Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas On The Couch

By which I mean the psychologist's couch, not a particularly laid back Christmas which sounds wonderful.

I'm one of those people in the 'Christmas is a day to be survived camp.' Even though my family of origin are good and nice people that I would be happy to spend a day with even in the absence of any relation.

I don't have fond memories of Christmas day from childhood, Christmas day was a good 30 minutes - 1 hour in Childhood where myself and my two siblings would coordinate ourselves to come down stairs and open our presents together. It was exciting and fun and Mum and Dad would look on and perhaps exchange gifts with each other. (I've never thought about it before, but the lie of Santa does help facilitate kids feeling no reciprocity to their parents for all the gifts they can't buy them, and God knows how many kids feel indebted to parents all their lives even with Santa.)

Even though it may sound materialistic, after opening all the presents we would be given our marching orders, having to dress and pile into a car to endure a long and boring car ride from the Rat to Melbourne, where we would have to have Christmas lunch with my mum's side of the family, the semi-standard winter fare roast up that was not a novelty for children of the 80's whose parents could afford protein every day, and hours upon hours of idling and waiting and then a crappy present exchange with the extended family that mostly involved watching for children - and that parts key - my (and dare I say, our) childhood Christmas' were spectator sports, we mostly got to watch my mum's family have their Christmas.

And as if that wasn't enough, relief came in the form of being bundled back into the car and driven to Gippsland for Dad's side of the family. This was inarguably much more fun. My cousin had a better computer than we did and more games we didn't have. My paternal relatives are much more chill and keep it casual, the only real problem was that taking a leisurely stroll is not very pleasant after running a marathon. We were also faced with two unappealling options, not that we were given a choice - stay in Gippsland at Nana's house - which would keep us from getting to play with any of the gifts we'd learned we had. Or drive hours back to Ballarat (I'm not sure if that ever happened). Quite often we'd have a camper in tow, and Christmas day was actually the unrelaxed start to our annual vacation - which was great, and through adulthood has anchored my geographically when the family home was sold and everyone relocated - but nevertheless facilitated depriving us of any lasting joy in Christmas day.

Now there are certainly worse things that can and do happen to people on Christmas, although I can't claim to feel it's truth, I believe isolation would be much worse than an excess of family for company on the day. But upon reflection, Christmas as a child was an emotionally isolating experience, I know to some extent my siblings shared this experience, as we wandered aimlessly through the three open rooms of my Aunt's house, bored out of our fucking minds and cowed by my maternal relations lack of conversation skill in being unable to talk to eachother, that and the fact that the most desirable thing to discuss with my siblings would have been complaints about our immediate circumstances.

It walked that fine line between unpleasant enough to be torture, and so trivial you couldn't address it. There were kids of divorce, kids of abusive parents, kids raised in abject poverty to think about - we were 'the Turkey's a little dry' kids, nobody need get a violin out for us.

I have a pet theory though, that I can't really prove and have an unscientific sample size for. It's this though - the more dysfunctional a family the more in to Christmas the family is. I can furnish a story for why a believe this to be the case. If you have a dysfunctional unhappy home, the social expectations and rituals of Christmas finally unite the family into performing the role of people who care about each other. If father is a resentful callous abuser, it's going to be a huge relief to see him acting the role of great provider, and if mother is a resentful stressed out mess most of the time, then seeing her stress over decorating and preparing a Christmas table is going to be a welcome preoccupation for her.

If your family are chill people who get along with eachother every other day of the year, the stress of Christmas ritual is a deficit to the standard operation, not a relief. Hence I'm happy to say that Christmas is a day I simply hope to survive, because it indicates that the status quo is way better than Christmas itself. In fact, I've had a few 'orphan Christmas' and these are much better than the family gathering, not because of any character flaws of my family of origin, but because Christmas feasting actually can facilitate bringing me closer to people I care about when it's a bbq on a public holiday in a public space with a group of geographically displaced friends who care about each other.

So the dreaded commute has dropped off in adulthood, presents flow in every direction not just from Santa filling a pillowsack with shit I wrote on a list for him. The lunch is at my parents house, and the number of maternal relatives involved has more than halved.

So what has to be endured? Survived? My mother, in my case, and sadly what has washed out in recent years is a paradox that I believe a lot of people find themselves in at this time in this culture, if the comically stressed vibes surrounding my visits to the supermarkets in recent days are anything to go by, I cannot be alone.

The paradox is this, the rituals of the feast-day are all with the intention of showing people you care about them. These rituals have become so costly and stressful that a bunch of families have turned the day into demonstrating how much they care about the ritual.

To put it another way, because I find it helps, imagine if a relative (the one who cares the most) came to you for each of the 5 days leading up to Christmas and said 'yo, I need $20 contribution for your Christmas fund.' and dutifully you hand them $20, each day for 5 days until you've paid up your $100 dues. Then the next day you receive approximately $20 worth of food and gifts.

If you are someone like me, you are not going to be able to ignore that it's fucking stupid for a celebration to cost you more than you get to celebrate. Today as I'm writing this it is not Christmas day, but it like the past 5 days and the next 2 days have been stressful as my mother transforms into a Yuletide version of the Bridezilla phenomena. And while the worst Bridezilla is only going to have 3-4 weddings in a lifetime, Christmas happens every year.

In my personal case, Christmas is and always has been about my mother, and probably to dig a little deeper about her childhood traumas. She's been safe for decades now, but can't realize it in the way most trauma can't recognize safety. Worst of all, I lack the imagination to devise a solution.

She simply cares more, looking back on my childhood Christmasses, why would I care? How could I care? I don't think my mother realizes, but whatever she finds so special about Christmas, I've been left out of all my life. She is somewhat cognizant of this fact, long before we ever brought it up (excluding the honest insightful grizzling and whingeing of children) my parents have expressed regret at how they handled Christmas through our childhood.

But we are not that household that cooks seafood for Christmas, or has a picnic in a public park where kids can play and climb trees, we aren't that family that goes to a restaurant to take the stress out of Christmas and help some backpackers make bank serving tables. We are the classic Australian family that cooks climate inappropriate anglophiliac foods in excessive quantities in a decorated house because it reminds the grandparents of their grandparents nostalgia for the old-country.

Past attempts to wrest Christmas away from my mother's control - like taking over the cooking and minimizing the decorating have received the damning review 'It didn't feel like Christmas' and there is the sticking point for my imagination, 'it didn't feel like Christmas' is a glowing review for someone like me who doesn't enjoy Christmas much, but my mum cares about it a lot.

Leaving one with the only option one ever really has: acceptance. My best recourse is simply to accept that Christmas is always so long as she (or I live) going to be about her, and her childhood. By accepting that you can begin to reject the societal messages of what Christmas claims to be about and experience and expectation can harmonize.

There are people that judge those in the 'Christmas must be survived camp' as Grinches, but to me and in my experience it's generally indicative of quite positive psychology, people that have accepted that Christmas is how the feel about Christmas and not how Christmas is marketed to everyone. Because people fuck it up constantly by caring about the rituals, the decorations and it isn't fare to say they don't care about the participants, they just forget how to care about the participants.

Have a safe Christmas everyone.

Thursday, December 07, 2017


Increasingly my experience confirms that you cannot simply tell people information and it will be heard, let alone understood.

This wasn't my own revelation, not a lesson I learned the hard way. I studied marketing, it was handed to me on a platter by Al Ries and Jack Trout, who's book 'Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind' I would still say is better than actually doing a marketing degree, because that's the signal, and the rest of a marketing degree is noise.

But just as the Titans gave birth to the Gods of Olympus and were overtaken by them, it seems Marketing's struggling progenator - Psychology has also caught up, in the form of cognitive distortion and nueroscience even suggests that when confronted with information we don't want to believe blood drains from the parts of our brain necessary to comprehend it.

There's also the question of competence - communication as a process starts with the sender having some meaning in their mind, that they encode into a message (which requires competence) the message is sent to a recipient who has to decode the message into meaning in their own mind, and communication is successful only when there's a shared understanding of meaning.

If you think apple and you say 'shiny fruit that fits that can be carried in one hand' and the person hears this and thinks orange, then the communication has failed. There are fairly boring board games built around this concept.

But yes, there are mundane challenges in the way of anyone being understood ever, like how much knowledge to presume and so forth.

How to be understood is a skill, a process that few people learn and fewer apply. Partly because empiricism is rare, many of us walk around not really confirming whether people understand us, simply that they say what we need them to say.

Consider how many people believe that money doesn't buy happiness, and better yet, have come to understand that money can't buy them happiness?

More than zero, even though its pretty easy to recall a sad story involving a rich person - the current President of the United States is one very public example that disproves the rule.

There's a lot of people that don't want to believe that winning the lottery will in the long run leave them no happier (and probably no richer) than they are now. They don't want to believe it.

Less extremely, how many people want to hear that they are not good at their job?

Now consider the plight of a CEO, no need to break out the sarcastic violin just yet, this plight doesn't involve getting fired for exposing his penis. In fact there's no need to assume she has a penis.

She just wants to not only communicate, but disseminate a message about organisational values to the entire organisation.

In one relative sense, her task is easy as the CEO much easier than trying to disseminate a message through the organisation from the bottom of the hierarchy. She has the current of the river flowing for her.

But consider first that she needs to encode her message so it will be as meaningful to her CFO and to the receptionist on the front desk that greets members of the public.

So the message needs to be meaningful regardless of the spot an individual holds within the organization. So a lot of exposition, clarifying is gone, it is delegated to the decoding process. So she is railroaded into speaking generally.

This CEO has been sitting around thinking about the whole value chain, and reconciling it with the fact that they have 10,000 daily interactions with customers. She's thinking that consumers are far more likely to tell their friends about a negative experience with the company than they are to talk about a positive experience with the organisation and how if just 5% of customer interactions are handled poorly, it could be enough to seriously damage the business.

So she wants to give everyone the message to 'be fucking professional and courteous to customers, even if they are difficult.' but she can't encode the message that way - because she has to be consistent with the very professionalism she is trying to communicate.

So she might say something like 'Here at WidgetCorp we value professionalism, it's important to be professional at all times in every interaction with a customer. Not only the customers we engage with outside our organization but the internal customers between departments. Ultimately it's the customers that provide the money that constitutes our paychecks, and the impression we give them will determine how long we all will stay employed. So think about how you can apply professionalism in your role and especially in your interactions.'

This message is disseminated. Most won't even see it. It'll shoot right over the top of their heads. Some will look at it and perceive no real content. But the CEO makes the reception of this message her hobby horse, she makes sure that the managers that report to her pay attention and draw attention to the message in the weekly team briefings etc.

So let's say she gets 30% of the organization to eventually through around 6 repetitions to hear the message. Now what? Now the message has to contend against other pressures. What if an employees incentives are not aligned with this organizational value of professional conduct.

Firstly, they may be front line staff - they may, have a shitty job. They are not likely to think big picture and thus interpret how they interact with a customer as being something personal to them, rather than of consequence to the organization at large through the aggregate.

So this front line staff may consider their emotional states as roughly equal in consequence to the customers they deal with on a daily basis. It might be hard to understand that the last interaction with a customer should not predispose them towards the next customer (positively or negatively) but should instead have a standard professional disposition because they are performing for the company that employs them.

Higher up, the Manager of the IT department may not want to believe that the people from the sales and the accounts departments are in fact their customers rather than their equal, given that they hold equivalent titles, earn equivalent salaries etc. just the value chain doesn't go that way. IT is there to serve the needs of the other departments. Logistics is there to serve the sales department etc. This may come up against people's egos. They don't want to see themselves as servants but equals.

Throughout the organisation there will be people who don't think of themselves as individuals that have sold their time to the organisation in exchange for an income, but see the organisation as a means to achieving their personal ambitions. They will act in a self serving manner and disregard the performance they actually owe in exchange for their salary, for better or worse.

And some people will just be straight up too stupid to supply the necessary imagination to decode the message into their own conduct.

Others will resent the implication that they are anything less than professional currently and see the message as redundant even though they could improve with applied thought and effort.

In this regard disseminating a message from one to many, is a bit like using a pool cue to hit a pool cue to hit a pool cue to hit a pool cue to sink a ball in a designated pocket. A plausible but improbable undertaking, and at the very least hugely inefficient. I don't hold high hopes that the solution is technological because the hardware we are dealing with is the human brain and the human brain comes with a bunch of built in defense measures for preserving existing beliefs.

This is of course bad news if your belief is that problems can be solved by simply educating people with the facts through a speech or art-piece that goes viral.