The Single Most Important Question: “What Do You Mean?”
I’m asking you because it feels like we — the human race — are divided like never before. Or maybe it feels like that because social media uncovers all the hate and prejudice on a global scale.
And it ain’t pretty.
But it also houses the voices of the women and men who speak up and make space for humanity in its ever inspiring diversity.
I wholeheartedly believe that keeping All Forms Of Communication Open is what can bring us together. Not in a “We are all one, I’m-colorblind-and-brush-any-difference-under-my-numbed-out-lovey-dovey-rug”.
But with curiosity.
And by asking that Super Important Question: ‘What Do You Mean”? Yes, I am aware that this is also a Justin Bieber song, however, it’s still a life-changing question.
Always ask. Never assume.
Because — in all honesty — we human beings — are clearly incapable of looking at each other with a neutral non-biased look. Seriously. The moment we look at someone we see color, posture, we see a wheelchair, glasses, botox . . .
“Oh my god she’s so fat and eats fries!”
“Look at that expensive bag, he must be loaded.”
We see everything!
Our brains are incredibly opinionated. And we immediately compare ourselves with that other person. Depending on that intrinsically complex set of morals, culture, upbringing — and what have you — we use that framework as our personal communicate highway.
Listening is hard when generations worth of voices are yapping in your ear.
Actually, it can be pretty exhausting. Because the rules change all the time. My grandmother spoke about ‘THE Jew’. A Jewish man who was her landlord before the war and someone she gave shelter to during the war. My father had to tell her that referring to someone as THE Jew was highly inappropriate.
When we forget to ask ‘What do you mean?’ all that is left is a shield of emotions, experiences, and convictions.
We assume without asking.
Many years ago I opened the door to my office in an area in Amsterdam crowded with drug users. A tall black man wearing a rather scruffy shirt stood in the door opening. For a split second, I completely froze and I thought: “An addict wants to come in!”
A split second. Yet the thought was there. Completely and in its full Ugly Biased Glory! It turned out the presumed addict was a professor. I knew he came over but I had automatically assumed him to be white. The shame was real. As was the realisation that I was just as biased as the next person.
Always ask. Never assume!
It was a thoroughly sobering experience. I considered myself to be fairly non-prejudiced. At university, I took all the classes on the effects of colonialism, stereotypical perception, racial tension. I traveled the world, I read The Books, I lived in areas with people from all over the world and I loved it. I considered myself pretty woke (yes, I know!)
Yet, there I was. Mistaking a black professor for an addict.
Seeing my own prejudice and growing up without my own role models is why inclusion and representation have become my leitmotiv.
My son and I sat on the deck of the ferry — covered in sand and salt-induced towels — enjoying the last bit of sea and wind after an amazing week on the beautiful Dutch island Schiermonnikoog.
I looked at my phone to read a message from a fellow entrepreneur I met once. There it was:
Dear Esther, I don‘t want to read your ‘people from X’ hater posts regularly. So, thank you so far for your friendship here on Facebook. I say:“bye bye“.
Regards E. *
* I changed the actual name of the country to ‘X’. Because my point is so much bigger than bickering about countries.
My heart skipped a beat and I felt suddenly very nauseous.
What have I done?
In my mind’s eye, I go through all my Facebook posts. I often write little stories about my own many mishaps. Yes, there are many. Not taking yourself too seriously is definitely a virtue.
One story came up, consisting of: a heatwave, people from ‘X’ speaking to me in their own language — instead of the language of my country we were in — without asking if I spoke that language too, showers that were out of order, a woman from ‘X’ who almost pushed me out of the showers, me being fed up and giving her my Deadliest Death Stare.
Me, deeply regretting my action when I realized that she had a lot of very young children and that she must have been exhausted too.
It was a funny small story about miscommunication. It was self-mockery. Not really a ‘Hey guys watch me being Picture Perfect’ kind-a-story.
Feeling slightly sick I type:
Wow…. ‘people from X’ hater posts? Half my family is from ‘X’. Sorry to hear you regard what I write as hate. Really sorry to hear this.
I’m right back at the office door with the professor. Call me a Utopian Idealist but as an entrepreneur an inclusive world is my driving force! The very last thing I ever want is to make someone feel Not Included simply because she is an inhabitant of a certain country.
I forget to look at the beauty of the sea, the seagulls dancing in the wind. I forget my son sitting next to me. I find an old bag of sweets in my bag and cram them into my mouth. It tastes very sandy.
This whole back and forth messaging sucks!
The answer comes within seconds:
I describe reality, correct me if I slide up into interpretation:
You debase the ‘population from X’ with cynicism in your posts.
This is not what I imagine between likeminded people.
Okay… I don’t even understand what she says. There’s one thing I know: I feel horrible.
Also, I suddenly realise, something grotesquely weird is happening.
I — a woman of color — am being lectured by a white woman about devalue the entire population of a rather large country. I’m not sure about the ‘likemindedness’ she’s referring to.
I know what it feels like to be different. I was a brown girl with a brown father in a squeaky white world. When school friends asked me what my father did, I told them he worked for Shell. They asked: ‘At what gas station’? It didn’t dawn upon them that a person of color could work in an actual office.
I try to breathe. Perspective Esther. Find perspective!
Oh man, being seen as a Hater hurts. I much rather be seen as that wise compassionate person who gently brushes mean messages away while softly humming energizing mantras.
All I want to know is: “What do you mean? Why do you feel offended?”
But in the meantime, I’m starting to feel actually really angry. Because there is Zero Real Communication with this woman here. She could have silently unfriended me and I would have never noticed it. This is someone who goes for maximum pain for reasons that will remain a secret forever.
There’s a Huge Difference between Being Open, Compassionate and Curious and being a doormat for someone else’s feelings.
Instead of: “What do you mean?” I type:
Sorry, I’m not allowing anyone to ruin the wonderful holiday I had with my son nor my relationship with my ‘population from X’ family. Being seen by someone as a hater in this way hurts me deeply.
So if that is the intention. .. well done.
I see the little dots moving. She’s writing.
And there comes the answer, written like a little poem of pain-inducing words:
You started to hurt the ‘population from X’ in public.
And for your pain I am not responsible.
I am never able to ruin your holiday.
You can only do it yourself.
Okay, so I’ve been given the power to hurt the entire population of X. That’s pretty big. Jeez, communication is a little bit too difficult here. I decide that this has gone on long enough and block her.
This has nothing to do with me anymore. This is not about motives or “What did you meant with that?” I’m not your ugly doormat. Boundaries are everything.
Briefly I consider sharing the whole conversation online. But it doesn’t feel good.
Instead, I decide at that moment that there is an alternative for my feeling of discomfort.
I write this article.
Why? Because Real Communication can be hugely rewarding. As long as we dare to ask: “What do you mean?” As long as we are aware of our multi-layered receptors. The super biased glasses we all look through.
There is a Tibetan story about four cups that represent the human mind.
Imagine a table with four cups and a teapot.
The first cup is cracked and has holes in it.
When the tea is being poured it loses all the fluid. This cup represents the forgetful, detached ‘I don’t care’ mind. Use it and we will never feel deeply connected. Or meet great new people who might bring you new perspective.
The second cup is upside down.
Nothing can come in. Nothing can come out. This is the fearful mind. Without curiosity, nothing happens. When we use this cup we miss out on experiences or unexpected events. When people say: “I can’t help it, This is who I am”: definitely an upside-down cup.
The third cup is filled with poison.
When the tea is poured it immediately poisons the drink. This represents the angry and jealous mind. Avoid that cup when you’re on social media because it will completely spoil your day. And you might find yourself in a situation like I found myself in.
And the last cup is just a cup.
It receives the tea. It provides space for the tea. The cup is the cup. And the tea is the tea. This is the mindful, open cup. It doesn’t judge. It is simply aware. Anger, joy, resentment, love, happiness, jealousy everything is welcome in that cup. It comes and goes.
It’s an ideal state. It transcends fear. It’s open to everything and everyone. The way only really young children are open to strangers. Their mouth wide open gawking at the lady in the pink underdress in the supermarket.
When we drink from the fourth cup we see and accept how different we all are. We enjoy and celebrate the big differences and small nuances.
I personally think we are all capable of living in the ‘State of the Fourth Cup’. You don’t have to chant for days — you can though if you want — it all starts with being aware and with that super important question:
“What do you mean?"