That is except for David. David is different.
David’s story, was the account of a man I met in Matamoros, Mexico during the border crisis in 2019. David [Not his real name. I changed his name to protect his identity.] was one of a large group of Cameroonians I met at a refuge who were stranded on the Mexican border while seeking asylum in the United States. Each had similarly horrific stories that they shared and backed up their claims with photos on their phones of bodies dead on the street or being dumped into mass graves. One in particular that haunts me was the body of a woman lying face down on the ground in front of her wheel chair, two bullet holes in her back.
Call it context. Call it perspective for those of us with first-world problems. David’s story is as real as it gets. There is no disconnect for him.
This disconnect can take a lot of different forms. It can be people walking around in crowds staring at their phones, completely oblivious to everyone and everything around them. Or it can be a neighborhood full of decent, but generic houses where the only time you see your neighbor is when they’re pulling into their garage, and closing the door behind them without as much as a wave. Or it can be the company that pushes its sales team to make deals with little consideration of whether or not their people on the ground can actually deliver on the promises made.
In the professional communication world, there is something we refer to as channel richness. We evolved as creatures with incredibly complex ways to both encode and decode messages from each other. Mostly we don’t think about it, because it’s intuitive in our being. The words we say have meaning. But the way we say them indicates further meaning. And the way we look while saying them adds even more meaning. And our ability to translate or decode what someone’s tone of voice is saying and what their body language is saying, we develop a deeper understanding of what our counterpart is actually trying to say. Take sarcasm for example, we can say one thing and mean something completely different.
But, the more degrees of disconnect we get away from face to face communication the more difficult it is to decode what other people are trying to tell us. A phone call is good, but you’re still not seeing the body language the other person is projecting. An e-mail is okay, but you’re losing both tone of voice and body language. And so, when somebody is sending text messages that are full of jargon, don’t use full sentences and don’t offer context, our brains try to fill in the gaps which far too often get it wrong and chaos ensues. You’re simply not saying what you think that you’re saying.
At its core, disconnect insulates us from world around us and causes people and organizations to become inwardly focused. The more distance we get from something the less responsibility we feel towards it and the more likely we are to misunderstand what’s going on. We drift into meta universes where there is less accountability for our behavior. Somebody on a social network might say horrific things to a stranger on that platform that they would never consider saying in person. They don’t feel any accountability to that person. In fact, they probably don’t really consider them a full person. It’s just a name on a screen interacting with your name on the screen and there are no consequences for bad behavior.
I should amend that last statement. What I mean is that there are no apparent consequences for bad behavior. But ultimately you’ll pay the devil his price. Case in point, the company that pushes its sales team to make promises it has no intention of delivering on. They’re working from the perspective that there are plenty of new clients out there and they don’t need to worry about repeat business. They’re completely internally focused. It’s narcissistic tunnel vision. But, here’s what’s really happening. The people they have working on the ground, who are really the foundation for their whole company, are now consistently finding themselves on the receiving end of dissatisfied customers who feel like they got a raw deal. It’s like getting repeatedly punched in the face because of what the guy next to you said.
Not only are you consistently developing a reputation for over promising and under delivering, but also a disgruntled foundational team.
And if that team walks, the team that is fundamentally connected to your client base, you’re screwed.
You didn’t value your clients and you didn’t realized that the team you abused, really held most of the power in the company.
When we intentionally disconnect ourselves from quality information, it’s willful ignorance. But, sometimes it’s not so willful. Sometimes it’s a matter of algorithms and people simply feeding us what they think we want to hear.
And so it takes real effort and commitment to stay in-tune with the real world around you.
When everything blew up on the border in 2019, I realized I was two hours away from the biggest story in the country, I had a camera and wanted to see what was going on first hand. That’s when I met David. I met hundreds of other refugees trying to make the United States their home. I met humanitarian workers. I met border patrol agents. I almost certainly met cartel members. I got to hear their stories. I disconnected from the popular narratives that were being pushed by politicians and cable news networks and spent years connecting to the people and a very messy border that couldn’t be explained in sound bites.
But, I was also fairly regularly bombarded by those who sat behind TVs and computer screens thousands of miles away telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about, while I casually leaned up against the border fence and replied to their comments.