A world where there is room for everybody

I am lucky to be married to a man with whom I have a lot in common, and who shares many of my interests and values. We get along well and sometimes we mistakenly think we know everything there is to know about each other after being married for as long as we have. I say mistakenly because every once in a while one of us will surprise the other with an unexpected opinion that is just hard relate to. When that happens, we argue and debate, neither really willing to budge, until one of us finally laughs and says “How is it possible that you aren’t of the same opinion as me?” It diffuses the situation and we finally end up agreeing to disagree.

One thing that strikes me though when we have these disagreements is how difficult it can be to accept that someone you know so well can think so differently about something. This is actually not that unusual. In fact, there is something known as ‘assumed similarity bias’, which is an unconscious assumption that other people invariably think the same way we do and share the same values and beliefs. We don’t stop to consider that their worldview might be drastically different and when we see evidence of this it is just hard to grasp.

The truth is that we are all different, even those of us who have a lot in common. And we cannot even begin to understand what goes through another person’s mind unless we stop and really listen.

One thing I wonder, however, is whether we are getting worse at dialogue and debate in society. This is an important question because the ability to discuss and debate and reach an agreement, if not a common understanding, is one of the pillars of democracy.

We tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people, all the more so on social media. Algorithms make sure that we see what we want to see, although, to be honest, even without these algorithms we wouldn’t see all there is to see anyway as we tend to portray only our best selves, or the selves we wish to be.

On the other hand, the discussion and debates that do happen are often rude or just filled with misunderstandings. Rude because when on social media people tend to say things they would never say to someone’s face (you can read more about that here) or misunderstandings because a hastily written comment might not be entirely thought through. Or even if it is, in can be misinterpreted in a myriad of ways by the reader. Have you ever heard about not discussing important issues over email or text message because it is a recipe for misunderstanding? Well, I’m wondering if the same goes for social media debates. Something has just got to be said about face-to-face conversations.

My worry is that if debate is often either nonexistent because of the glossy façades we create in our posts, or unreasonably harsh because of bad social media manners, how does this affect our common understanding as a democratic society? We need to try to understand what other people really think and feel in order to be able to create a world where there is room for everybody (and which won’t self-destruct, which seems to be a real risk at the moment). But if it’s hard to relate to one’s friends’ and family members’ different opinions and views, how hard is it not to relate to people who have completely different values than our own?

I don’t really know what the solution is. All I know is that this needs to be said again and again. Dialogue and debate need to be constructive and we need to be better at listening. We need to stand behind what we say, in every situation, whether online or in person. If we can’t, we simply shouldn’t say it. And we need to be kind.

If we’re open to constructive and friendly debate and discussion, a common understanding can be reached, even if, like with my husband and me, it’s an agreement to disagree. At least it creates an understanding of where the other person stands and why.

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Sarcasm will kill any hope of constructive dialogue, and it certainly won’t make the world a better place

I got a comment on my blog a while back that was just impossible to respond to. The reason is, it was dripping with sarcasm. The person commenting was obviously not impressed with my post and let me know this fact by congratulating me on doing, as I understand it, such a terrible, or rather offensive, job. Now the reason I say offensive is that it seemed like this person might have been offended by my post, which, in turn, triggered the sarcastic remarks.

Don’t get me wrong; I am the first to encourage different opinions and perspectives. I understand that not everyone will like or agree with what I write. My blog represents my own perspectives and opinions, based on research, however, and not just plucked out of thin air mind you, but still my personal perspectives and opinions. I know there are a zillion other perspectives and opinions out there, and that is the beauty of it. “Vive la difference!” as my sister likes to say. Anything else would be boring.

After all, it is only through dialogue and debate with people of different perspectives and opinions that we, together, can create more knowledge and make the world a better place.

But when someone is sarcastic, the debate dies right there. Because how can you respond to that? When you are sarcastic, you are not inviting the other party to a discussion. You are signaling ill will, which will only make the other person defensive and want to retaliate. And trust me on this: that is not a good recipe for dialogue, collaboration, and creating a common understanding.

That is the whole problem. That is why social media to date has not been a huge success when it comes to connecting people who represent different perspectives and points of view. That is why social media has in many ways, opposite to what perhaps was originally envisioned, made the potential for constructive debate and dialogue smaller in so many ways.

According to Stanford Professor Robert Sutton, technology has, in fact, created what he calls an “asshole problem”, because when people don’t make eye contact (which we don’t on social media), they are much more likely to be mean. And not only that, after someone has been a so-called “asshole” (which you have to admit is not unusual in online discussions), nasty behavior spreads much faster than nice behavior. I guess this knee-jerk instinct to retaliate is just very hard to resist. If you’re interested in this contemporary problem of ‘assholism’, you can read more in Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, or in his more recent book The Asshole Survival Guide.

So if the person who posted that sarcastic comment on my blog is reading this, I just want to say, yes I saw your comment but unfortunately I just couldn’t think of a single constructive thing to say in response that I think you would have been open to. While I appreciate that you didn’t like my post and I would love to have an open discussion about it so that I can understand your point of view, the way your comment was phrased unfortunately just killed any hope of a constructive conversation. And alas, no common understanding was reached.

Open your mind, there are worlds out there just waiting to be discovered

One of the misconceptions of opting out is that it is forever. Like any career transition, the work solutions we opt in to are anchored in time and space. What feels like the right solution depends on where you are and the challenges you’re dealing with at that particular time.

Opting out and in comes with a lot of soul searching. When you go through a life change you invariably spend time thinking about what’s important to you and where you want to go in life, which is a good thing. More people should. However, this is also a continuous process, because just like your career or lifestyle solutions, it is also tied to time and space. So you have to go back and keep reminding yourself what your terms are and check that they are still valid. I think once you’ve started a habit of of self-reflection, you don’t stop. And if you’ve been through something that pushed you to make a lifestyle change, you want to make sure that you don’t end up in that same situation again.

This is true for me. I think a lot about what I want to do, where I want to go from here. What was the perfect solution for me a few years ago as I opted out and in might not be anymore, but that doesn’t worry me. I know that situations change and needs change and that is fine. As a matter of fact, change is probably the only constant we have, and in a way I find that comforting. I find comfort in the knowledge that things will inevitably evolve, not matter what the situation.

But as I reflect over my choices, and the lifestyle changes I made as I opted in to academia, there is one thing in particular that I am especially grateful for. Working on a PhD really opened my mind. And I’m not talking about the actual research now, although obviously that opened my mind too. I’m talking about the insight I got into the fact that there really are different ways of living and working, there is no one right way to make a living.

Let me explain. Before I opted out, all I knew was what I had experienced. I had always worked in an organizational setting, and I didn’t really know of any other way of making a living. I sometimes longed to but I couldn’t imagine it. That’s why opting out can be so scary, because it means taking a step into the unknown. But after I did, I started to realize just how many people there are out there who work completely differently with different routines and different ideals, and that it can be done, that I can do it too.

And I think it is thanks to this insight that I have actually realized yet another dream.

I have always loved to paint and one of my passions has been silk painting. I’ve been doing it on and off for years, and took it up more actively after I finished my PhD (all of a sudden I wasn’t finalizing a thesis every waking moment and had free time to fill). I always had this, what I thought was a frivolous and completely unrealistic, dream of being an artist but I never really thought it was something that could happen, because I just didn’t know how to. I couldn’t imagine the lifestyle. Well something magical happened a few months ago. I was asked if I was willing to sell some of my silk paintings, and I was absolutely thrilled and definitely willing. The thought of my paintings adorning someone’s wall instead of gathering dust in my study felt great. And that someone wanted to buy something I had created without the help of publishers and copyeditors etc., was simply amazing.

This inspired me to start painting more and to start an Instagram account for my silk painting (with the help of and a small push from my wonderful daughter). I’m not going to quit my day job or anything, but I guess I can sort of say that I’m an artist now too. At least I’m a ‘silk painter of Instagram’. And I honestly think I never would have done this had I not been open to different ideas of what constitutes work.

So my wish for you this holiday season is open your minds. Realize that there are worlds out there that stretch beyond your imagination, and if you just dare to venture out there they are waiting to be discovered. Just because you can’t imagine them yet, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Happy Holidays! I’ll be back in the New Year with new blog posts.

Oh, and if you’re curious, you’ll find my Instagram account under @ingrids_silk_painting.

Me too: on sexual harassment and assault

I was going to write a blog post about capitalism, social systems, and truths, but that will have to wait. I realized there is another blog post that needs to be written first, one that needs to be written now.

Yesterday morning when I checked my Facebook newsfeed, a couple of my friends had posted this:

“Me too.
If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste.”

It’s a social media campaign that has come about after the Harvey Weinstein allegations hit the news to raise awareness about how common sexual harassment and assault really are.

I looked at the post in my newsfeed and thought, yes, this is important. I should post that too, because I have also, after all, been sexually harassed on numerous occasions in different situations since I hit my teens. Then I continued scrolling, and stopped, scrolled back up again to the post and then back down again and then back up and then I thought I really need to be involved in this campaign. This is such an important topic to raise awareness about, especially since we don’t usually talk about it.

Yet I found myself scrolling up and down, back and forth, wanting to and not wanting to at the same time and I couldn’t really put my finger on what it was. Finally I just did it; I copy-pasted the text and created a status update.

During the next couple of hours I started to notice my newsfeed filling up with the same text. Female friends, relatives, and colleagues were sharing it too – countless friends, relatives, and colleagues. And it is an incredibly important issue, but that’s not really why I felt compelled to write a blog post about it. No, the sense of urgency I suddenly felt actually came from the way sharing this post made me feel. I felt a bit uncomfortable about it all day. I had this uneasy feeling inside, and after exploring that for a bit I realized that part of what I was feeling was shame.

I am a researcher and a social scientist. I research gender issues, among other things. I write and talk about inequalities, gender discrimination, identity, and sexuality. I am acutely aware of these issues. I study fears and reactions, and analyze reasons behind actions. I know that being the victim of sexual harassment or assault is not shameful and I know that the victim has done nothing wrong. Still, sharing the fact that I too have experienced sexual harassment or assault feels a bit shameful. It feels too personal; like it is something I should keep to myself.

I am willing to bet that every single woman I know has experienced some sort of sexual harassment or abuse during their lifetimes. I know that I am not alone and still it is difficult to talk about.

But many people don’t understand just how hard it really is. I was reading the comments section under an article about Harvey Weinstein the other day, and there was one comment in particular that caught my eye. It was a person who was genuinely wondering why the women haven’t spoken up before. Why did they put up with it? The answer is that it is really hard to speak up. These women were worried about their careers. They were scared of what Weinstein would do to them. They didn’t want to get stigmatized… I could go on, but the point is that the climate in our society is such that sexual harassment and assault are incredibly difficult to talk about.

I grew up acutely aware that I was at risk and needed to be cautious simply because I was girl. I remember when I was pre-teen, my friends and I heard rumors of girls we knew who had been raped, and we knew it could happen to us too because we were girls and that’s the way it was. And I tell you, walking around with the knowledge that you might get abused is scary and it affects your very fabric of being. To this day, I don’t feel completely at ease walking around after dark, even in my own safe neighborhood. I think this is something that is hard to comprehend for someone who hasn’t experienced that fear.

So this is my way of saying, yes, this is important, and yes, we need to talk about it. If you have ever been sexually harassed or assaulted, speak out if you can because we need to know that we are not alone, and all of us need to understand what a huge issue this really is.

#MeToo

Young people are lonely. Is this our doing?

Being the mother of a teenage girl, a comment I heard the other day at a conference really caught my attention. It was a person in the audience, and the comment was that 25% of young Norwegian girls are reported to be lonely. Well, I haven’t been able to verify this number, but I did some digging and it turns out that this is not only a Norwegian phenomenon. It turns out, that studies have shown that teenagers and young adults in other places too, like the UK for example where a study has recently been conducted, are reported to feeling very lonely; lonelier than many elderly feel and we already know that is a problem. In one article the term ‘generation lonely’ had even been used.

The main argument – which has also been contested – is that the Internet and social media are the reason. Apparently, people in this age group rely more on social media to interact with friends than actually seeing them in person. And by now we know that the way we interact over social media is quite different from how we communicate with each other when we see each other face-to-face.

If you ask Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, this is a major problem. One thing is the flat and one-sided personas we present to the world through social media. They affect both our own identities but also the identities of those reading our updates due to the way we compare our own messy realities with the edited lives presented by our social media friends. Another problem is that we lose the ability to really be on our own with ourselves and our thoughts, which is a good thing to be able to do for emotional and mental well-being.

Well, that’s one aspect. Another is unemployment among young adults that many countries struggle with. In another presentation I heard, young people today are also known as the ‘Net generation’. People apparently associate them with things like flexibility and precarious work, arguing that this is the way they want it. Apparently they are supposed to lead us into the future where meanings of work are going to be completely different than today. But in a study conducted in Sweden, it is young people who are most negatively affected by insecure and flexible job markets. And when asked, these young people say that all they really want is a good and secure job so that they can earn a living. Not having a job can be a very lonely experience.

Both of these aspects are definitely relevant, but I’m struck by a thought. What also comes to mind is the way we organize our children’s lives, before they become lonely young adults. Due to the false perception that the world has become a more dangerous place (despite terrorist threats and the media going wild on this topic, studies have shown that the world is actually a safer place now than it has been previously), parents limit how far they allow their kids to roam. In my neighborhood I don’t ever see kids playing in the street, like I did with my friends when I was a kid. So if kids are to see each other, play dates need to be organized first. This, in addition to the professionalization of all things that should be fun (i.e. kids’ hobbies), seem to fill up our children’s schedules to the point where it becomes difficult for them to hang out with friends after school because everyone is constantly somewhere at some sort of training, club or class that just can’t be missed.

Hmm… it kind of makes you wonder: is social media really at fault? Or are we active participants in creating lifestyles for our kids where they don’t have much choice but to limit their interactions to Internet solutions? After all, as parents we set the standards.

The wonder of new words and other covfefe

I’ve been cracking up over Trump’s blooper from the other day. Just thinking about it has me in stitches. I’m talking about his tweet of course where he coined the wonderfully mysterious word ‘covfefe’. Just writing it down makes me smile.

I’ve been wondering to myself how one would pronounce such a word. Covfeef? Covfeefee? Covfayfay? Isn’t it wonderful, no one knows how to pronounce this word because no one knows where it comes from. And the reason no one knows that is because it doesn’t come from anywhere. It is a made up word, either an autocorrect blunder or just sausage fingers at a very late hour. So it has no origin and it has no correct pronunciation. We can pronounce it any way we want. We can use it in any way we want, in any number of wild and wonderful ways.

Trump is a disaster in so many ways. I’m not even going to begin to list them here; one blog post would not suffice. But the one positive thing he has done, he did without meaning to, and without even noticing until he woke up to the comic covfefe storm raging all over social media. What he unwittingly did was he coined a nonsense word that tickles our imagination. And let’s face it; we could definitely use some fun amidst all the dismal on-goings around us.

The thing about language is that it forms our understanding of ourselves and of the world around us. Language is central to the way we organize the world. We use language to communicate and to mobilize people towards a common world order. This is important and handy of course. Without the wonder and the power of words we wouldn’t be able to communicate the way we do and share our inner worlds with each other.

But language can also be problematic and limiting. Because we’re so good at labeling, once a word has been uttered we instantly have a common understanding of what it is we’re talking about. And when this happens, we effectively stay within the boundaries of what we understand to be right and true. We stay inside the box.

This means that thinking out of the box, or developing new ways of organizing, working, living, and being – to name a few – becomes difficult when we use our common and familiar language. Simple terms like work or meeting or flexible time instantly pull us back within the familiar boundaries of what we understand these things to be. So redefining work becomes difficult, as does redefining what flexible work should really entail. Or how we meet and interact with each other. This makes imagining and creating the new – the really new and innovative – challenging.

We need new words to talk about these new things so that we don’t get dragged back into our familiar but dated ways. We need to develop with the times and new language will help us do that.

And this week a new word was given to us, just like that.

Let’s create lots of new words; words that question what we know to be true, and that open our eyes and imaginations to new possibilities. Let’s covfefe!

(…she giggles as she hits the publish button.)

Be a mensch

The other day my son and I were having a conversation at bedtime, as we usually do. He asked me why there are so many awful people in the world who do such terrible things. It’s a tough question for a mother. You want to protect your children from everything evil and scary, but you also want them to be aware so that they can be safe. But still it’s hard. I find myself turning off the radio and the TV when the news comes on, because the news is absolutely horrific with color pictures of misery, death, and gore. If the same thing is shown in a movie, which is pretend, there is an age limit. But real life horror has no age limit and is broadcasted during all hours of a child’s day.

I thought for a moment lying next to my son, and then I answered his question as honestly as I could and said that I don’t know, but what I do know is that although there are many really bad people there are at least as many if not more really good people. And it is true there are a lot of good people in the world.

However, sometimes I wonder if that goodness just gets lost amidst all the egos and political rhetoric. In a time when I’m feeling quite disillusioned by the actions of my country’s leaders, it kind of makes you wonder if they are so caught up in their political power struggles that they just forgot how to be a mensch.

I saw a speech the other day by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that really touched me. As usual Adichie is intelligent and eloquent and really hits the nail on its head in her talk about the plight of the refugees fleeing their homes in search of safety. She talks about dignity, sorrow, hope, and pride, and she calls for a narrative in which we truly see those of whom we speak. No one is, after all, only a refugee. (Please watch it, it’s important, in addition to just being a great talk.)

Well anyway, I shared her speech on Facebook and a friend commented on my post, and raised a really important point. She wondered whether this thing where we don’t actually see people is a wider societal phenomenon that goes beyond the plight of the refugees. She talked about how when everything is so hectic we just don’t have the time, but that we don’t make the time either. It’s like we don’t even want to really see each other for who we really are. Think about it. Do you think that’s true?

I think she has a point. There is something about the way we live, about our culture, about the way we connect quickly and fleetingly through social media, thinking that we have kept in touch while really we grow apart if we don’t actually ever see each other or even have a real conversation every now and then. Let’s face it, we are pretty busy navel gazing much of the time as we for example document and continuously report the minutiae of our lives – minutiae, which is often also very stylized. I mean how many of you rearrange the food and cutlery on the table over and over until you get the perfect picture, or take three, five, ten selfies until you have one that is good enough to post? I admit; I’ve done it.

It’s not entirely our fault; we are very much affected by social norms and ideals, and the social structures that we are a part of, form and limit our actions. However, these structures are created and upheld by people – by us. We are also active agents involved in producing and reproducing this culture in which we live. So we can’t just shrug and say what can you do, that’s just the way it is. We not only can, we need to be reflective of what we do.

So let’s open our eyes and see each other for who we really are. And to the world leaders and politicians out there, be a mensch and make this world a more humane place for our children.