My eyes are not working as they should be right now. The words are blurry, so I’m typing with eyes closed. I suspect it’s some sort of migraine; I’ve been there before. A headache slammed into my head shortly after I returned from my run and I’ve taken painkillers and drunk a whole lot of water, and I’m almost done with my first cup of coffee. My head is far less sore than it was half an hour ago, but my eyes haven’t caught up.
And yet, I could be wrong. Perhaps the blur is because the lenses of my glasses are simply dirty. That’s easy to test, so I take them off, give them a good wipe, and aha! Problem solved.
Yes, sometimes it’s really easy to tell when something’s wrong. Physical pain, someone we love “forgetting” to return calls, a colleague crying in the office, a teenager’s choice to adopt a dramatic new hairstyle are all obvious calls that something is up. We can see it, or feel it or hear it.
But these are symptoms, and all we know is the symptom but not the cause, so we make assumptions and our assumptions might be mistaken.
If we can be wrong when something is tangible and immediate, consider how much more wrong we can be when it’s not. I have written before about the importance of listening and building relationships and, more recently, of the challenges of communication in a digital era. That piece focused on the difficulty of sharing meaning in the absence of visual cues, but did not explicitly address the challenges of communication across time, place, and space. And it is crucial to do so.
I am speaking from the lens of one living half a world away from my family. We speak daily and message almost as often, yet we still experience breakdowns in communication. Why?
As we know, the purpose and method of communication changes out of necessity when crossing time zones. We often need to wait to contact others and there is precious little real time immediacy in our conversations. Instead, we lag. I could send a message to my mum about my blurry eyes right now, but it’s the middle of the night where she is and I can’t expect her to respond, so I turn to friends nearby or other sources for help.
I would rather have spoken with my mum, but by the hour our time windows align, my eyes have returned to normal. There are far more interesting things to discuss, and really there is no point in worrying her unnecessarily. So she will never know.
Now imagine this in a much more serious context. Imagine your partner is on a business trip and has just been robbed. Wallet gone, identification gone. When you finally speak six hours later when it’s morning for you, your partner has already gone to the police, recovered the wallet, and attended the late afternoon meeting. “I was robbed” is now a very different story. Your partner might have been terrified at the time and never mention it. Perhaps the fear itself has become a memory or perhaps he was robbed at a strip club. Either way, you’ll never know.
Let’s go further. Covid-19 is a phenomenon that has spread across the globe and it has caught us in very different places. Our experiences in the last few months differ based on location, age, employment status, living situation, health, and through what we choose to read. But we do not recognize that we see things differently, even as we compare across countries. Even though we should know better, we expect that others are experiencing largely the same things as we are.
Those sharing real time and place with a person who has contracted Covid-19 have a different experience of the illness than those who are not there, and the lived experience might not be communicated faithfully. Those present who experience scary moments, for example, might for a number of reasons omit the memory of these moments from any later conversation. This can happen either intentionally much in the same way as the examples above – why worry someone who is far away and can do nothing anyway? – or unintentionally – those moments have passed and there are other things to talk about.
And yet, they may well expect others to know how they were feeling or what was happening. They may be upset that the listener does not respond with as much concern as they had expected. The speaker assumes shared context, which might be mistaken. In this case, the listener misses the fact that just because we are talking about the same thing does not mean we experienced the same thing. Similarly, it is also understandable that the speaker may leave things out. But omission means that the listener does not have the same story.
I do not think this is anything new. We know and largely accept the above when reading the news. We know that the way we respond to nationally, globally, and culturally significant events such as war, famine, festivals, and Super Bowls varies widely depending on our experiences with these events. But we often do not consider that the same might be true of personally relevant events. We might not consider the power of time, place, and space when it hits much closer to home.
And we might therefore make the mistake of expecting others to see, understand, and behave just like us.