I like big “ands”, and I cannot lie.

“You drive really well for a girl”. Each time someone says that to me, which is unfortunately more often than I’d like, my brain responds with a massive ugh, which I have learnt to translate into a more “girl-like” mumble-sigh that could be taken for a thank-you on the outside.
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Because that, despite probably being intended to be one, is not a compliment. What it is is a pseudo-polite way of saying, as a girl I am not expected to drive well, and by that benchmark, I performed well. It’s like telling someone they are a brilliant human being for not killing anyone – it is important, but there is a lot more to being a great human that we can expect from them.

 

Anyhow. What you think about my driving skills doesn’t bother me too much because I don’t really care about what you assume of my capabilities (or those of my gender) in that realm.

 

However, there are several such “but” statements that do cause harm. Statements that frame me into narratives that I confine my being in. Statements regarding identities I don’t have a choice about. We know these far too well. “You have great communication skills for a man”. “You are too feminine to be queer”. “You have done rather well for yourself as a person of colour”. They cause harm because of the boundaries they draw around one’s experiences – not the healthy boundaries that delineate spaces of respect, but the kind that confine and cage one’s spaces for exploration. Boundaries contained in that clause of omit for politeness – “As a man, you aren’t supposed to communicate well, but, look at you (being so un-masculine (or worse, feminine))!”. When we use “but” to contextualise someone’s identities vis-a-vis their reality, and mark their realities to be an exception, we bound them within the assumptions that we make about certain parts of their identity. Assumptions that come with unsaid and just as harmful assumptions that are based on the ideas of “normal” we don’t bother to challenge. The assumption about men inherently not being good communicators not only promotes raising of men without teaching them how to communicate well (because that isn’t an expectation placed) but also puts a judgment on communication being something that women do and want, and create space for several jokes around that, eventually setting an unconscious bias that communicating is something to be mocked, women do it (and hence can be mocked), slowly evolving also into several men not wanting to because it is “not masculine enough”.
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Now, I get that assumptions have a functional use. Given how much needs to be done in a day in terms of all the interaction and navigation, it is definitely easier to function on the basis of assumptions. Social scientists call them heuristics  They save time. It’s like everyone (except artists, who are bad at math of course) know that Pythagoras theorem means  a^{2}+b^{2}=c^{2}, and that it alludes to a right angle triangle, and all the many assumptions about right triangle that come with it. So, you say Pythagoras theorem, and suddenly everyone is on the same page. But people, and their beliefs and personalities do not fit fully into formulas  and not every triangle is a right angle triangle.

 

Let’s take this example. When I tell people I study love, people assume that I care a lot about love, and by extension, people and relationships. The most immediate response is being labeled versions of “love-girl”, or being asked if I am a “love-guru”. By itself, that isn’t necessarily bad, or even untrue, but inherent to those responses are the assumptions people make about me being romantic/ cheesy/ corny/ touchy-feely, etc. A little bit like the Google-search version pasted below, no?
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Now, think about what that assumption does to how I am perceived when I go on dates. Or worse, in professional settings when I mention this as a project. See why it could be a problem?

 

I have, obviously, learnt to deal with it. I change the way I describe the work I do, such that I highlight the academic nature of this, throwing in a lot of research-based jargon, like “in-depth interviews” and “literature reviews” particularly when putting this into my cover letters. I have learnt to use the question “so, what did you learn about love” as an opportunity to establish the kind of content that I deal with, making sure it sounds “smart”. And at the same time, my PR-strategy-trained friends have taught me to embrace the curiosity to my benefit. Plus, it makes for a great ice-breaker in otherwise annoying networking events.

 

That being said, I am also very aware that this is the image that people unconsciously form of me in the first few seconds of meeting me, and a lot of the next few minutes is affirming or contesting this image. They can’t help it. It’s the way our brain works – the common sense part of semantics/ psychology/ social sciences.

 

So, say as a child, when your mum first pointed out to a four-legged furry animal and called it “dog”, you assumed all the four-legged furry animals were dogs. As you grew up, and the categories in your brain became more refined, you learnt that four-legged animals could also be cats and cows and horses and tigers, that not all of them were furry, and you started to distinguish between them. Slowly you learnt to tell a Labrador from a Golden Retriever and a Pug. Along with that, depending on what your relationships with the dogs around you were, you started attaching emotions to a dog. If you say had a pet that you loved playing with, your brain would associate security and joy with it. If you were bitten by a dog and had to get painful injections after that, your association with dogs would be different. Nevertheless, these associations and assumptions have evolutionary purpose. They help you navigate. They help you decide quickly how to respond to dogs. Were they indeed dangerous, your brain being trained to respond to it with fear might have even saved your life.
dogOur assumptions about people come to form the same way. They are based on our experiences and the experiences we inherit through what we are taught – from the people we learn from like our families, schools and communities, the kind of experiences we consume, like the movies we watch and books we read… They are what create our version of the world. The details in the reality as we experience it.

 

However, that’s also exactly why it gets tricky – our experiences and reality are, in turn, shaped by these assumptions. The way you respond to the next dog would be based on what you have felt about it all this while. If you were the kind who hates dogs because you have seen your younger brother get bit by them, you might not let even the most friendliest dogs near you.

 

But maybe, say after you grew up a little, you went to your friend’s house and she had a pet dog. A furry friendly huggable playful jolly old Marley. You decide to open up your mind a little bit, and let Marley smell you while your friend ensures that he is leashed. You realise its not that scary. A few times of doing that, you may even find yourself playing with Marley, and enjoying yourself. You still hate dogs, but Marley is adorable. Congratulations! You just opened yourself up to a little more variety of experiences by adding that layer of complexity to your assumptions about dogs.

 

Now, imagine you let this crevice in your well-formed assumptions expand. Suddenly, there is space for you to even love dogs. Suddenly, while it is possible that you still are a tad bit afraid of dogs because one bit your younger brother, it is also possible for you to experience the joy of playing with (some) dogs and to believe that not all dogs are scary. You suddenly realise the possibility of those multiple realities to co-exist. And with it expands your repertoire of what’s possible.
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 We all know this. And most of us are rather open-minded to such possibilities too. I thought of myself as someone like that, until one day I heard myself say it nonchalantly. It was after a negotiations class where we had just practiced using “and” instead of “but”. In a casual conversation that evening, I told a friend he was “rather interesting for a consultant”. Crap, I had just done what I hated when other people did to me. In the days to come, I started hearing more times when I inadvertently spoke like that. I was suddenly aware of how much I was restricting my reality through these assumptions I carried – for example, I immediately shifted to small talk when I heard someone was a consultant, because in my experience, most of those that I had met had been boring. As as result though, I had closed off the opportunity to have an interesting conversation with them. It had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Replacing the “but” with an “and” though allowed me to open up the possibilities – reminded me that he was a consultant, and a lot of his experiences were indeed shaped by that, but he also had several other experiences at the same time, which I didn’t give him the space to explore by putting him into this box. His reality was larger than that one descriptor, but that descriptor was all that I had been seeing this whole time.

 

Just making that one little change in my vocabulary was immensely transformative. Not just because it allowed me to have better conversations with consultants, but I didn’t have to wait to have an interesting conversation with one to believe in the possibility of consultants being interesting deeper people. They weren’t always, to be fair, but more often than not, they did have a lot of interesting things to say when I was willing to listen. The “and” opened up the curiosity to find out all the things they also were, rather than the things they had to prove to be despite being a consultant. It became an opening for better conversations in itself, allowing the space for more stories to emerge. While enlarging the boundaries of my own reality of what I expected that individual experience to be. It made it possible, in its own way, for some of my favourite people to be these consultants, who I might have previously thought I couldn’t get along with.

 

This is particularly poignant in the context of the aspects of our identities that we cannot change, and/or the parts that are visible. I can rephrase the identity of “love-girl” by changing how I define it, but I cannot do that about my gender, ethnicity, or other aspects of my identity that are more “factual”. The “and”, in that case, becomes particularly more important, because it allows for choice – the opportunities to be more than the “should be this” and “supposed to be that” that our identity-based assumptions expect of this. It allows me the opportunity to be a good driver, to say the least.

 

The “and” also changed how I explained myself. I am a lot less anxious about introducing my love-project. I have learnt to embrace the parts to me that I tried to hide because I was afraid of the assumptions they carried. I let myself be all those “ands” rather than restrict myself with the “buts”. And that has suddenly liberated me in more ways I can count. And not because I suck at math – after all, I am a qualitative artistic social-sciences type girl, and I like math now.

 

Jayati Doshi
23rd July, 2017.

The “Real world” assumption.

In one of the most powerful scenes in the edu-documentary “Most Likely to Succeed” (which, by the way, if you haven’t seen already, you absolutely must), a teacher trying out something new in a classroom is having a meeting with some of his students to talk about the new pedagogy he has introduced in class. Pedagogy that is intended help the students “learn” rather than just prepare them to ace tests. Some of the students (mostly the high-performing ones) are hesitant about these new methods he’s brought in. “Is it more important for you to learn or to do well in the tests?”, he asks, cautious hope in his eyes. “Do well in tests,” one student immediately responds. The others chime in almost instantly, agreeing. The look of confusion and concern that he has on his face after that summarises what a lot of us feel about our education system.

It got me to think about my own early experiences as a student. I wasn’t a bad student. I got decent grades, my teachers would call me a sincere student. Yet, despite the fact that I loved learning, studying (for exams – which I found out later wasn’t necessarily the same as learning) was hard. Even after I managed to find healthier educational opportunities, the same struggles followed me into the real world. My questions, stemming out of genuine curiosity, were often met with well-intentioned advice of “don’t complicate your life too much”.

In the past year, being encouraged to “complexify” my life, I have come to think about how we are taught about the “real world”. When a wiser person tells us there’s a certain way the real world works and certain ways that it doesn’t, our learnt default response is to believe in that, because experience is true, and if that were really how the “real world”- which is in any case too overwhelmingly massive and intricate for one person to fully understand – works, we don’t want to risk being on the wrong side of.

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Our education system, I have come to believe, is one such system that is formed around such assumptions about what the real world need and values. Our schools and colleges work so hard to prepare us to do well in a system that we all know is messed up. Whether or not they succeed in doing even that is a whole other conversation.

These assumptions have been around for a while, and with history. At the risk of hyper-simplifying its nuances, the well-known story goes mostly like this:

Years ago, with the Industrial Revolution showing us dreams of a fancy new society, an era of moving from our agrarian/ artisan culture to that of professionalism, our metrics for measuring success changed. We now thought of productivity through the lens of efficiency – how much more can you produce in a shorter period of time, how fewer mistakes can you make while doing that, and can you be trusted to be consistently as accurate – measures that we inherited from the machines we created. Mass-production of goods led to a culture of mass-production of people and their skills – what we (currently) know as our educational system centered around exams and standardised tests. What was meant to measure learning became what learning focused towards. Our systems came to be designed so that we would memorise to prove our competencies – static knowledge of facts and procedures to do well in the industrialised marketplace, with rights and wrongs to be handed down by teachers who are considered authority. In industries, the employee was individually involved in a very small part of making the product, was easily replaceable and was thus supposed to be detached from the product – and slowly, these values came to also structure the qualities we hold as valuable in people. Values that are represented in our education system. Certainty, consistency, order and uniformity. Words that sound like music to the industrial companies.

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Of course, there are several ways that this is changing with the advent of the Internet era; there is much that the Googles of the world are changing in the work marketplace and there are several schools, colleges and non-institutional settings that are doing phenomenal work to change that. Yet, we are largely still functioning in the same way; these versions of learning are being passed on across generations, setting the boundaries of what we call success even if we decide to challenge the ways we learn/ work for it. The square pegs-round hole analogy has in my head always been about cookies – the cookie boxes are round, so all our cookies need to be cut with round cookie-cutters, and the square ones need to be chipped off the edges to fit the boxes. Individuality then gets restricted to how many colours you can make these round cookies in, which is easier than changing the shape of the boxes to fit all kinds of cookies, including the ones that don’t have a perfect shape. Add to that the very real problems of lack of equal access and resources, and we have a nice little vicious cycle, a whole machine of faulty systemic gears. A cycle that continues to perpetuate, because those who come into power, very often if not always (thank god!), do so because of this system, and by the time they get power, might not have sufficient motivation and credibility to really change it as substantially as it deserves to be.

There are several people asking questions about this and finding fascinating ways to shift these gears – a task that, as you can well imagine, is rather tricky given that you need to change multiple gears while the machine is still in motion. But here’s the question that keeps me up at night – what can I, as an individual, subject to the risks that come with not “following this system”, do to change it?

Although far from having an answer, I do have a hypothesis that I am testing out right now. (I must state at this point that I fully recognise the privilege that underlies my ability to say this – the privilege that comes from having encouraging teachers, professional mentors, like-minded peers and supportive family along with access to opportunities that allows me to venture on this experiment). It was a thought that was planted in my head by a very enthusiastic Alfie Kohn dancing around our classroom stage, as he spoke about the “BGUTI culture” i.e. the “Better Get Used To It” culture that we are slowly hammered into. The culture of being told “that’s how the real world works, better get used to it” every time we question something that does not make sense. The culture where we are told that questioning and challenging and changing are privileges reserved for the “already successful” club, and we need to be successful within the system before we start to change it. A culture of keeping our head down, take only calculated risks, and continuing to believe that it is only a dog-eats-dog world out there, and the only way to survive it is to learn to be a part of it.  I have no credibility to say that that is not true. I am just not sure that that is the only truth.

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I have been wondering about the versions of the “real world” that we come to believe as true, and that has made me conscious of what my own versions are that I use to build my life in, and what I pass on and contribute to through the choices I make.  Trying out what happens when I ask good questions, questions that come from a place of genuine curiosity, when something doesn’t make sense to me. Not rebelling, not challenging blindly, not being idealistic/ unrealistic,  but questioning to understand, so I can know why and how I make choices, and thus make better ones.

So far, it’s served me well. It’s opened up opportunities and space for conversations. Conversations like the one I had with one of my professors when I spoke to him about my learning in his class. What I wanted to gain from that class was different from what the class’ learning goals were – and having a conversation asking him what his learning goals were and why, and defining the same for my goals, led to him helping me get to my goal, so long as I respected the criteria of the class in the assignments I submitted. This discussion itself brought to the forefront the learning that was happening from the class and gave me better focus, rather than the bitterness that I had begun to develop. Conversations like the ones I have with new people I meet when we realise that we are mutually baffled with small talk, and thus don’t need to work so hard at trying to do that at all – this one in fact has made parties so much more bearable for me. It’s not always been yay-ish, I haven’t always received answers, sometimes I found

It’s not always been yay-ish, I haven’t always received answers, sometimes I found good reason why things worked the way they did rather than the way I thought they should – and all of this allowed me to contribute better. There have been several days that not asking felt a lot more convenient and comfortable. Yet, the times that I did muster up the courage to ask questions, I have felt more empowered, as though I had more information on the map that I navigated through my world. I felt more a part of how things worked, than just an object to assumptions of it. It’s opened up space for more possibilities, opening me up from the binds of only one version of them. Kinda like the time someone said, wait a second, why did you say women can’t have the right to vote again?

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I would like to invite you to try your own adventure of curiosity with some faith in the good in this world. Next time you find yourself craving into believing that the real world works in a certain way only, maybe stop and ask what proof you have of that, and if there are other possibilities you might imagine. Maybe, if you feel particularly daring, seek out and test out some of those possibilities. For the few times that they work out, let people know those possibilities can happen. And maybe, just maybe, we will all be able to put those possibilities together and create better versions of the “real world” we live in. If you do embark on this journey, I would love to know about what you learn so that I can add it to my repertoire of “tested assumptions of the real world”.

Jayati Doshi
July 15, 2017. 10.00 am

Also on Medium: https://medium.com/@jayatidoshi/the-real-world-assumption-46605357f2c2