MQ-1: Everyday Upsets (‘Mythquake’ series)

More on the Mythquake book-project. This and the next few posts in this series will work their way up the scale of mythquake severity, from MQ-1 (trivial everyday stuff) to MQ-9 (total destruction).

My last attempt to get restarted on Mythquake was way back in January 2007. This chapter was complete back then, so I’ll post it here in its entirety. This version of the book was aimed at the self-development market, so again it’s deliberately personalised (in fictional form, I ought to add), and with questions to invite self-reflection and self-challenge. If someone else wants to take over the project, a more formal/conventional approach might work better these days.

There’s only one section in this chapter:

  • The litany of complaint

The term ‘litany’ is adapted from Sohail Inayatullah’s futures/foresight tool Causal Layered Analysis (“poststructuralism as method”): ‘the litany’ is the topmost of the four layers in scope for futures-assessment.

As you’d expect, this chapter is several pages long, so I’ll start with the intro here, and then put in a ‘Read more…’ link before the rest of the text.

MQ-1: Everyday upsets

Richter 1: Microearthquake. Background ‘noise’; barely identifiable. Equivalent to around ten to thirty kilograms of TNT (typical quarry explosives). Tens of thousands per day.

Mercalli I: Vibrations are recorded by instruments; people do not feel any earth-movement.

The litany of complaint

Not happy… everything’s going wrong on this so-called ‘working holiday’. The language here is totally confusing: ‘push’ means pull, for example, and what sounds like ‘pull’ means push. The culture of ‘calma’ means that this morning’s business meeting was shunted to the afternoon, then the evening, then not at all: a whole day wasted. And the drivers are insane: overtaking at wild speeds on blind bends seems almost obligatory, whilst high-speed tail­gating is like a national sport. To dodge another of these lunatics, I’ve pulled off to the side a little, at full speed – a manoeuvre which would be perfectly normal on the graded verges back home, but here the sharp edge of the three-inch drop gives me an instant blowout. In heavy traffic. In a brand-new rental car that I barely know at all. And in a country where they drive on the wrong side of the road. A few scary seconds later, I wobble off into a muddy parking-lot and get out to inspect the damage – and my lost insurance-excess fee. So now I’m stuck here, in the middle of nowhere, with a blown tyre, a steel spare that doesn’t match the fancy aluminium wheels, a wheelbrace that doesn’t fit the wheel-nuts, a mobile-phone that’s about to run out of credit, and a language-barrier that’ll need a pole-vault to cross…

Not happy… not happy at all…

What are some of your examples like this, where everything seems to fall apart in an increasing crescendo of chaos?

Our expectations are what hold our world together. When the world behaves differently to the way we expect, what we get is a mythquake: the mythic ground on which we stand is shaken. And it’s not just that things become difficult in a purely practical sense, but the feeling of uncertainty, of ‘unsafety’, is so uncomfortable that it can be almost too much to bear. In the grand scheme of things, this may only be a minor matter, but right here, right now, it certainly doesn’t feel that way! Close by the roadside, I’m close to panic…

What feelings do you find yourself going through in even a minor mythquake such as this? What does it take to keep the panic at bay?

But sometimes, if we do manage to hold back the panic, there can be surprising help available where we least expect it. Right in the middle of this mess, my mobile-phone rings. It’s one of the few people I know in this country. Who today, amazingly, happens to be working little more than a mile away. She comes down the road, takes over, calls the less-than-helpful rental-car company, calls a local mechanic instead. Twenty minutes later, we’re sitting in a café talking business whilst the wheel-rim is being straightened out; it’s little more than an hour before I’m on my way again. Panic over! – for now, at any rate…

It’s kind of a side-theme here, perhaps, but when help has arrived in such circumstances, did it always come in the form you’d expect? We wait for the cavalry to charge over the hill to our rescue, so to speak, but often what we actually get is an old man pootling along on a donkey! And yet often it’s exactly the help we need.

But when help comes in a form you don’t expect, what does it take to recognise it as the help you need?

Half a day later, I’m in trouble again. A well-marked side-turning to ‘St Gobbledygook – the Cathedral of the Mountains’ takes me down a road that changes from a good two-lane to a single lane to a narrow cobbled street that steadily shrinks till there’s barely an inch to spare either side of the car from the high stone walls, then suddenly fades away to a muddy lane that just stops. I find a place where I can just about turn the car round – and get stuck, wheels spinning on the steep muddy slope. I get out, scout around, find that there is another route out of there, again down impossibly narrow streets. Panic rising once more, I again get stuck trying to get through another insane chicane of stone… As I struggle to turn round in a place where there’s the luxury of perhaps a foot or two each way, an old man wanders up to offer help. Talking at me in a language I barely know, far too fast for me to follow, and in an accent thick enough to spread on toast: “myshe!”, he says, “myshe! andar!”; he wants me to go forward, I want to go back… Dunno if it actually takes that long, but it feels like more than half an hour of wrenching at the wheel and cautious back-and-forth before I can get the heck out of there…

And yet, as I look around, there are plenty of other cars here in this village, trucks even, all a fair bit wider than my small rental-car. For their drivers, this nightmare place no doubt seems normal enough: somehow they must manage to get around with redesign­ing the sides of their vehicles on every outlying slab of stone. As for how, I haven’t a clue… I certainly couldn’t do it. But I’d guess many aspects of my own ‘normal’ workday world of bits and bytes, of databases and data-structures, would to them be just as impassable, incomprehensible. Each to their own, it seems…

How do you respond when some ‘estrangeiro’ obviously fails to understand ‘the way things work round here’? Do you feel frustrated when they just ‘don’t get it’?

If you find yourself getting frustrated, what do you do to try to make them ‘get it’? Do you talk at them loudly, or slowly? treat them like a child or an imbecile, perhaps?

And what happens when finally, and often almost by accident, you do give them the missing information that allows them to ‘get it’? What other feelings replace your former frustration?

What’s interesting, sometimes, is just how much these incidents can also expose our own prejudices and assumptions. In my case, for much of my working life I’ve been a contract consultant, staying in each workplace for no more than a few weeks or months. And although the work itself is much the same, the way it’s done in each place is always subtly different. So it’s not just between countries that there are barriers of language and culture: every workplace has them too. Getting people there to describe those differences, or even to recognise that there are differences from elsewhere, has often been one of the hardest parts of my work.

How hard do you find it to explain the obvious, when the evidence shows that much of it isn’t ‘obvious’ to others at all? And if it’s that hard to explain the obvious, just how ‘obvious’ is it really? Hmm…

Another side to this is the sheer awfulness of embarrassment when we do finally ‘get it’. Standing by the side of the road, I wince in humiliation as the mechanic flicks off what turn out to be decorative covers from the wheel-nuts and uses the same wheel­brace – the one that definitely wouldn’t fit – to remove the wheel… Oh gawd… why didn’t I think of that? At least he isn’t mocking me for not knowing … this is bad enough already, but that would make it even worse…

More than a little uncomfortable, I know, but recall an incident or two of your own in which the solution to some problem turned out to be embarrassingly ‘obvious’.

How did you feel when you discovered this?

And how did you feel if someone did mock you about not knowing? How did you respond to that feeling?

There is, of course another solution: dump all the uncertainty and uncomfortableness onto everyone else. When faced with even a minor mythquake – in other words, when the world doesn’t match the story – many people don’t ever doubt their own story’s absolute ‘truth’: instead, they try to force the world to fit the expectations of the story. So when I apologise to my colleague for knowing so little of the local language, she gives a wry grin. “You’ve only been here ten days”, she says: “I know business-people who’ve lived here ten years who speak it less than you. They don’t even bother to try: just bellow loudly in their own language and call us idiots if we fail to understand.” Another brief moment of hidden embarrassment: I did exactly the same earlier, to the car and the punctured tyre, using language that no-one would want to hear!

How often have you tried the ‘shouter’s solution’ – if only at a car or computer that didn’t work as expected? It may have given some short-term relief to the feelings of frustration, perhaps, but how well did it really work in terms of getting the problem solved?

And how do you feel – and how do you respond – if someone tries that tactic on you? When someone shouts at you – especially in a foreign language – do you feel more willing and able to help, or less?

So the same things happen in every mythquake, great and small. The principles are the same in each case: expectations broken, pre­judices exposed – and the ineffectiveness of most of the tactics we use to resolve this!

And before we try to explore the more severe mythquakes, we need to practice, to develop our awareness, at this much lower level: the everyday litany of little upsets and evasions, the back­ground noise of life, barely detectable, yet always there whenever we care to look.

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