How Dehumanizing!

Brené Brown is an American researcher on shame, vulnerability, and leadership. In her book, Daring Greatly, she shared an article that she had written for the Houston Chronicle highlighting how our behaviours (in this case, our cell phone use) affect the people around us - even strangers. I am sharing her article here:

Last week, while I was trying to enjoy my manicure, I watched in horror as the two women across from me talked on their phones the entire time they were getting their nails done. They employed head nods, eyebrow raises, and finger-pointing to instruct the manicurist on things like nail length and polish choices.

I really couldn't believe it.

I've had my nails done by the same two women for 10 years. I know their names (their real Vietnamese names), their children's names, and many of their stories. They know my name, my children's names, and many of my stories. When I finally made a comment about the women on their cell phones, they both quickly averted their eyes. Finally, in a whisper, the manicurist said, "They don't know. Most of them don't think of us as people. "

On the way home, I stopped at Barnes & Noble to pick up a magazine. The woman ahead of me in line bought two books, applied for a new "reader card,” and asked to get one book gift wrapped without getting off of her cell phone. She ploughed through the entire exchange without making eye contact or directly speaking to the young woman working at the counter. She never acknowledged the presence of a human being across from her.

After leaving Barnes & Noble, I went to a drive-through fast food restaurant to get a diet Dr Pepper. Right as I pulled up to the window, my cell phone rang. I wasn't quite sure, but I thought it might be Charlie's school calling, so I answered it. It wasn't the school - it was someone calling to confirm an appointment. I got off the phone as quickly as I could.

In the short time it took me to say, "Yes, I'll be at my appointment,” the woman in the window and I had finished our soda-for-money transaction. I apologized to her the second I got off the phone. I said, "I'm so sorry. The phone rang right when I was pulling up and I thought it was my son’s school.”

I must have surprised her because she got huge tears in her eyes and said, "Thank you. Thank you so much. You have no idea how humiliating it is sometimes. They don't even see us.”

I don't know how it feels for her, but I do know how it feels to be an invisible member of the service industry. It can suck. I worked my way through undergrad and some of graduate school by waiting tables and bartending. I worked in a very nice restaurant that was close to campus and a hotspot for wealthy college kids and their parents (parents who were visiting for the weekend and treating their kids and their kids friends to dinner). I was in my late twenties and praying to finish my bachelors degree before I hit thirty.

When the customers were kind and respectful, it was OK, but one "waiter as object" moment could tear me apart. Unfortunately, I now see those moments happening all of the time.

I see adults you don't even look at their waiters when they speak to them. I see parents who let their young children talk down to store clerks. I see people rage and scream at receptionists, then treat the bosses/doctors/bankers with the upmost respect.

And I see the insidious nature of race, class, and privilege playing out in one of the most historically damaging ways possible - the server/served relationship.

Everyone wants to know why customer service has gone to hell in a handbasket. I want to know why customer behaviour has gone to hell in a handbasket.

When we treat people as objects, we dehumanize them. We do something really terrible to their souls and to our own. Martin Buber, an Austrian-born philosopher, wrote about the differences between and I-it relationship and the I-you relationship. An I-it relationship is basically what we create when we are in transactions with people whom we treat like objects - people who are simply there to serve us or complete a task. I-you relationships are characterized by human connection and empathy.

Buber wrote, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”

After spending a decade studying belonging, authenticity, and shame, I can say for certain that we are hardwired for connection - emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I'm not suggesting that we engage in a deep, meaningful relationship with the man who works at the cleaners or the woman who works at the drive-through, but I am suggesting that we stop dehumanizing people and start looking them in the eye when we speak to them. If we don't have the energy or time to do that, we should stay at home.

(Me again…) I hope this article has sparked some self-reflection. I know it did for me!

How might your cellphone behaviour affect others?

Do you acknowledge the human serving you, no matter how seemingly insignificant his/her role may appear?

How do you feel when someone regards you as an object?

Here’s to conquering stress.

With heart,


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