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Understanding Others

As I’ve slowly grown up, I’ve come to realize that one of the most difficult skills for people to acquire is empathy across differences and the ability to understand the lives of others.

I don’t necessarily mean empathy in Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain” sense, but in the sense that most people never understand how their actions, behaviors, and habits affect other people—physically and emotionally. When people fail to understand how their behavior affects others we end up having fist fights, war, and hate.

Understand is a critical word here: it’s the ability to understand that even though one might be technically correct, one can be completely and totally wrong.

My general philosophy in life, toward my neighbors, is to be invisible and quiet. It’s not that I am trying to avoid interacting with them, it’s that I don’t want them to hear me walking on their heads: I suffered in my first apartment when the people upstairs seemed to stay awake in their bedroom all night, hammering at things. Consequently, in my current apartment, I like to think that I have a really good relationship with the neighbors. I ask for their help once or twice a year, and on the rare occasion they need my assistance, I am more than eager to help.

More difficult to recognize is when one’s been a jackass due to ignorance. This happens to me occasionally. The most vivid example of this was when it took me nine nights in Armenia for it to fully sink in the general level of cash-poverty. The people I met were rich in food, culture, and quality of life, but when it came time to buy goods, it was out of reach. The fact that it took me nine nights to realize this caused me to make an inadvertent social faux pas that kept me up all night: I recognized that I had not really understood the lives of others.

Maybe this is something I am better able to recognize now that I have moved abroad. Since I don’t live with people who have a common cultural upbringing, I find myself making references and then having to explain them. Yesterday, while having dinner with a friend in the shade of a tree, I talked about having a little shadow—which then meant that I had to explain what I meant by “little shadow.” As I was trying to explain it, I could only think of the childhood story about little shadow that followed (someone) everywhere they went. However I couldn’t remember the entire story: I don’t have children and I haven’t had anything to do with these stories since elementary school, so the details have been lost to time; if I remembered the stories, maybe my German friend would understand my life and perspectives better.

On the other hand, I also ended up having to explain the term “Cabin Fever”—late last week, whilst I was in Bloomington, I was having a form of “Cabin Fever” because I hadn’t really done anything big and exciting whilst in the States (other than go to the County Fair). The only way I could describe and define “Cabin Fever” was to describe being stuck in a house for several days because the weather was bad. I got to learn a new idiomatic German expression, “Hummel im Hintern,” which literally translates as “bumblebee in your ass,” or more accurately as “Cabin Fever.” It’s not the first time I’ve heard the expression, but because I had a better context to memorize it, I suspect I will remember it this time.

I really admire people who can talk to everybody. Last Sunday night, whilst out and about in Indianapolis, I met somebody who could talk to me and then, seconds later, talk to other people on the street—using language that I could reasonably identify as English, but variations there of that I couldn’t understand. He’s not the first person I’ve met with this ability. I clearly remember an evening in Bloomington when I was helping a guy jockey cars around town—he could talk to me in one breath, and then when the tow-truck driver showed up, he was able to talk to the tow-truck driver about IU basketball, a subject that I knew little about, and a subject I hadn’t suspected the guy I was helping knew anything about. The ability to communicate across culture and class is one way to better understand the lives of others.

Although I clearly lack the ability to universally communicate across US Culture, I do have the ability to enjoy myself in a diverse set of environments—some more than others, but that is to be expected. Heading out to the County Fair, eating Deep Fat Fried Twinkies, and watching a demolition derby, done in moderation, can be a whole lot of fun (moderation = once a year); so is, for that matter, hiking up a mountain (again, in moderation: I am usually a child of urban settings). About the only environment I cannot abide is pretentiousness (see WFIU) or, even worse, faux-pretension (people who think there is a difference between Flatbread and pizza and presume to tell everybody who cannot tell the difference that they are ignorant; see Bloom). Again, though, if I must, I will put on a suit and head out to make a good impression—even if it kills me. However, people who are continuously pretentious are usually judgmental and completely lack the ability to understand the lives of others.

On an adjacent aside: there is a difference between something being high quality and excellent, versus pretension. Café Laden, in Weimar (the so-called “Weimar Office”) is high quality and excellent, but it is not pretentious. Trulli Flatbread, in Bloomington, is pretentious but not high quality and excellent (between the fact that Flatbread is, essentially, pizza and the fact that our waiter was crap, I will not be returning).

Somewhere between where I started and where I will conclude, my train of thought was essentially derailed, and I’m not really sure why. Since it was derailed, I might as well take one more detour: one habit I picked up while living in Wyoming was that whenever I was driving down a highway and I saw somebody on the right shoulder, be it police officer or broken truck, I learned that it was proper to move into the left lane and leave a wide berth to the officer or trucker. Nobody ever told me to do this, it was something that one just did—and if somebody was going faster than you in the left lane, they slowed to let you in, all in order to ensure the safety of the person on the shoulder. I kept the habit when I moved to Indiana—it was not a local custom there, but it made sense to me for safety’s sake. After a series of horrific accidents in which State Troopers were killed while on the shoulder, what was common courtesy in Wyoming became legislated behavior in Indiana, complete with signs by the side of the road warning all drivers that they were obliged to move-over for safety.

Something that people in Wyoming knew instinctively—a concern about the lives of others—was not understood by the people of Indiana, until death prompted legislative action.

8 comments to Understanding Others

  • Was it regional? In southern Indiana we moved over. When we saw a car that didn’t we’d remark what a jerk the driver was.

    Here in Florida I notice a lot more state troupers approaching on the passenger’s side. It seems to make better sense.

  • My partner James has always pulled into the left lane whenever there are stopped vehicles on the right shoulder. Until I met him, I hadn’t always done that; sometimes I’d straddle the lanes if no-one else was around.

    For my job playing horn in the touring production of “Phantom”, we traveled thousands of miles around the US over the past nine
    years, towing an Airstream trailer. The process of towing certainly taught us both how to be far more defensive drivers than we had been previously.

  • Ed

    I never used to pull over into the other lane because the county I grew up in and where I learned to drive does not have even one four lane highway. When I did go to another county and encountered all the traffic I stayed put because it was hard to change lanes in heavy traffic.
    Aside: Macri’s Deli closed down.

  • Vinnie

    I get very agitated whenever I go places frequented by pretentious types, precisely because I feel like I’m being judged and looked down upon by these self righteous imbiciles just because of the way I dress, the things I eat, the car I drive, etc. The place in B-town that is worst for me is Bloomingfoods. The employees are alright, but I’d like to punch most of the patrons right in their smug faces.

  • @domoni: I first noticed that I was different in Indiana along State Road 37–I always pulled left, but most of the traffic stayed to the right. maybe it was something about the mix of drivers along the road.

    @cameron: Interesting–I’m at a loss of how to explain my driving style now. In Europe I say I’m an American, but more aggressive; in American, I say I’m European, but less aggressive.

    @ed: Two lane roads are tricky… at a minimum i slow down. / When did Macri’s close? I hadn’t been there in years–I never felt comfortable there: it was not a deli, it was more a sports bar.

    @Vinnie: oooh… Bloomingfoods is a great example. You are so right: the employees tend to be earthy. The other customers are pretentious snobs.

  • Ed

    Macri’s Deli closed down this week. I only remember going there once. I had a pretentious little over-priced Pizza.

  • koko

    Ed: I think Macri’s closed because Kroger bought them out and they are expanding into Macri’s. I could be wrong though. I personally hated macris…they weren’t snobby to me but their service was horrible and their place smelled like a over flowing toilet…their food was mediocre at best and their prices were quite high.

  • @ed: Their northside location barely lasted any time whatsoever.

    @koko: how much bigger does that Krogers need to be?!