How are you starting phone calls these days? “How are you doing” suddenly seems a bit fraught, heavier than intended. “What are you up to” feels more like a cruel joke, a reminder of a time when we could be up to anything other than saying home. A friend I talked with recently picked-up the phone with “What made you feel human today?” I loved that.
Opening line aside, it can be hard to talk on the phone right now. Not only because logistically finding the time for personal calls among work calls, work, and childcare is nearly impossible, but because it’s hard to focus on something other than the immediate, and the immediate can be painful. It also serves as a harsh reality check when you remember that it could be quite a long time before you see the person you’re talking with. You can even see it in group chats. I have one that has started daily motivational quotes, another that seems to be a competition for best meme, others that have gone completely silent, and another that has turned into a political debate amongst a group that shares (basically) the same politics (escapism?).
I’ve always believed that we grow and change alongside others, so what happens in their absence? I’ve talked before about how in our always on work culture, the office has become our neighborhood. It’s hard to feel that way when we’re all working remotely and struggling to juggle the various challenges we’re each facing right now. We still have our actual neighborhoods though, and people seem to be connecting with neighbors more than ever, but how much can you actually connect at a distance? There are short conversations here and there, an exchange of local gossip, but you’re not inviting people over for dinner, not sharing a glass of wine and getting to know them. When I took my son out for a walk two days ago, we met another baby about a month older who it turns out lives 3 doors down. They loved making faces and noises at each other. Of course I know he’s too young to understand what’s going on, but it broke my heart that I couldn’t just invite them over to play, and honestly it almost felt awkward not to (did she think I don’t want to be friends?). If making parents friends is hard in normal times, it’s just plain impossible right now.
When I think back to my friend’s question, I realize how spot on she was (she’s a writer, so let’s not give her too much credit). Our humanity has never been more on display. If previously work culture and professionalism meant hiding our emotions at work, the lid was just blown off, and emotions are boiling over everywhere. In our best moments, that looks like compassionate empathy, goodwill, selfless acts of service, and generally being a good citizen, human, friend, sibling, child, partner and parent. It’s not consistent though, and in our darker moments it can look quite different.
In the corporate world, I’ve been encouraged to see several business leaders adamantly state that those companies that lead by taking care of their people will emerge the strongest. People first. In practice, the parents I talk to everyday aren’t feeling that. Across a range of industries, seniority, and company sizes, working parents are terrified they’ll be the first let go. Let’s face it, working from home without childcare doesn’t exactly set you up to meet ‘ideal worker’ standards. I keep reading about how this is a time for companies to embrace diversity, to support their employees, to lead with empathy. Some companies are doing just that, I applaud them, but there are few enough of them that they can be put on lists. What about everyone else? If humanity is on display across the globe, how will companies share theirs? What have they done to feel human today, I wonder?