Edition #113: The Unflattening
Plus, how to eat candy like a Swede, can motherhood be a form of rebellion, and a happy dance
A Note From the Editor
Before COVID existed and when the world felt like a very different place, I had just started a new job at a glitzy media company. Though I’d had roughly five years of professional work experience up to this point, my new job felt like an unofficial entry into the echelon of respected New York professionalism, quantified by a fancy office in a landmark building, a gaggle of well-dressed colleagues, the potential to run into both minor and major celebrities on a semi-regular basis, and a company name that would elicit looks of approval at most social gatherings. On my first full day in the office, our team gathered for a quarterly meeting commencing at 4 pm. We sat in the bright, sunny breakroom, all windows overlooking downtown Manhattan. The meeting was catered; we drank beers and White Claws and ate chips and guacamole. I felt like I had landed in a movie and I was playing the role of “young professional making it in New York.”
For my first few months of employment, I made it a point to quietly observe, attempting to take in enough information to assimilate in a way that felt natural. I was interested in understanding the unspoken dynamics of the place; who was in the “in” crowd, what these people liked to do outside of work, and how I might be able to slot myself into the deceptively close group of late 20 and early 30-somethings who sat amongst the open floor plan around me. It was during this period that I discovered the green dress. It was puffy-sleeved with printed with tiny white flowers, falling just below the knees. The first time I noticed it, worn by a girl who I was trying to coerce into a gentle friendship, I complimented her. “It’s from Zara,” she said with a tone of incredulity. Not a week later, another girl I admired wore the green dress. “Zara?” I asked, and she giggled. “Yes! Isn’t it cute?” Perhaps it was a good old-fashioned case of Bader Meinhoff, but I saw that dress at least four more times over the course of the month. In a #twinning Slack channel, two girls posed arm-in-arm like the twin emojis, except instead of the sporting black leotards, they were both in the green Zara dress.
The frequency of the green dress opened my eyes to more similarities among my colleagues. Everyone purchased a variation of the same sweetgreen salad for lunch, to be delivered directly to our shared cafeteria at precisely 1:00 pm. “Don’t forget to put your order in before 10:30,” someone would say aloud each morning. While it pained me to waste $17 on a subpar salad, I eventually acquiesced. When Taylor Swift’s “Lover” album came out, the group who sat around me didn’t stop talking about it for weeks. I probably would’ve listened anyway, but I did so with a sense of urgency and fervor, determined to form opinions on a collection of songs that sounded mostly the same so that I could partake in the conversation. With enough listens, I convinced myself that “Cruel Summer” was a decent song. By the end of the summer, I decided I officially fit in with my new coworkers.
While this particular flavor of office person wasn’t the standard across my career experiences—I’d worked in timeshare, hospitality, and corporate marketing—each workplace bred its own singular culture. As a collective, we the people of any given job shared a set of preferences for dress, lunch, and lifestyle. Some part of us melded into one another when placed in our respective work environments. We were all very different, yet we formed our own shared language, spoken only by us.
From three years of distance and total removal from such workplace dynamics, it’s easy for me to look back and the critical mass of individuals I met throughout the years and sweep them into buckets based on the perceived traits of such groups: the materialistic party people, the working class lost souls, the over-educated, unaware neo-liberals. It is easiest to characterize the groups that way for it requires no nuance, patience, or critical thinking and it allows me to place myself, now entirely outside of the aforementioned industries, morally or intellectually above those I left behind. I can defend my career departures the way you do when you end a relationship. “Thank goodness I got out of that. What might I have turned out like, had I stayed?”
The problem with this classification system is that it doesn’t take my own participation in such dynamics into account. By this line of thinking, if everyone who works in X field is X type of person, then I am also X type of person—and Y, and Z. I do not feel like an X, Y, or Z type of person anymore, though. I could argue it’s because time has passed and I’ve changed, but that would only be part of the truth. The whole truth is that I was never just an X, Y, or Z type of person, and neither were the coworkers I was so quick to characterize. We were always ourselves, individual and paradoxical, but in various environments—each with its own systems of reward and set of norms—we became slightly altered versions of ourselves, more alike. More likable, probably, in the context of the workplace.
These dynamics play out all around us, for they is the very fabric of our method of processing—social categorization, or “the way a person’s mind clusters together individuals who share important characteristics.” We identify these groups as either ingroups, to which we belong, or outgroups, to which we do not. We use these groupings to help us organize information, creating a mental hierarchy that will be used later, when we meet certain people who exhibit similar traits to those in previously defined groups. We can then use these reference points to make inferences about new people more quickly. If this sounds an awful lot like bias, that’s because it is.
The other day I found myself reflecting on a recent, somewhat messy breakup. The series of events leading to the breakup was riddled with emotion. I had told and retold the story so many times that I began to feel an emotional distance from it, as though I were reciting a script about two people I did not know rather than sharing a lived experience. I became intimately acquainted with the contours of the story, knowing the line that would elicit a strong reaction, being able to anticipate when my captive audience would say, “No, he didn’t!” and I would nod, self-satisfied by their reactions, proof that he was wrong and I was right. I told the story so many times that I didn’t need to question it or examine it from any other angle. He was a loose cannon that I had avoided, we all decided. Good riddance.
Then I went to church, a new expereince for me, one I’ll write about some other time. The sermon was about loving your neighbors as you love yourself. It’s a Biblical sentiment so basic I can only equate it to “Live, Laugh, Love,” and yet I thought about it for days and days afterward. My mind kept circling back to that breakup story, and to my habitual flattening of this person I had dated, justified by the string of events leading up to our demise. For the first time, I saw clearly the harsh judgment I had enacted to label this person, to classify him into a category of my mind deemed Bad, ignoring all of the gradations of his personhood which I had gotten to know over the course of our relationship. I had become so invested in my version of the story that I was unable to exhibit empathy for the other party. It was so much easier to recollect evidence painting him in a certain light and me in another.
Upon further reflection, I realized just how often I’d been flattening others, especially in the sphere of dating when stakes are high and rapid assessments feel more necessary. Flattening had become a habit, a low human instinct. I began to consider the ways I relayed dating stories to my two best friends via Taxi Cab Confession, a name we’d given to our habit of sending post-date voice memos to the group chat immediately after departing from a date when things were the freshest. In these time-restricted recollections, I would only hit on the important points, and those tended to include singular moments, sentences, or moves that would go on to define an entire person in our retellings. It was so easy to organize these dates into buckets based on singular sentiments; it was much harder to realize how lazy I had become, to reignite a sense of openness and curiosity about another person, to listen to them and not be looking for ways to define them immediately afterward.
French philosopher Simone Wells said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” To attempt to fully see another person is an act of generosity, but also, one of necessity, for how can we go about the world in good faith of our judgments and relations knowing that our brains are hard-wired to draw hasty, often damaging conclusions? To sit across from another person and look them in the eye, to hear them and ask good questions, to give them the opportunity to reveal themselves and to give yourself the opportunity to take them in not as you want to see them, but as they are, is a miracle of great accord. During a time in which the world feels fueled more by hatred than any force of good, when we are digitally redacted by choice and have less of a framework for community than ever before, this miracle feels worth paying some attention to. It starts, I think, with patience. Giving people the opportunity to just be and taking notice when your mind begins to reflexively make assumptions about who they are. Letting people surprise and delight you; there’s real joy in that.
Cheers, my dears, and as always, thanks for reading. If you look forward to this email each week, please consider becoming a paid subscriber. For the price of one oat milk latte (or, a fraction of a sweetgreen salad) each month, you’ll be able to support my writing and the continuation of this newsletter. Wishing you a weekend of peace and undivided attention. You deserve it.
Three Pieces of Content Worth Consuming
How to Eat Candy Like a Swede. I find the number of adults who claim they are “not sweets people” comical and entertaining. I used to tell myself this lie as well, but I have since fully succumbed to the truth: I love sweets, and so does my little brother. He’s the one who introduced me to the joy of a Swedish candy store, and every time he visits we frequent this one, which is mentioned in this article—a quick, sweet explanation of how and why candy is such a major part of the Swedish culture. The best part was learning about lördagsgodis, which means “Saturday candy,” a full weekday where Swedes are encouraged to enjoy as much candy as they so please.
Mary Oliver on What Attention Really Means and Her Moving Elegy for Her Soul Mate. I stumbled across this one when doing some research for today's essay, and it was so breathtakingly beautiful that I had to share. Reading Pultizer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver’s recounting of her soul mate’s life made me feel something like starry-eyed envy for Molly Malone Cook, if only because she was observed so wholly and loved so grandly. What a legacy to leave.
Can Motherhood Be a Form a Rebellion? If you haven’t read Jia Tolentino’s most recent work on care, now’s your time. A clearly-articulated rumination on modern motherhood, arguing care should be the work of a community rather than a responsibility of an individual. Namely, a mother. A sticking point for me in this one was how parenthood forces one to face the illogic of the market—if you're lucky and have enough resources, you're able to pay someone far less than you make to do the job that is the most difficult and important, caring for your children. Another sticking point was the notion of teaching love to children: do we teach them to love everyone, as many people claim to do, or do we teach themselves and their people only, as is the entire framework of the upper-middle-class lifestyle?
Perhaps You Should… Visit Your Local Japanese Grocery Store
There is no joy greater than stopping into a fully stocked Japanese grocery store. If you haven’t done so, I would highly recommend it. I recently stumbled across this one in my neighborhood (discovering they have no website, only a haphazardly managed Facebook page, made me love it even more) and it was delightful. Buy yourself some Japanese snacks, a matcha dessert, sashimi (it’s always some of the freshest fish you’ll find in any given city), noodles, chili oil, and an egg salad sandwich if they have it—just trust me here. And if your store happens to carry skin care products, as mine does, even better.
**Bonus Content** (Pure Joy)
I watched this about fifteen times and I still can’t get enough.
A Quote From A Book You Should Read:
“Hope,’ he said. ‘Damn thing never leaves you alone.”
-Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
This newsletter is best served with a side of conversation, so drop your opinions, reflections, and thoughts in the comments below and let’s get to talking.
Or, share the most thought-provoking piece from today’s edition with someone you love, then call them up to discuss, debate, and percolate. As a wise woman once said, “Great minds discuss ideas.