I recently read a book that describes a bleak future. In this dystopian universe, most of the population lives underground. Each person inhabits his or her little cell and gets sustenance from the ubiquitous “Machine”. This is not a lonely world—oh, no, for people are glued to their Machines, through which they communicate with all their “friends” and discuss ideas (most of which are not that good). This superficial world is a safe world, and most people like it that way.
Does this world seem a little bit familiar?
Travel is considered an onerous task and no one wants to do it: face-to-face communication is considered exhausting at best and rude and uncivilised at worst. In a scene from the book, the main character, Vashti, is on a plane. She stumbles, and the flight attendant touches her arm in order to steady her:
When Vashti swerved away from the sunbeams with a cry, she (the flight attendant) behaved barbarically—she put out her hand to steady her.
“How dare you!” exclaimed the passenger (Vashti). “You forget yourself!”
The woman was confused, and apologized for not having let her fall. People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine.
What is this book—futuristic sci fi, written by a technophobe with a bad attitude who was simply sick and tired of too much texting?
No. This novella was written in 1909 by E. M. Forster (of A Room with a View and A Passage to India fame). Its title is The Machine Stops, and I’d recommend it to anyone; it’s a fabulous, easy read—and you can download it for free.
1909! This was the Edwardian era: pre-World War I, with men in stiff collars, women sporting stiff hair styles, and everyone with stiff upper lips. Queen Victoria had just died eight years previously. I’m astonished that Forster was able to predict the type of behaviour that is becoming all too prevalent today: an addiction to communicating on machines, and a resulting aversion to face-to-face communication.
While many of us who love conversation enjoy casually bemoaning young people’s lack of social skills, serious scholars have confirmed our whinging: 1) Texting and e-mailing are addictive, 2) people are less likely to want to engage in actual face-to-face conversation as a result of that, and 3) this is not a good thing.
- ADDICTIVE: We all know this intuitively. We’re constantly checking our emails or our cell phones for messages. “If one sits on a Brooklyn bound train at 5.00 in the evening, practically the whole travelling population seems immersed in their individual bubbles,” professor Brian Leggett notes.1 A Psychology Today researcher speculates that texting and emailing can trigger a “dopamine loop”. Dopamine is a chemical that sparks our “wanting” system, which is actually stronger than our “pleasure” system. (We actually enjoy CRAVING things more than being PLEASED by things.) Hence, when we respond to texts or emails, we can’t stop: the dopamine rush we get from this act will make us write more, seeking a response. When we get that response, we write some more. . . and on and on it goes.2
- LACK OF MEANINGFUL INTERACTION: While people may raise their eyebrows at old-timers’ observations that young folks just aren’t able to socialize that well, these old-timers speak truth. MIT professor Sherry Turkle—no stranger to technology herself—has spent decades studying the effect of technology on human behaviour. She concludes that we still communicate with each other—we tweet, use Facebook, text each other—but that all this talk doesn’t add up to reciprocal, nourishing conversation. We’re talking at each other rather than with each other.3 In other words, there’s a whole lot of talking going on, but not necessarily a whole lot of listening going on. Indeed, an article in Forbes notes that employers such as JP Morgan Chase have actually offered to eliminate voicemail for some of their employees—and many of them, especially the under-40s, are snapping up the offer. These people are so accustomed to communicating through text and email that the idea of actually speaking to someone on the telephone can be seen as an almost frightening act: “One young worker tells The Wall Street Journal that calli ng someone ‘without e-mailing first can make it seem as though you’re prioritizing your needs over theirs.’”4Hello, E.M. Forster!
- NOT A GOOD THING: All this “Look-at-me! ‘Like me’” interaction can be satisfying, but it isn’t necessarily nourishing. Sociologists have expressed concern that young people might not be able to have engaging conversations with each other, or how to actually read emotions in others. “An emoticon or a little smiley face doesn’t really convey joy versus minor happiness—and I think that might lead to a lack of empathy,” notes a scholar.5 I have been asked many times by young students to actually help them learn how to socialize: “I don’t know how to read people, and I don’t know what to say to people,” has been a common refrain. Maybe this was always the case? I’m not sure.
Now, who knows what all this online communication means for the future. Pundits have made dire predictions that have been totally erroneous; could be we’re shaking our heads over nothing. We’re facing a brave new world that, hopefully, will not become the kind of horrible, dehumanizing universe as envisioned by either Aldous Huxley of the real Brave New World fame—or that of E. M. Forster.
“Asian women, ” I hear you say; “you can’t write that, that’s racial profiling!” Oh, I’m sorry if you feel that way!
*Ding ding!!* Oops, you see, I used the word “sorry” right away. That’s the problem, that’s what women do–they apologize too much. That’s one of the problems.
And you’re right, this blog isn’t just about Asian women. But I lived in Singapore for more than a decade, and I’ve observed that women from various parts of Asia–Singapore, Korea, China, Thailand, Vietnam–are especially vulnerable to certain pitfalls regarding speaking, both in public and in general. These days, many of these women are dealing with people from all over the globe. So this blog is especially devoted to them.
I’ve observed how extremely polite women can be when speaking to others. I have nothing against politeness, but my first bit of advice: get rid of some of the politeness. You can do that and NOT be a bitch. It takes some work, but it can be done. Remember this, Asian women: you are tiny compared to bigger, often obese Westerners. If you are speaking to a bunch of Australians, for example, there’s a good chance many of them will be a little overweight to obese. You will dwindle away to a speck surrounded by those mounds of flesh. It’s real important that your voice compensates. That doesn’t mean yelling. It means learning to speak in a measured, controlled manner.
Unfortunately, it’s still a man’s world, though a lot of progress has been made. Please note that many men will be quick to overlook women if they appear too reticent, and–this is the killer–men will put women down if women seem too authoritative. You can’t win!
So what can you do?
Tip #1: Do not speak too fast. Often, women (and men, but they’re not penalized as much for it) talk quickly when they get excited, nervous, or passionate about something. Resist the urge. Speak in measured tones.
Tip #2: Do not speak in a high-pitched voice. Many of us associate high-pitched voices with, well, nagging wives or nagging mothers. It’s true.
A famous piece of music, “Pictures at an Exhibition,” (Mussorsky/Ravel) musically depicted various scenes, including women shopping at a marketplace. Their voices were imitated using high-pitched, rapid tones: “The bitching women of the bustling market place gabble furiously in music of astonishing virtuosity,” writes Paul Serotsky.(1)
Gabble. See that? Ducks gabble! Geese gabble! And Serotsky isn’t even writing about women per se! If you speak in a high-pitched voice and if you speak too rapidly, you’ll be seen as a GABBLER, an ineffectual whiner of a woman. Don’t let that happen.
Tip #3: Stress words and individual syllables in words. Learn how to do this and lose your own stress when you speak to others. Many Asian languages are syllable timed, not stress timed. That means Asians often stress individual syllables, whereas English speakers stress certain parts of words.
Let’s take the sentence: I told you to buy me a bunch of red roses.
When Singaporeans, for example, speak standard English, the effect is like rapid gunfire, so they would say the above sentence thusly:
I-told-you-to- buy- me-a-bunch-of-red-roses.
All the words would have equal value. This can actually lead to aural (hearing) fatigue, for it doesn’t add emphasis to any part of the phrase. Indeed, many people unfamiliar with the accent might think that person speaking sounds like a computer.
A native English speaker would utter the sentence “I told you to buy me a bunch of red roses” like this:
I told you to buy me a bunch of red roses.
Different parts of the sentence are emphasized; it’s easier to listen to and comprehend.
Tip #4: The pause can be your best friend. When you speak, take the liberty of pausing for real emphasis. Not only should you emphasize certain words within a phrase, but think about pregnant (so to speak) pauses. They can work wonders. If you have the confidence to pause, the audience will sit up and take note.
Tip #5: Vocal tone. Think of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech”. It’s been played to death because its rhetoric and delivery are truly breathtaking. Imagine King uttering his words in a droning monotone; he never would’ve ignited millions of people to demand what should be theirs (social equality, in case you don’t know). Learn the artistic capacity of your voice. Play with it.
Tip #6: Don’t apologize (as I did with “sorry …” at the beginning of the blog) or put yourself down. Often, women worldwide will demurely murmur apologetic bits into their conversations: “I know I shouldn’t say this, but . . . ” “I’m not really sure . . . ” Men don’t do it. Don’t do it. Period. (In fact a Pantene hair colour ad actually had women saying “sorry!” all the time, and then switched to showing powerful women who didn’t do that–see this link here: Don’t say “sorry!” all the time.
Tip #7: Question tags. “I really enjoyed that talk, didn’t you?” That gives the other person the opportunity to expound away. And, usually, the woman will listen, give feedback, say something else. And the man? He will overlook what she said and expound again. This is an unequal dialogue; it’s not a dialogue, it’s a monologue. Nip it in the bud.
Tip #8: When you laugh, do not cover your mouth. PLEASE. You’re a grown woman. Showing humor is–just fine. You’re allowed.
I know this list should conform to the magic number 10, but never mind. Hope these tips are useful. If you have others you would like to add, feel free to leave them in the comments section.
Well, the first thing she can tell you is that you should have a really snappy beginning to a story to grab the readers’ (listeners’) attention—because this article is more about Nefertiti’s famous husband, the Egyptian pharaoh, Akhenaten. But if I had started with Akhenaten, many of you might not have been interested in reading further, so I put Nefertiti in there as the carrot. Sorry! But I hope that now you’re reading this article and will continue.
Let’s talk about Akhenaten. Some of you may have heard of him as the popularly called “Heretic Pharaoh”. Here’s the history: Akhenaten was ruler of Egypt during the 14th century B.C.E., of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. His father, the pharaoh Amenhotep III, oversaw a country at the height of its artistic and international powers. The Hittites, Babylonians, and Assyrians all enjoyed peaceful relations with Egypt, through mutual exchanges of wives and countless treasures. And over it all, the priests of Amun Ra, with their formidable economic and social power, kept tight spiritual reigns on the Egyptian populace, and the ruling family.
Things got weird with Akhenaten. He rocked the boat.
He appeared to have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the powerful grip of the Amun Ra priesthood. (Initially, Akhenaten wasn’t called by that name; he was logically called Amenhotep IV.) By the fifth year of his reign, he moved the capital to a godforsaken place in the Egyptian desert that he called “Akhetaten,” or “Horizon of the Aten.”
Back up. Who is Aten? Well, it’s complicated (as is anything related to religion—and ancient religion, especially). Suffice it to say that most Egyptologists agree that the Aten initially was simply the disk of the sun itself, and part of the god Ra (which is part of the honcho god Amun-Ra . . . see, everything having to do with religion gets complicated). Akhenaten took this lowly disk and elevated it to premiere, creator godship status; indeed, he wrote a lyrical “Hymn to the Aten”:
How manifold it is, what thou hast made!
They are hidden from the face (of man).
O sole god, like whom there is no other!
Thou didst create the world according to thy desire,
Whilst thou wert alone: All men, cattle, and wild beasts . . . 1
So. Intoxicated by this one god who created the universe, Akhenaten built a new city, built gorgeous, sun-filled temples, and basically told the priests of Amun-Ra that they were out of a job— and that the populace should worship him and his family. Aten would bless the royal family, who would then pass on the blessings to all of Egypt.
Not a good idea.
Fast forward: Eradication of a legacy. After Akhenaten’s death, eventually his son (?) son-in-law (??–different theories abound), the famous Tutankhamen became pharaoh. Initially, in keeping with his father (?) father-in-law(?)’s radical framework, he was called Tutankhnaten. Soon thereafter, however, his name changed to the old Tutankhamen, and he and the royal family deserted the city of Akhetaton. Tut died at an early age. Murdered? Good chance. While several people could claim the title of King Tut’s murderer, most scholars agree that the proponents of the “old ways,” in alignment with the priesthood of the old god, Amun-Ra, were behind the killing.
Indeed, very soon thereafter, the succeeding rulers, Ay and Horemheb, did their best to delete any record of this royal, heretical pharaoh and his offspring: they tore down the new temples, smashed the …Aten family names out of the historical record, and had a great time deleting their faces from statues and artwork.
So what’s the message here?
Akhenaton had a story, but it wasn’t a good one. Not for his time. Not for his place.
- Number one: Too-radical break with tradition. While he began gently, eventually Akhenaten insisted that all the other gods just were not relevant to the prosperity of Egypt. His way was the only way.
- Number two: Unaware of power structure. Akhenaten seemed heedless of the dangers of the powerful ruling priesthood.
- Number three: An impersonal god with no resonance attaching itself to the old god. The Aten was not a personal god as was Amun-Ra, who was worshipped in households humble to palatial. The Aten was impersonal, theoretical; Amun-Ra had more human-like attributes that people could relate to.
In modern terms: It would be as if the Pope today suddenly announced that the Trinity has been a lie all along, that Jesus Christ really can be found somewhere within a subatomic particle. (This, too, would not be a good idea—but an interesting one!)
- Number four: Not appropriate for its time. The populace, and the ruling class, had no need for this radical restructuring of religion. The people (subjected as they doubtless were) were happy worshipping their many gods. They could be easily controlled vis-à-vis their many gods. This kept the priesthood and ruling class very happy, and Egypt could keep flowing along, just like the Nile . . .
In his book The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, Stephen Denning talks about corporate leaders needing a springboard story to urge employees to take the exciting, but potentially scary, next step towards organizational change: This story, Denning states, must be easy to grasp; have a single protagonist; and tell a clear story that epitomizes, in easy language, where the company wants to go, and why this step would be a good idea. This way, the story shows how individuals can make a difference within an organization—the story points the way.
Akhenaten did not have the right story.
Next time, we’ll talk about another great reformer, Martin Luther, and why his story of Church reform became a mass media sensation that truly rocked the world.
I have my own company, Eloquent English (www.eloquentenglish.com) that helps people find their own stories. Remember: It’s your story. Get it right.
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who had a happy life. She got married, had children, and died.
Is that a good story? Of course not! Why not?
Because nothing exceptional happens in it—at least, not from the narrative as written here. Many people get married, have kids, and then die. But there is nothing there that grips us, that makes us want to hear more. There is nothing—exceptional.
Now, let me give you more information: This particular woman had been sexually abused when she was younger. She had reacted by taking out her own pain on others: she would beat her younger brother and torment the hapless house cat. She had even threatened violence to her adoptive mother. (She had been taken away from her horrible family, and a kind family had adopted her.) In fact, she had become so unbalanced that her adoptive parents took her to a therapist, who diagnosed her as borderline sociopathic. Slowly, through years of therapy and unstinting love given to her by her family, she was able to heal. Eventually she got married, had children, and was a loving spouse and mother.
Now do we have a story? Well, it’s certainly more gripping than the short one. Why? What are the factors that constitute a good story? Here are some; and think of the story, above, as you read on.
Characters: You want to learn about an individual who changes over time and learns something new. (Yep. She changed. A lot!)
Conflict: This character will not reach his/her new state of wisdom easily. The protagonist must go on a quest (in the case above: therapy and being willing to receive love) Eventually—perhaps a bit battered and bruised—our hero will come out on the other side, having learnt something of importance.
An antagonist who wants to keep our hero from attaining his/her goal. The father who sexually abused her did not have her best interests at heart. The antagonist might be the status quo, trying to keep an untenable situation “just as it is.” Fear of change can be the antagonist. Or pressure for untenable change can be the antagonist, too.
Authenticity. The story must touch people’s hearts. The tale can be specific to a certain time and place, but the conflicts within it must be universal. The story of this young woman interests us because who among us is not fascinated by people who overcome horrific obstacles to be transformed into something new, something hopeful? What strength both this girl and her family demonstrated. What faith her family must have had in her to stick by her. Strength. Grace under pressure. Personal transformation. These are all qualities that inspire us.
Now, I’ll be honest. This did not happen to me (thankfully); I did not undergo this transformation. However, I do know the individual to whom this did happen, and I can attest to her incredible life. I have heard her tell this story to others, and it both uplifts members of the audience and breaks their heart at the same time.
This young woman owns this story. When she tells it, it resonates. If I told this story, it might not resonate as much. You have to be true to your own story, and know how to tell your story. One website1 states, “The key to storytelling is not your perfection but your humanity.”
This is relevant to all communication, including, for example business presentations. Be honest. Be human. State the challenge in human terms, focusing on your solution for improving the present-day situation. Use personal illustrations from your own life. Don’t try to fake it. People will always see right through you.