach will help you to get rid of obstacles and move forward to what you really want from life. Six months from now you’ll be saying, as other have, I don’t know why I didn’t do it years ago! Email me or call on 01306 886114 if you want an initial conversation about what coaching might do for you. Coaching can take place face-to-face or via Skype or phone.
It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. Do you realise what an amazing potential resource you have in your voice? How you come across depends on your voice and how you use your body AND your breath. Self-consciousness is the grand saboteur. You’ll experience positive results after even a single coaching session. Email me or call me on 01306 886114.
Look here for older blogs – just scroll down. Or click on one of the descriptive tags to sort the archive.
David Thompson helps people communicate with clarity, creativity and confidence – much what I do really. He writes some good blogs on his website – have a look here. I once heard David recite some Shakespeare and was electrified.
A poem about connection
I like this poem by Hafiz on connection. Written over seven hundred years ago but the humour’s still current. What do you think of it?
With That Moon Language
Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this: this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a moon in each eye,
that is always saying,
with that sweet moon language,
what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?
There are various other poems that are favourites of mine on my website. Have a look here.