Episode 15 - Sonder
Peter: Hey Jen.
Jen: Hey Peter.
Peter: I think it's time that we did a separate episode on a topic that you and I have referenced before, have talked about in person before, but haven't necessarily dug into on this podcast.
Jen: Okay, I have no idea what you're talking about, cause those clues were very vague. What is it?
Peter: That was so vague, I realize that. It's a word that you love to pronounce differently than I do.
Peter: Well no, it wasn't "spruik."
Jen: Oh, I was so excited. Okay well, we'll spruik another time. What is it?
Jen: Okay. "Son-dah." Let's talk about "Son-dah."
Jen: You say "son-derr," and I say, "son-dah." And this is The Long and The Short Of It.
Peter: So, "sonder" we have referenced on this podcast, and I will start by giving us a quick definition for those who aren't familiar. It's a word that I've become - and we've both become - quite obsessed with as it relates to empathy, as it relates to curiosity, as it relates to seeking to understand. And so the term has been defined on The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which is quite an amazing resource where this guy takes seemingly obscure words, as the name suggests, and defines them. He defines "sonder" as the moment that you realize that every single person around you is living a life that is equally as rich, equally as vivid, equally as complex, confusing and enthralling as your own. And that sometimes, just like you are in their life, they will be in your life, a passerby on the street, or a stranger in a cafe, or you know, when you're driving to the airport at four in the morning and you see someone else in a car and you're like, "What? I thought I was the only one that was awake right now. Who is that other person?" And so it's this moment where you realize that that person has a story in their head just the same way as you have a story in your head. And I think it's worth unpacking and exploring and talking about so much more than it is, which is why I wanted to talk about it again. And so, perhaps before I do, I have a story that I like to share that sort of highlights sonder, but before I do, do you have anything to add?
Jen: Well, the questioner in me wants to know: are the words in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows words that the guy made up, or like actual words?
Peter: I do not know the answer to that question, Jen the questioner.
Jen: Hmm. Listeners, if any of you knows the answer to this - oh wait, wait, wait. I just found out the answer.
Peter: Here we go.
Jen: "The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a compendium of invented words written by John" - I'm assuming you pronounced this "Koenig," but I could be wrong. "Each original definition aims to fill a hole in the language; to give a name to emotions we all might experience you don't yet have a word for." That's cool. So he made up "sonder."
Peter: He made it up. Okay. I love that, I actually didn't know that. But I think when it comes to empathy, and when it comes to empathetic leadership, or connecting with other people, I have this equation, I think it goes, "sonder plus empathy equals connection." And so let me tell you a quick story that I like to tell about sonder. So there's a cafe that I walked to in between my house and my co-working space, and I stop in there every day and I get a coffee, and it was one particular week where I went passed on a Tuesday, and it was closed. And I was like, "Huh, that's kind of annoying. I guess I'll go to the other cafe." And so I did. Wednesday, same thing happened: the cafe was closed again. I was like, "This is actually really inconvenient - I have to walk an extra hundred yards, a hundred meters, to another cafe”. And to be honest, I don't like that cafe as much. So I started to get a little bit miffed; I was making it all about me and my convenience. Third day it happen - now I was quite pissed. Like, "This is ridiculous. How dare John shut the cafe. I know him quite well. He's ruining my life. He's trying to upset me. He's going to make me have the worst week possible. How dare he?" I looked at his Instagram page; he had no posts. I look at his Facebook page; he had no posts. Like, there was no context as to why he would shut the cafe and ruin my life. The story I was telling myself.
Jen: You have a great life.
Peter: Yeah, well John threatened to ruin it here. And then on the fourth day, I almost didn't even go past cause I was like, "You know what John, you're dead to me. I don't even want to go to that cafe anymore." But I thought, I'll try once more, and it was open. So I marched in there a little bit fired up, and I was like, "John, what's going on? Where have you been and why have you been doing this to me?" And he looked up from the coffee machine, and like, in that moment I knew I'd made a big, big mistake. Like, he look disheveled, he looked like he hadn't really slept, he looked like he'd probably been crying and obviously been through something. And he was like, "Pete, I'm so sorry. My mother just got really sick, and I've been in hospital for the last four nights, and looking after my younger brother and my dad, who's also not that well. I didn't have time or energy to think about putting up a post on social media. I'm really sorry - today's coffee's on me." And I was like, "Oh my God, I am the worst." But what happened is, it was a misconnection, right? Like, I did not even begin to imagine. And if I had have stopped to imagine, "Why is it that John may have shut this, this cafe might be shut? What is the story that he may have in his head? What is the reality that he may have in his life?" You know, sonder: the moment that we realize everyone has a life that is equally as rich and complex as our own, there has to be a perfectly logical explanation for it. But I didn't even think that way. And so what happened is we had a complete misconnection. And I think these moments happen, like, so often in our lives, not only from a cafe point of view, but in our work life. And so I was curious if anything sprung to mind for you, where you had either a really good experience with where you did get a connection because you realized and empathized with that person through sonder, or whether you missed through sonder and empathy.
Jen: Oh, that's, that - well, my mind was going in a totally different directions. I want to follow my mind first and I'll circle back to your question.
Peter: Follow that brain.
Jen: My mind wanted to go to the notion that this is, this is acting. This is what actors have to do all the time with the characters that they play is to recognize that the lives of their characters are as rich and varied and nuanced as their own. And it's really easy at first glance to take a look at a script and start assigning character traits to the character that you're going to be playing. But it takes numerous reads of the script, and research about the world in which that character lives, and a lot of imagination as well to give that character the full and rich human experience that they deserve. So that was where my mind went, is that sonder is a feeling, I guess, but it could also become a practice where you look at the world around you and you assume that everyone has their own shit going on - pardon my language.
Peter: Do we need the bleep route again?
Jen: No, no. And it's interesting because when, when you're working with actors, they are playing characters. So it makes sense that an actor would, would start assigning character traits or characteristics to the characters that they play. But that can be a slippery slope if you haven't done enough work to fully understand that character's circumstances, because the characters in plays and movies and, oh, real life do the things that they do because of the circumstances that they're in. Not necessarily because they are inherently good or inherently bad or inherently lazy or inherently ambitious, but because of the circumstances that they're in. So if you really take the time to understand what in the acting world we call "given circumstances," but you can, you know, you don't have to be in the acting world to understand that concept that the given circumstances inform the behaviors that people display. So in the case of John, his given circumstance was that his mother was in the hospital, his father was ill, and he had a younger brother who needed care - those are the given circumstances. And then the behavior was to choose to spend time with them instead of go to work.
Peter: Yeah. Do you think - something that Brene Brown has mentioned in her book - how do you feel about this notion that everybody is doing the best that they can based on their circumstances? So you mentioned that it may be that they're not necessarily acting with goodwill or bad will, it's just that the acting, given the circumstances and I really like and plus one, this idea that Brene Brown has spoken about and written about and sort of thrashed with, which is you could take it a step further and assume that everyone's doing the best that they can with those circumstances, which can be hard to get your head around for certain people.
Jen: Well, I, I think it is a very generous perspective and I think the connotation of the word best needs to be unpacked because it doesn't necessarily imply that people are doing their conscious best or they're most researched best, but instead the best that they can given not only the circumstances that they're in, but the information that they have, the amount of sleep they've had, who their parents were. I mean all of these, all of these things we do. Yes. So there's short answer is yes. And again, to tie this back to the the acting world, one of the things we talk about a lot is if you are playing a character who may be perceived by audience members as the bad guy or the villain or evil, it is your job to find the humanity in that character and to acknowledge that they are doing the best that can. So even someone who commits some sort of atrocity is someone who believes in some way that what they are doing is right and just.
Peter: Yeah, and the same applies to, I mean I've done a lot of work in corporate environments in startups and the same thing applies with the people that you work with. Like you said, outside of the acting world is when someone sends you an email and you think it comes across a bit passively passive aggressively and it sort of gets you in a tizz or someone drops a project on your desk and says, “I need this by Monday at four o'clock” rather than defaulting to blame, shame, anger. What if you just pause and thought, “I wonder why they have to get this done by four? I wonder why they sent this email? What could be going on in their life that makes them think that that behavior is, at that moment, is their best?” Just pausing to be curious enough to ask yourself that question I think goes such a long way to us living in a world and working in an environment where we all feel like we are more connected, more human and understand each other more
Jen: A to the men. I agree.
Jen: So to answer your previous question about -
Peter: - have you got a John Story?
Jen: Uh, Yes. Many, many, many times from when I was an auditioning actor. Which is many, many years ago, my lad.
Peter: Did you just go Irish?
Jen: I became an old Irish lady, yup. Yup. So I was also doing like a fake cane. Anyway, so what's really interesting, and I think this, oh it ties into so many other things we've talked about, is part of the, the gig was I thought I've come to realize now that I'm a coach to other actors that I was just so wrong. But at the time I thought the Gig was, you put your blinders on, you don't let anything touch you, and you go into the room and you share your work and then you leave. That would have benefited from some Sonder. I mean, how on earth could one expect to cultivate a human connection with someone if the posture with which you're entering the space is: “You shall not touch me.”?
Peter: Yeah. Fair point.
Jen: One of my, one of my favorite lyrics from a musical theater song is “not a soul alive can get behind this wall”. And that was sort of how I used to enter different audition rooms until I became a director. and then I was like, “wait a minute I would love it if these people would talk to me. It would be so great for someone to say, I love this play. Want to know why?” Like that'd be so great. But I didn't know that when I was on the other side of the table. And that was, uh, it was living a Sonder free life at that point.
Peter: Sonder free. Not the kind of free that you want to bring it back to the equation I mentioned. I think first it takes sonder. It takes that moment where you realize we all have these stories and then we can move to empathy. We add empathy, which is seeking to understand what it might be like to walk in someone else's shoes, being curious enough to ask them questions to help them paint that picture for you. Or if you don't have the ability to ask some questions, just stopping to imagine what it might be like. And if you add those two together, I think you get connection, which is what most of us are seeking in most of our things that we do, whether it's connection with our work, connection with people, connection with projects, connection with a purpose. Sonder plus empathy equals connection.
Jen: That's good Shepherd. That's The Long and The Short Of It.