Friday Free-for-All #18

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What is the most important thing a person can do to improve themselves?

If you ever driven for more than five minutes in a big city or shopped in a crowded store, then you’ve experienced exactly what I’m going to be talking about.

A lot of people completely lack self-awareness, in ways both big and small, and this can cause problems everywhere, not just to themselves, but everyone they encounter.

Now, there are various kinds of self-awareness, and not everybody is lacking in all (or any) of them, although some people may be lacking in several. Some kinds of self-awareness are:

Spatial: This is awareness of yourself in relation to your surroundings, which includes the physical space, objects in it and, of course, other people. It comes in both static (non-moving) and kinetic (moving) varieties.

Personal: This is the meta-version of self-awareness, and indicates how aware you are of, well, how aware you are of yourself.

Intellectual: This is awareness of what you know, what you don’t know, and what you’re capable of learning. The major effect of lack of self-awareness here comes in two varieties. One is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, in which people with a low ability at something greatly over-estimate their ability. (Classic example: Florence Foster Jenkins.) The other is a variation of learned helplessness, in which case people convince themselves that they could never learn a particular subject.

Cultural: Lack of awareness here leads to cultural-blindness. That is, you are only capable of seeing your own culture and traditions as reasonable and valid, while putting down or despising others.

Emotional: This is awareness of the emotions you are expressing through body language, tone, word choice, and facial expression, as well as those that others are expressing through similar means, and the effects that each person has on the others and vice versa.

Put them all together and you get SPICE, although the order has nothing to do with the particular importance of any single element. I arranged them to create an easy mnemonic.

So why is self-awareness important?

The very simple version is that the more self-aware you are, the more aware of other people you’ll be, so you will start treating them with more courtesy and giving them more attention. This will have a positive effect on them, make them more inclined to hang around with and be pleasant to you, and might even help them further develop their self-awareness.

It becomes a positive feedback loop for all involved.

Increasing your self-awareness will also help you spot people who lack it and have the empathy to figure out how to gently steer them toward it.

I’ve got some tips on increasing your self-awareness, but first I should give some examples of what happens when people lack it.

Spatial

The most obvious example of this one is the “human blood clot” that tends to form in doorways, particularly at any kind of party that involves people standing and wandering around indoors. We’ve all experienced it. There’s a huge living room, maybe a front porch or a backyard or, if it’s an apartment, maybe a balcony.

And yet… people wind up jammed in the doorways so that nobody can easily move through them. In other places, like stores or on sidewalks, this becomes the “liquid human” phenomenon. What does that one mean? Well, any liquid will expand to fill the container it’s put into, which is why the surface of, say, that tea in your glass will always be level. (The ice, not so much, but that’s a different thing.)

In cases of store aisles or sidewalks, the expanding happens so that a single person (or a group) will manage to take up the entire width of whatever they’re walking down. In grocery stores, this happens when somebody decides to walk and stand next to their cart instead of in front of or behind. On the sidewalk, it happens when a group of friends decides to walk side to side and, inevitably, more slowly than anything else on that now blocked sidewalk.

Add a vehicle of any kind, and it just gets worse.

Personal

Again, being the meta-version, when you are not personally self-aware, you are not aware at all of any of the ways you aren’t in the others. This is the heart of the knot that will get pulled apart shortly.

Intellectual

Have you ever had a discussion (or argument) with someone who was so absolutely convinced that they were right that nothing you said could persuade them otherwise — even if they were arguing in your area of expertise and from a place of complete ignorance? If you haven’t, just go check out a science discussion group and wait for a flat-earther or anti-vaxxer to show up.

This is an example of someone who doesn’t know what they don’t know. They assume that they have insight to knowledge that the experts don’t, and so no matter how many facts or how much data you throw at them, they “know” the truth because (fill in utter gobbledygook here.)

Now, have you ever tried to teach someone something, no matter how simple, only to watch their eyes glaze over, their palpable confusion, and their finally quitting in frustration? This is the opposite end of the same lack of self-awareness: the inability to realize what you can learn because you’re convinced you can’t. A lot of people have this block over things like math or foreign languages, but they don’t need to.

Cultural

This is probably the most dangerous kind of lack of self-awareness, and if you’ve ever heard someone berate a stranger, telling them “Speak English!” then you’ve run across one manifestation of it. This is the belief that the culture someone grew up in is the only one that exists, or that should exist, and that every other culture needs to blend in and vanish.

And note that these people are not exclusively U.S. citizens. I’m just using them as the example I know the best, but the same thing definitely happens in Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa, and all of the Americas.

Needless to say, these people have never tried to move into another culture or, if they did, will hypocritically insist that they be accommodated — and there’s a nice circle for you. At home: “How dare you not speak my language and respect my religion!” Abroad: “Why don’t you all speak my language and respect my religion?”

See that disconnect? And, while far rarer it still happens, the flip side of this one is inappropriate cultural appropriation — dressing white kids up as “Indians” (cough… Native Americans) for Thanksgiving programs, white kids trying to speak in Ebonics, white nerds going all mecha-weeaboo, etc.

I personally saw this in one of my favorite college professors, who was as liberal as hell and didn’t have a racist bone in her body. However, she had spent her graduate year abroad in India to study theatre history — that part was quite valid — but came back dressed like a Rani, or at least like a Bollywood star — sarongs for days, hair dyed black, kohl and bindi. She was also fond of often tossing the aside, “I’ve been to India, you know.”

By the way, I dropped by campus about ten years after graduation to learn two things: One, she was actually a lot younger than I’d thought at 18. Two, she was actually blonde, and had by this point reverted to white culture, although more of a late Edwardian mode, like she’s watched way too many Merchant Ivory films.

Emotional

Emotionally unaware people will often behave aggressively without realizing it, either by raising their voices, gesturing, or using particular words. They also often react inappropriately to the emotional responses of others, and misinterpret those responses. Now, emotional self-awareness is the area that autistic people naturally have difficulty with, and I am by no means including them in the “Hey, you need to get self-aware” crowd. Theirs is a different issue, and one that they probably can’t magically fix themselves. But otherwise, people can. It’s just that this one probably only follows when the others are dealt with first.

So… how do I become more self-aware? I’m glad you asked.

Developing Spatial Awareness

Performing artists develop this skill in the course of learning their craft, whether it’s acting, dancing, singing, or playing an instrument. So, obviously, those are great ways to develop spatial awareness but, of course, not everyone is inclined to be a performer.

You can still develop the skills, though. The reason that performing artists have to be so aware is because they are generally working with other people or, if they’re doing a solo bit, they’re still working with the space they’re in. That’s because they have to interact with that space and the objects and people in it, and often with very precise timing.

If they didn’t, you’d see a lot of dropped ballerinas, or actors colliding when they weren’t supposed to, or props flying all over the place.

To develop this sense in real life, take some time each day to pay very close attention to where  you are, what it feels like when you’re still and when you’re moving, and to things around you. You can start at home in a very familiar room, and walk around it with intention.

Later, try this in a less familiar or strange public place, preferably one with not a lot of people around. Pay attention to how you move, what path you wind up taking and why. Whenever you find yourself stopping, take a look at where you’ve stopped and, again, ask yourself why you stopped there. Also look around to see whether you’re blocking a path for anyone else.

Finally, go into a room at home that you’re very familiar with, look around for thirty seconds, then leave that room, go someplace you can’t see into it, then write down as many things as you can remember from that space, starting in one corner and working your way around so that everything appears pretty much in the order it’s in the room.

Take as long as you want, then go back to the room and see how many things you got, how many you missed, and how accurate you were in the relationships or locations.

Extra credit: Learning improv is an incredible tool for developing self-awareness in all areas. Now, I know that performing and actually doing improv is not for everyone, but a lot of improv companies do offer workshops for non-performers that teach techniques specifically to improve skills at listening, spatial awareness, interpersonal relationships, and so on.

Developing Personal Awareness

The best part about this one is that it comes with development of the rest, although you should be constantly checking in to take inventory of the progress you’ve made, why it worked, how it made you feel, and what you want to do next. Again, this is the meta-awareness part.

Developing Intellectual Awareness

Pick a skill and learn one new thing in that area per day. The great part is that we now live in an age where tutorials and free lesson plans and all kinds of educational opportunities are available on our computers and devices, right in the comfort of our own home.

If you want to learn a language, for example, Duolingo is a great start, and you only need to devote a few minutes a day to it. It’s also free with very non-obtrusive ads which you can eliminate for a small fee.

There’s also Khan Academy, which offers courses in all kinds of subjects, again all free. They cover STEM topics, Arts & Humanities, History, Computing, and Economics. They do seem to be lacking in social sciences and languages, but those are also available if you search.

I was terrible at math as a student but figured I’d never need it as an adult — until I did. But it was then that I realized I wasn’t bad at math. My teachers were just bad at teaching it.

That’s why Common Core is actually a good thing (sorry, nay-saying parents) — because it teaches math in more than one way. Some kids are going to understand the old school, rote, “this is how it’s done” method. Others aren’t going to get that, but are going to latch right on to alternative methods that work, even if they confuse adults.

It’s the same thing with learning on your own online: You get to find the method that works for you, and suddenly come to the awareness that it was never your inability to learn. It was that you were being taught in the wrong way.

Some people are visual learners (here are some graphs and videos!), some people are auditory learners (listen to this!), and others will only get it if they read it (turn to page 42!) Schools tend to focus on one method, usually the one preferred by the teacher, and the other kids get left behind.

You’re an adult. You don’t need to get left behind, and you can learn what you want to. So go for it!

Bonus points: Remember the “listing things in the room” exercise for developing spatial awareness? This can also help you improve your memory, because it is the basis for a technique called the Memory Palace, which has enabled people to do ridiculous things like remember the order of a deck of cards after one pass through it.

Think you can’t remember things? You can teach yourself to do so, and use that as a method to help with all the other things you’ve decided to learn on your own. The most important thing to remember: We don’t stop living until we stop learning.

Developing Cultural Awareness

This can be the most difficult one of all, because it requires listening to yourself very carefully as well as listening to others in order to uncover your own hidden biases, or just phrases you use that can be taken in the wrong way.

Some people would deride this as “being PC,” but I’d prefer to think of it as “not being an insensitive jerk.” Some of the examples might seem quite innocuous, but they can have an impact.

For example, have you or anyone you know said something like, “The wolf is my spirit animal?” It can be a pretty common expression among white people, and we don’t intend any disrespect. The idea we’re trying to express is “This is the animal I most identify with.”

Okay, fine — but you’re doing it in terms that, to Native Americans, are very explicitly tied up in their religion. Imagine someone from a non-Christian culture saying something like, “For me, curry is the Body of Christ and tea is his Blood.”

Yeah, that would piss off a lot of Christians, conservative or not.

So… don’t do it to Native Americans and First Nations people.

Luckily, you had a white woman give you a perfectly acceptable alternative that comes right out of your own modern pop culture. Try saying instead, “The wolf is my patronus.”

Boom. Same idea, not offensive.

And there are other problematic expressions. For example, saying, “Yeah, my boss is a slave-driver.” Oh, really? You mean that he or she literally owns your ass, beats you regularly, doesn’t pay you anything, and might even keep you actually chained to your desk?

Or is it that she or he sometimes asks you to work late or come in on a weekend, and gives you extra assignments when you’re already busy? But you could quit any time you wanted to and just walk away without being hunted down by dogs and/or an angry lynch mob?

Yeah. Don’t say “slave-driver.” Try “task-master.” Or you could to for the ultimate diverse word, “asshole,” since everybody has one. Or… just realize that almost every boss does exactly what your boss does, and you’re not special.

You’re certainly not suffering like someone who was forcibly taken from their home and family, put in chains and sold to the highest bidder if they survived the trip across the Atlantic.

But, again, the goal here is listening to your words and deciding for yourself whether they could be taken as culturally insensitive. And there are more of them than you might think. Hell, at least one of them is still available in your grocer’s freezer case today.

This is another way in which improv helps. At my company, ComedySportzLA (and at all CSz companies in general), we have something called the “Brown Bag Foul,” in keeping with the sports theme, and it’s called if anyone — player or audience — says anything rude, crude, offensive, R-rated, or otherwise not family friendly.

And yes, awareness of it does keep us on our toes and very conscious of not taking the low road or the cheap shot. Although there is one big irony in it all — that brown bag itself could be construed as connected to yet another racist blast from the past.

Like I said: this is the most difficult one because it requires constant listening.

Developing Emotional Awareness

The funny thing about Emotional Awareness (aka emotional intelligence) is that most lists of how to develop it include “Developing Self-Awareness” as one of the most important steps involved. The rest depend on your preferred learning method, so chose from one of the links in this paragraph, or search for your own path.

And this was never meant to be this long, but it’s a big subject. Happy Friday, and happy self-awareness!

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