change, communication, family, Full House, holidays

How the Car Rides Of My Youth Drove My Ability To Have Important Conversations

I spent much of my childhood being driven around by my parents. This would be a poignant metaphor, but my statement is literal. If my mom wasn’t driving me to piano, singing class, or soccer, and my dad wasn’t driving me to one of several dance classes, I was accompanying my parents as they drove my brother to one of his various extra-curricular activities. Getting home each night felt like the end of a marathon. Though we all sat together at the table to eat dinner, my objective was always to eat as quickly as possible so that I could start doing my homework. And while my parents would try to inspire good conversation —asking us how our days were, what we learned, or who we spent time with—my brother and I were always too tired or too stressed to contribute anything of significance.

Very infrequently, when everyone was tired enough and we were in need of entertainment, my mom allowed us to turn on an episode of some “family show” (basically Full House or The Cosby Show) that we could enjoy together over dinner. My most vivid memory of these shows was that no matter what would happen in the episode, it would almost always end with the air cleared, an honest heart-to-heart between parent and child and some arguably valuable lesson. Though my family witnessed these moments together, they were not ones we replicated. Over time, it became clear to me that this was a distinct difference between my family and the ones I saw on television.

Coming from a culture where emotions aren’t openly expressed or discussed, I was never comfortable sitting at the foot of the bed admitting that I messed up and telling my parents that I loved them while music played in the background. It didn’t help that I was so private with my emotions in general (all my emotions lived in my journal). While I sometimes wished I could be “normal” and have open and honest conversations with my family like the ones I saw on television, I never knew how to initiate the moment, and when I tried, I felt like my stomach was swallowing itself.

So instead, when something really needed to be communicated, I let it fester until the last possible moment, then dropped it into conversation at the least opportune time. For example, the time I told my dad that I failed my first math quiz at my new school and that he needed to sign my notice of “low exam score.” I grabbed him as he was running out the door to a meeting. Choosing such moments allowed me to escape the palpable discomfort of a Danny Tanner teaching moment.

Or so I thought.

This past Christmas weekend, my family and I shared a number of car rides. It had been a while since the four of us were in a car together. We were seated in the same positions we always were in my youth: my dad driving, my brother behind him, my mom in the passenger seat, and me behind her. Our rides were unexpectedly long, and as was equally unexpected, I found myself initiating important conversations. Together, we shared opinions, stories, and concerns (and jokes). And in some ways, despite all that has changed over the years, the comfortable feeling of our sitting together in the car, just like old times, being open with one another, was the real holiday magic. All we needed was some Full House closing music.

The openness of these car conversations reminded me a lot of the ones we shared during my childhood.

What I didn’t realize growing up (and perhaps this demonstrates my mom and dad’s parenting genius) was that we were still having important conversations. They just weren’t happening in the common spaces of our home. It was in those frequent drives to soccer practice or those long drives to dance lessons during which I truly opened up to my parents. To me, car conversations were far more approachable than those in any other place. In a car, nobody could leave the conversation, both parties were focused, there was a definite end to the conversation (arriving at a destination), and no matter where our conversation took us, we were always moving forward.

This time of year can be overwhelming with its influx of cultural and social media presenting people’s picture perfect lives. Much like family television shows of the 90’s, they shed light on how different our own lives are from the ones we see around us. But the power of my car conversations give me confidence that this difference really doesn’t matter. What matters is that you find ways to connect with the people around you in a way that is comfortable for you. Whether that’s at the foot of the bed or with your foot on the gas pedal.

 

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2016, change, childhood, experiencing, real world, strengths, success

How I Learned That It’s Okay To Ask For Help

In my childhood home, my dad’s office den was the most exciting forbidden room of the house. While it wasn’t hard for us to keep away from the expensive machines and important papers that filled a majority of that room, my brother and I found it impossible not to sneak in and play with his (yes, my dad’s) toy collection (he called them “desk props” and “paper weights”).

Among them included a small plastic crate with a small hole and square button. Through then hole shown an eye, representative of a creature trapped inside the crate. Pressing the button made the crate start shaking uncontrollably while the creature cried, multiple times, “Excuse me, excuse me! Will you let me outta here!!”

Don’t hurt yourself trying to imagine this:

 

My brother and I found endless pleasure in tip-toeing into my dad’s office, pressing the button, then scurrying out and giggling in the hallway while the audio track finished.

The crate wasn’t entertaining to me because it was meant to be or even because it was a forbidden pleasure. It was entertaining because it provided a darker, sadistic humor. The notion of confinement reminded me of my freedom. I had power that this trapped “creature” did not. I was strong, and it was weak.

You see, at age nine, my definition of “weakness” was “in need of help.”

Unlike my brother, I was the “hands-off” child. I voluntarily did my homework and laundry, I chose which books to read, and I came up with my own views on religion and culture (which boiled down to writing letters to God when I wanted intangible things and Santa when I wanted tangible ones). Over the years, my parents and teachers credited my independent actions and thoughts to my strengths as a student and my well-roundedness as a little human. Over the years, I conflated “independence” with “accomplished on my own.” For me, asking for help was a sign of weakness. Failure.

This is the perhaps the most foundational misconception that I’ve had to relearn as an adult.

I will never forget my first ever meeting with corporate executives. It was my first product management role and I was to present the initiative I would be working on for the following six months. My slides were a trainwreck and my voiceover was the Titanic. I hadn’t requested that my manager review my work beforehand because I wanted to demonstrate how capable I was. How independent. After all, I had been making slideshows since the sixth grade. As we walked out of the room after the meeting, my manager told me to come see him later. “I’ll teach you how to make a slide presentation.” It is one of my most glamorous failures to date and success would have been no more difficult to attain than asking for help early on.

Last year, I started working at IDEO, the most collaborative place I’ve ever worked. I received a flurry of “new employee” advice from veteran designers when I first joined. All danced around a similar theme, and one way of phrasing it leapt out from the rest: “Never hesitate to ask for help. People here fail when they don’t ask for help.”

This was perhaps the first time in my personal or professional life that I had been encouraged to ask for help, and more importantly, that needing help was no indicator of capability, strength, or success. It was a life-changing revelation.

Since then, I’ve striven to identify opportunities to ask for help — whether it’s on a piece I’m writing, a business model I’m testing, or a meal I’m preparing — and associating them with moments of strength rather than signs of shortcoming.

We forget to tell kids that asking for help is a voluntary decision. Not asking for help whispers ignorance. When we choose not to ask for help, we choose to confine ourselves in a crate. “Help” screams independence. Asking for help is how we help ourselves.

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change, experiencing, psychology, social connection, technology

How Social Media Tells Our Life Story — Whether We Like It Or Not

Last weekend, I attended a wedding. A number of guests were people to whom I haven’t spoken in months or even years, for no reason other than the fact that our daily lives don’t intersect. As I anticipated the reunion, I imagined a Romy and Michele-style experience in which conversations would begin with, “What have you been up to since 2010?”

And I was nervously excited about that.

But these conversations took an unexpected path. I was greeted with opening lines like, “You were all over the place this week!” and “What was that dinner you made?” or “I love that book you’re reading.”

They were knowing remarks, as if we had shared those experiences together. The tone was familiar, though not in the “it feels like no time has passed,” sort of way. My expectation of reunion-type conversation was grossly inaccurate.

Recent MomentsI shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was — these questions all stemmed from recent instagrams or blog articles I’ve shared. They were undeniable snapshots from current events in my life. Despite this obvious justification, something simply didn’t feel right about the conception of these conversations, and in the moment, I couldn’t understand why. For whatever reason, they weren’t topics I would have chosen to lead with. Still, the company — and the conversations in themselves — were delightful.

Sunday after the wedding, I returned to my apartment for the first time in a week. I passed my roommate on my way in.

“Hi! Was this weekend one of the weddings?” She asked.

“Yes! It was a great time.”

“And were you gone during the week too? I wasn’t sure.”

It sometimes happens that we don’t cross paths during the work week, even when we are both in town. When my roommate asked the question, the peculiar feeling I had with those wedding greetings suddenly returned.

“Yeah, I was in Ohio. I’ll tell you all about it, and I want to hear about your week too.”

How ironic that I had gone dark on this person who is deeply entrenched in my daily life, while those who follow from afar seemingly had not missed a beat. The difference between her and them? She doesn’t have instagram.

We can all agree and accept that social media presents a curated version of our life experiences. We know that there is more behind what we filter out. In fact, I see my social presence as a completely different entity from my living and breathing one. My real-life story intentionally has different chapters than the ones I share online. And people in my day-to-day world know that.

But for geographically and figuratively distant friends, what they see is the only — and entire — story.

This is what caught me off guard at the wedding.

It has me wondering whether social media is not just presenting a curated version of our life experiences, but also creating a curated version of our reality. The fleeting, caption-worthy moments we share for Likes are the ones people (setting aside close friends) know us for. They serve as a jumping-off point for our in-person conversation. It is what they ask about, and what we tell them about.

Whether they intend to or not, others write the story of our lives, and their perceptions of them, by what we share. And we do the same to them. We overlook the existence, let alone the significance, of people’s unshared moments.

In most cases, that’s where the real story lies.

While I initially struggled with this truism, I’ve decided that this is the status of social media. There’s nothing we can do about it, whether we like it or not. We can, however, remind ourselves that people have unshared stories. We can account for this by leaving blank pages in the life stories we craft for them. And we can encourage them to tell these stories, should they desire.

Monday evening, my roommate and I ate dinner together at home. We regaled one another with the goings-on in our lives, taking care to mention what we deemed meaningful. Perhaps what made the conversation most captivating was that none of it could be found in a caption. We established the filters of our stories. Not social media.

And that feeling of connection was anything but fleeting.

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change, communication, emotions, psychology, real world, San Francisco, technology

Is Online Communication Making Us More Rude Offline?

Stephanie Tanner

Riding home on the metro a few weeks ago, I was one of many San Franciscan sardines commuting after a long day at work. As was to be expected with the abrupt stop-and-gos of the train and the complete lack of personal space, my fellow passengers and I accepted that things were going to get physical. I held a pole for balance while my other arm held an open book in front of my chest. My goal was to take up as little of the horizontal plane as possible.

A quarter of the way into my ride, our train came to a screeching halt between stops. We were thrown into each other then bounced away on impact. Returning from my bounce, I was met with the stern face of the man next to me. His eyes widened.

“Don’t! DO NOT step on my shoes again.”

I looked back at him and then the people around us. Unsure how to respond, I nodded my head and went back to my book. But I couldn’t pay attention to the words on the page. The man’s words had taken over my brain.

How could he possibly have thought I was doing it on purpose? I wondered. It happened onceWhat should I have said in response? 

It wasn’t as much what the man had said, but the way he had said it. It was raw. Rude. And left no room for response. It was as if he had yelled into a vacuum. Except, the vacuum was my face.

His statement may have been better suited for Twitter:

Tweet From Subway Scrooge

Suggested Tweet

Overcome with an irrational desire to reconcile our differences, I finally looked up from my book and back at him. “You realize I obviously wasn’t doing it intentionally,” I said as if we knew each other.

Now it was his turn not to respond. Without acknowledging my comment, he exited the train at the next stop.

The second he did, I looked at the people who had been around us. “Public transit is not the right choice if you’re concerned about people stepping on your shoes,” I said to no one in particular. The no ones chuckled.

At first, I attributed the man’s rudeness to workday stress or the psychology of big cities..

But since that evening, I’ve witnessed countless other examples of unquestionable rudeness in both intimate and large settings, cities, and situations. Time and again — at a church, on a plane, in an academic building, at a restaurant — people seemingly failed to recognize social cues or simply didn’t care that the strangers they encountered were actual people. They said and did things that were completely inappropriate for face-to-face interaction. They were volcanoes exploding with rudeness.

It hasn’t always been like this, has it?

There has been a large body of research to show that the internet leads to antisocial and rude behaviors by lowering our self-control and increasing anonymity.

But given my recent observations, I can’t help but wonder whether the internet is also making us more rude in person.

The same way we unapologetically send off an emotionally charged email, politically charged Facebook status, or sadistically charged Tweet, are we becoming more comfortable with sending off rude comments IRL? Is this miserable social media norm transforming into an offline social norm as well? In a recent national survey, 70% of people blamed technology for the spike in real-world disrespect.

Beyond my anecdotes, there are scientific reasons to believe that this might be the case.

In his expansive research on multi-tasking in tech, Stanford Professor Clifford Nass found that the brains of “high-tech jugglers” may be in trouble. “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.”

Each time we communicate with real humans, we’re switching contexts, likely from something electronic. We’re turning our attention away from our email inbox, away from our Facebook feed, away from the text we’re writing in order to speak or listen to the person in front of us. Most of the time, we don’t turn our attention fully away. It’s a sad fact, but one we can’t ignore.

In our attempts to juggle online and offline communication, we might be bringing the antisocial rude behaviors of the internet into the real world. If we struggle to switch from one online task to another, what’s to say that we don’t struggle to switch from robotic internet communication to emotional real-life communication? Our 140-character lives are affecting our personal character.

While some may argue that rudeness is difficult to control online, there’s certainly something we can do about it offline.

How can we stop the rudeness?

twitter heartThere’s no place to report real people as offensive or block them altogether. However, we can be the ones to lead by example, to take it in stride, and to politely remind our rude community members that we too, are fellow humans. Unlike many of the other problems we face as a community, this is one we can rather easily and effectively solve.

We can consider our platforms and understand our environments before we dive in.

Put another way: Whether you’re communicating online or off, go for Likes.

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adulthood, change, childhood, friendship, psychology, science

What’s In A Friend? The Search For A Definition Of Close Friendship

The summer after third grade, I got a two-pendant necklace set. Each pendant was half-heart-shaped, one engraved with the word “Friends” and the other with “Forever.” I spent months strategically determining who would receive my half-heart. I decided on a girl at school who I liked better than anyone else I knew. I wanted to be her best friend. The problem? The role of her best friend was taken. “But it says ‘Friends Forever,’ not ‘Best Friends,’” I told myself every time I got cold feet.

I still remember the moment I presented her with the pendant. It was the start of fourth grade and we were on the playground. She snorted. “What do I do with this?” “I don’t know,” I said. She stuffed it in her pocket and that’s when I knew that I would never realize my dream of bringing our half-hearts together.

I blamed myself for weeks. I messed up. I should have strung the pendant on a necklace so it was more obvious.

At age nine, this was the first time I contemplated the meaning of close friendship. My flawed definition consisted of the belief that there are physical manifestations of friendship (the necklace says “Friends Forever” so we are), that reciprocity is unimportant (she’s my favorite and that’s all that matters), and that you need to have one favorite (who do I like best?).

Since then, I’ve frequently grappled with the meaning of close friendship and what comes baked in to its social contract.

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