Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Blind Spots in Communication

On Thursday's I have class at the Magill Campus, 15 or so kilometers East of downtown. Since it begins at 4, the bus system can get busy as it makes its way through town, but luckily isn't too crowded when I get picked up. As I stepped onto the bus, I saw a few empty seats and sat down towards the front. By the time we were a few stops down the road, the bus was getting pretty full, and people started to stand. This was a bit strange to me, premature, really, since there was an extra seat next to me. I saw a man unnecessarily standing nearby and I wanted to tell him that he could sit down. However, it didn't take long for me to realize that there is no easy way of saying that. After all, maybe he just wanted to stand. Regardless, there's no normal way of communicating that to a stranger on a bus if they don't sit down of their own accord.

In a way, it was completely natural for this person to choose not to sit next to me, assuming he would have sat there if all two seats were available. He, like many of us, have developed this mindset of not wanting to cause me (or anyone else who would have be sitting there) discomfort by sitting in the next seat. The strangest part of all, however, is how people have managed to give him that mindset. What is it about the way we live that caused us to be extremely compassionate to the few that we know, and utterly disregard the ones we don't? This bus ride isn't exactly a great example, but let's say I was an acquaintance of his. Would he have stood there anyways? My guess is no, that he would have sat down to talk to me. Unfortunately, there's a distinct line between how people treat strangers and how they treat people they know. I use the word "unfortunate" because many people seem to regard strangers as competition rather than peers on this blue and white marble floating in the milky way somewhere in the infinitely vast universe. And yet, as soon as that stranger appears to be in danger, we rush to help. As soon as someone collapses in the street with a heart attack, ambulances and firefighters rush to save their life. We have systems set up to help complete strangers stay alive regardless of their income or background and yet it is undesirable to sit next to one of them on the bus. Is it instinctual to be suspicious of those we don't know, of the unknown? Have we evolved to assume that we must be competing for the same assets in life? At what point does a stranger cease to be seen as competition and instead be seen as another human being, complete with their own thoughts, problems, memories, and ultimately quite similar to everyone else on earth?

Humans have this incredible ability to empathize with one another, but this ability is not always as straightforward as it seems. During Crew Resource Management class last week, we watched a video summarizing everything that led up to and caused a particular plane crash. It turned out to be a mechanical failure, but when they interviewed one of the air traffic controllers, he said that after seeing the crash he got out of his seat, went downstairs, sat on the stoop and cried. Here he was, crying over the death of someone he had never known due to a crash that was not his, or anyone's fault. This is human compassion at its finest.

Sadly, this compassion of ours comes with a terribly distinct on/off switch. It is a crime to outright kill a dog in the United States, yet completely legal to go out and shoot a deer. So then, who decided which animals are the cute ones, and which ones are tasty and should be hunted? Many of the laws in our society perpetuate this selective compassion without any of us even noticing. The thing is, many of the nasty things that go on in the world would never happen if there wasn't this blind spot in communication. If we could all somehow know everyone's background, their problems, their lives, what their passions are simply by looking at them, the way people interact would fundamentally change. But the terrible truth to life is that we don't see any of these things by looking at someone. We only the see the way they dress, color of their skin, shape of their body, general attractiveness, etc. If there is one change that could extraordinarily improve the world overnight, it would be to grant everyone the ability to thin-slice their perceptions of others based on the dazzling side of their character rather than their superficial appearances.

I know it's impossible to know any of these things when you see someone on the street, but would it be a bad idea to pretend like you did? The book I'm reading right now is called Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. The main point author Malcolm Gladwell gets at is how decisions made quickly and promptly based on prior intuition can often be as good, if not better than many carefully thought out plans. That many times, haste does not make waste. By avoiding over-analysis we are then able to focus on what originally struck our subconscious' realm of decision making. In this book, there is a section about a successful New Jersey car salesman through the years. As a car salesman, it is imperative for him to judge within the first few moments what kind of customer he is dealing with. For example, is this customer nervous because it's their first time buying a car, or do they know a great deal about cars and would be offended if spoken to with a patronizing tone? Consequently, it was Gladwell's follow up paragraph that struck me most, in which he states, "There is another even more important reason for [the car dealer's] success. He follows, he says, another very simple rule. He may make a million snap judgements about a customer's needs and state of mind, but he tries never to judge anyone on the basis of his or her physical appearance. He assumes that everyone who walks in the door has the exact same chance of buying a car."

That right there is the attitude in which we should regard strangers. As difficult as it sometimes may be, it is absolutely crucial to avoid prejudging people. Given the situation, it is important to get a sense of how the person is feeling and their general mindset, but as soon as these judgments come based on physical appearance alone, all bets are off. Someone you dismiss because they look a certain way could have ended up a close friend, while another who's appearances you were infatuated with could only be there to take advantage of you. Ultimately, this all requires an incredibly open mind. To be able to eliminate all preconceptions and focus on the state of the person in front of you is incredibly difficult tool to access and maintain, but vastly beneficial when mastered.

In Blink, the car salesman assumes that everyone who walks into the dealership has the exact same chance of buying a car, regardless of what they look like. As global citizens, we need to adopt this concept as well. Only instead of people walking into a car dealership, they're walking into our lives.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Let It Happen


Since my residence is situated in downtown Adelaide, it's difficult to go right out and immediately take a jog. Given the population density, I prefer to to walk for a few minutes North until I get to the surrounding parkland, and assume a faster pace from there.

On my way to the parklands, I noticed something that I see every day but have never given much thought. There's this hotel nearby, and the ground level is a large bar, with an outdoor patio encompassing it. Every day when I walk past, there's always quite a few people sitting outside, drinking. More often than not, there's at least one table with a single person sitting at it, alone. Usually it is a man, so for writing purposes I'll refer to this person as a "he". To me, he always appears to be the most interesting person in the entire establishment. Drinking, it seems, tends to be a social activity. So what kind of person comes down to this particular hotel, or any for that matter, to drink while sitting outside by themselves? Especially since the patio is almost always full, I bet there is background pressure from people wondering why he needs a whole table to himself. I thought about this person while walking to the park, and I still couldn't quite understand what he's on about. Could it be that he's so satisfied with life, that a simple beer outdoors while alone and yet surrounded by people means for a lovely afternoon? Could it be that he's simply waiting for someone else? Perhaps he just likes to be alone. Either way, I sometimes wish I was outgoing enough to stop, sit down, and ask, "Why are you here right now and why do you seem so interesting?"

And yet, maybe the reason he does so is in hoping that one day someone will come by and ask that very question.

At any rate, I finally got to the park and started my jog. Usually when people go on jogs, they know where they're going since it's near where they live. Even though this is near where I live, I didn't know where I was going. And that was the best part. Not only was I running for fun, but the world around me hadn't revealed itself yet. It's like being in a video game when you finally get to that new level. It could have been anything.

At its core, I enjoy rollerblading, biking, walking, running, anything outside to be accompanied with music. These activities are all powerful in their own ways because suddenly, the world becomes my music video. Suddenly, I don't feel like time is an entity out of my control; the world stops and goes to my rhythm.

Once I reached a relatively quiet area in the park, I decided to shut my eyes for as long as I could stand. Why did I do such a peculiar thing? Well, I closed my eyes and continued running for about 15 seconds straight just to see what would happen. Free will is a wonderful thing because it allows us to do whatever we want. At times, though, it's hard not to think about the possibility that everything is a pre-determined, precisely thought out simulation. When I do something odd, often it's to test this theory out. I recall a time long ago sitting at home trying to debunk this theory. I thought to myself, "If life is predetermined, maybe if I unexpectedly jump up, run around the house three times and jump back onto the couch I'll throw off the fixed schedule of the universe and break the cycle of being controlled." So then, I would do just that, but when I finished, nothing changed. I would wonder, did I really just decide to do that? Or did somebody cause me to decide to do that? It's impossible to know for sure, but the most valuable point I learned from this was not to become overly comfortable with my conclusions, or anyone's for that matter. As small children, we're led to believe that our presents at Christmas come from a fat, white haired toy maker from the north pole. For a long time, this is what we know and believe. But at what point does this start to seem strange? At what point do we realize that life isn't what we thought it was? On a larger scale, this could even be true about many aspects of our current society. The world itself could be vastly different than what current humans perceive it to be, but maybe none of us live long enough for our brains to realize something isn't quite right. Life as we know it could be the "Santa Clause is real period", while the universal truth is never fully realized until death. I'm not saying free will doesn't exist, nor am I siding with The Beatles by saying nothing is real. What I am saying, however, is to avoid regarding the "truths" of life with complacency. Because at one point in your life, you were convinced of Santa's existence.

When I was younger, I was put through swimming lessons at the old Como Pool. Every few sessions, I remember our instructor would have us put our heads below the water and see who could go without a breath for the longest. When it comes to things like this, our bodies react in such a way that makes us come up before we can pass out or drown. It senses that it's without oxygen, it does what it needs to do to get back to that oxygen. When we had these contests, there were no prizes. But let's say the winner gets a million dollars. Would things have changed? Would kids have passed out underwater, out willing their lungs just because of the high stakes? I've never seen a contest like that, but my guess is that everyone might stay under for a little bit longer, though none would pass out. The thing is, when our bodies sense that it's nearing death, instinct kicks in. If your feet are on solid ground and no one is holding your head underwater, you can't simply decide to drown.

I've found that there is a distinct and peculiar difference between these underwater breath tests and closing my eyes while running. I know for sure that closing my eyes can't kill me. I know that I picked a good spot in the park to run, where the worst thing that could happen is falling over. So why does my body's instinct kick in and open up my eyes? The moment I closed them I immediately felt unsure of myself, unsure of my safety. Even though I could feel the same path under my feet the entire time, I began to slow down and unknowingly take strange strides. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't keep up my pace when my eyes were closed. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't keep them closed for more than several seconds at a time. My body wouldn't allow it. This to me, is quite interesting. I understand how our bodies would react to something like drowning, but having our eyes closed? When a person is about to drown, their body reacts because it knows something is wrong. After all, it can't breathe. But when I close my eyes and run down a straight path with absolutely no one on it, my body reacts because it thinks something could go wrong. It knows that without vision, proceeding at such a pace could prove dangerous, so my eyes open even though I'm trying to keep them closed.


I would have never had such a dazzling reflection during my run if I had never decided to close my eyes just to see what would happen, which is what I'm really getting at: doing things just to see what would happen afterwords. We all do things, make decisions every day for various reasons, mainly because it's what we want to do or is what fits in with our personality. But when was the last time you knowingly did something just to see what would happen? I've noticed that the world is so new to small children that they do these odd things here and there just see how everything works. My question is, why do we stop at a certain age? To this day I find myself doing peculiar things just to see what everyone's reaction to it would be. What would happen if I made this surprising noise in front of this particular person? How about in front of this other person I know quite well? What would happen if I went to the drinking fountain, filled my mouth up with water, let the water fall out onto the carpet in front of everyone doing their homework, then continued walking back to my room without blinking an eye? These may sound silly to a lot of people, even like pranks. It actually is comical to me, some of the reactions, but that's not why I do it. I do it because I want to find out more about the people it happens to.

As in my previous entry, Within and Without, I'm discovering other people's personalities not based on direct communication, but by observing their reactions to strange, uncontrollable happenings. Instead of asking, "Hey, are you a prick, or are you actually fun to be around?" I can walk past them with heaps of water falling out of my mouth to find out right then and there. If the person laughs or doesn't even notice, they're probably either easy going or fun-loving. If the person is surprised and gets taken aback, he/she probably doesn't know me very well and is simply stunned. If the person gets upset and tells me to clean it up, I know they're probably either uptight or just an unpleasant person. I mean, who cleans up water? However, I haven't gotten to the worst type of person yet. Or at least, the worst reaction. These are the people who just sit there, unfazed, and utter the worst words one could possibly utter in such a situation, "Why would you do that?". I'm not talking about the people who laugh and find it so amusing that they want to know how I executed such a strange display of comedy. In that case, I see why someone would want to ask that. But no, I'm talking about the ones who just sit there with a scowl on their face and are so pissed off that people do out-of-the-ordinary things that he/she automatically assumes something is wrong with me. I'm warning you now, steer clear of these people. They're the ones who cut people off on their way to work because they think that where they have to be is more important. They're the ones who complain to servers at inappropriate times because they think they should be given the most attention. They're the ones sitting in an airplane's business class grumbling and complaining about how long it takes for the economy travelers to get to their seats. In a nutshell, these are the people that think they're better than everyone else. And you can bet that people like this are the ones living a mundane lifestyle because at a premature age they forgot what it means to do something just to see what happens afterwords. They've stopped wondering what happens and accepted life as a fixed, tedious world in which everyone must be like everyone else and those who are not are merely an inconvenience. It's amazing how much can be correctly deduced about someone based entirely from their reactions.

When I returned from the jog, the loner at the patio was gone. Something about his absence struck a chord with me, and I had a sudden memory. Back when I saw him, in addition to drinking a beer he was also smoking a cigarette. I don't know what it is about that combination, but if a guy is sitting on a patio alone while smoking cigarette's and drinking beer, you just know he showed up by himself. And that's when I realized why this person is so interesting. He was sitting there, letting Adelaide play out in front of him as an observer. He was watching because he wanted to know what would happen if he were to just sit there and not give a damn about anything at all.

So yes, it is okay to not give a damn about a lot of things, because even if you try not to care, the mind never shuts off completely. Thinking never stops. Reflection cannot be paused. Sometimes it's best to sit out there in the sunlight just to watch the world and see life as it happens, to remember what it feels like to be alone. And sometimes you may find yourself all alone on a patio bench in the middle of downtown Adelaide. Maybe, as you observe South Australia's capital city, you become dissatisfied with the way something in this world works, realizing change, however small, is in order. Who knows what this change could be, or bring about? And if you don't want to change South Australia, if you don't want to change the world, that's fine too. But aren't you curious just to see what would happen if you did?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Socio-Economic Justifications of Fast Food Ordering

One evening while we were sitting up on the 7th floor outdoor lounge, two of my friends came back with food from Hungry Jack's, which is exactly like Burger King. What I mean by this is that when Burger King tried to expand into Australia, there was already a restaurant here named "Burger King". So to avoid legal conflict, Burger King as we known it had to go by a different name in the land down under.

Anyways, it was Julian and Antony that came back with varying amounts of food from the same locale. Julian bought two smaller burgers from the value menu, while Antony had a large whopper with fries and a coke. When I asked them how much their meals cost, Julian said each of his burgers costed around $2, though Antony said he was quite hungry and therefore was willing to pay more for his meal, which costed around $12. As they both silently munched on their food, another question crossed my mind.

"So what's the difference between your two burgers" I asked. "I mean, other than size, Antony's must be of higher quality, given the cost."

After a long sip of coke, Antony responded in his natural British accent, "No... I think they're more or less the same... I guess I just wanted a bigger burger."

I'm no economist, but this whole scene reminded me of a cost-benefit analysis I've always had about fast food restaurants regarding their value menus. "Well, you said you were quite hungry, right? If you think about it, you could have ordered 5 or 6 of the same burgers Julian got for the same price as you originally paid for the large meal. As long as you don't mind bringing your own drink from your room and skipping the fries, this seems to be the more valuable choice, doesn't it?"

Antony paused from eating and thought about this for several seconds. After considering his own justifications, he finally said quite flatly, "Well... I guess I don't like to think that I just ate 5 burgers."

Fair enough.