The Future is Local: Communication is Not Competitive
If you make it win/lose, everybody loses
My wife and I took a cruise in mid-December, a quick four day jaunt to Ensenada to unplug and unwind. The cruise lines are running some deals to try and get back to business, so why not, right? Sure, they’ve got a bunch of performative ‘Rona protocols going, but they work to keep it unobtrusive and minimize inconvenience, so I don’t get worked up about it.
Anyway, on the third morning of our cruise I was walking the buffet line, and watched something striking unfold. One of those ‘Rona protocols the cruise line put in place is servers on the buffet line; gone are the days of everybody grabbing the same spoon to get into the scrambled eggs or whatever. Now there’s a line server at about every third spot behind the buffet line, waiting politely to plate up whatever you communicate that you want. Communication is our theme today.
First, some background to set the stage for the situation I witnessed. If you’ve cruised before, you know that the chance of meeting a crew member who speaks truly fluent English is small. You’ll meet the occasional Canadian or Dutch-heritage South African, but they work mostly in the entertainment sections. For the most part the officers are from Italy or Brazil, and the lower-decks crew (room stewards, waitstaff, cooks, and line servers on the buffet) are typically Filipinos, Indians, Bangladeshis, or another flavor of brown folk from broader South/Southeast Asia. That’s neither good nor bad (everybody’s gotta make a living), but the reason it matters here is that it can make communicating with the crew more challenging than some might be used to. English fluency can be widely variable, and if you want your trip to go smoothly you need to be prepared to be patient in your communication with the people around you.
So there I was, at the buffet, with a couple of fried eggs on my plate, considering stepping a few spots down to ask for some sausage links as well. And there, standing in front of the bacon (and next to the sausage) was this guy. He was clearly perturbed. And after a moment he gave voice to his mounting frustration.
“What do I have to do to get some bacon?” he said, in his best customer-is-always-right voice. Note that I say he said this. It wasn’t what I’d call a question. It wasn’t quite enough to need an exclamation point, and I’m being charitable giving it the question mark.
The server was perplexed, and asked “Bacon?” with a gesture at the pan.
“Yeah, how do I get some bacon?”
“I give for you?” the server was now confused, which didn’t help his very halting and accented English.
“Great,” came the sarcastic reply. “I just want a plate and some bacon.”
The server, still confused at the manner in which this want of bacon was being communicated, tentatively dished up a tong-load of bacon, and then asked something that may have been “anything else?” but was a little mumbled.
The guy grew more impatient. “I just want the plate!”
The server, now confused and flustered, and still holding the plate of bacon (and which the guy had not reached for), picked up an empty plate and timidly offered it to the guy, who made a show of rolling his eyes, putting his hands in the air, and generally displaying his agitation.
“You’re not getting it!” he was edging into raising his voice at this point. So at this point I felt I had to intervene. It was getting too escalatingly stupid to leave alone.
“Give him the bacon,” I said gently, leaning slightly toward the server and pantomiming handing the plate over. The server did so, and the guy whisked off.
It is easy here to cast this in aggressor/victim terms. Bacon-guy is an easy person to villainize. We had all been eating at this buffet for three days, so how did this guy not know how to communicate his desire for bacon (or anything on the line)? How had he been getting fed for three days? To be unable to clearly communicate simple things to the crew three days in seems like it’s no longer an incidental misunderstanding. Three days in, this looks more like willful refusal to be patient and communicative.
That said, I don’t know the demander’s story. I don’t know his background or his politics or his outlook on life. I don’t know if he was a bacon addict caught in a jonesing fit and unable to control himself. I don’t know if he was religiously offended by the presence of the bacon and was choking down his righteous indignation long enough to get a plate he could throw over the side in protest. And that leads toward the real point, and brings us to the lesson I learned from bacon-guy.
(As an aside please note, dear reader, that I have not offered any substantive description of bacon-guy up to this point, but you probably have an image in your head already. Question yourself about why you have conjured that image, and be honest with yourself about it as you continue reading.)
Communication requires that each of us understand that we are not talking to another person. Rather, we are talking with another, attempting to help that person understand what it is we want. That process is collaborative and cooperative. It is not competitive. You cannot force someone else to “understand” you. Nor does achieving “understanding” mean you win. Communication has no winner or loser. Whatever the motivation of bacon-guy, it is clear that he was not in that headspace. He didn’t recognize that the process of getting bacon was a cooperative exercise with the server. He didn’t stop to consider ways to help the server understand that his goal was bacon. He just wanted to win.
We live in a world where everything is cast in win/lose terms. Many things can be blamed for contributing to that (insert condemnation of video games/social media/critical race theory/Trump here), but it really doesn’t matter what has led us to this place. What matters is that we recognize the place where we are, and leave it for better, greener, more collaborative pastures. Communication is undermined when placed in a win/lose frame. Real communication is abandoned by the playing of rhetorical killshot “cards” (you’re a racist, you’re an oppressor, you’re a commie, you’re selfish, etc.). Treating communication like a game to be won only ends in mutual destruction. So don’t play that game.
Start seeing the individual people around you as individual people, and not just “people” (or worse, “those people”). Understand and accept that every person around you has a past and a set of beliefs and desires, just like you do. No one exists to service you, even the ones working in service positions. All of us can advance when we choose to communicate with one another. None of us advance when we treat communication as competition. Put more bluntly, if you make it win/lose, we all lose. Everybody digs in, keeps score, and just fights, with nothing ever gained as we slowly whittle each other away to nothing.
How can this work in your real life, in your real community? Recognize your neighbors as real people, and not just “the neighbors.” Learn their names. Take them cookies. Invite them over to eat. Be polite, welcoming, and communicative. Your goal is not to figure out how to manipulate them. Your goal is to figure out how to talk with them. The future is local; sooner or later you’re going to need to know your neighbors, and times of stress aren’t good times to build trust. You may be different from your neighbors. You may have different backgrounds and beliefs and goals. That’s all fine. As long as everybody’s communicating, differences can be lived with. It’s when we stop communicating and start competing that bad things happen.
Likewise, recognize that people beyond your neighborhood, elsewhere in town, are real people with lives and beliefs and desires just like you. Realize you are not in competition with others. Them having more or less stuff than you does not make you lesser or better. It just makes you different, and different is okay. Don’t let yourself be drawn into hierarchies of wins and losses by comparing yourself to others in your community.
Look for ways everyone can benefit, and discuss those things clearly, without trying to “win.” Social power can be shared, and shared power is multiplied while hoarded power withers. The win/lose frame denies the (admittedly more complicated) reality of sharing and understanding in favor of simplistic stimulus response, replacing argument with arguing, mutual understanding with petty tyranny.
The win/lose frame has infected political life to the highest levels, and it’s all going to fall apart. When that happens, those who can effectively communicate will be the ones who build what’s next. Be a communicator so you can be a builder.
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