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 Location:  A Midwest city of 50,000.  Cable Guy is White.   Anderson is Black

Cable guy:  I’m here to hook up your cable.

Anderson:  Great.

Cable Guy:  You live in a great neighborhood. . . are you new?

Anderson:  Yeah, I just moved in yesterday from Milwaukee.

Cable Guy:  Oh. . . .  Well, just make sure that you keep your yard mowed and maintained.  That’s the way people around here do it. . . .  It’s fine if you don’t do I that way where you’re from, but its expected around here.

Anderson:  Oh. . . .  Okay.

Cable Guy:  So let’s get this cable hooked up!

Location:  A physician’s office filled with waiting patients.  Dorothy is 89.

Dorothy:          I have an appointment at 3:00 with Dr. Martin

Receptionist:  Have a seat and we’ll call your name when the Doctor’s ready

.   .   .   .

Dorothy           I’ve been waiting 25 minutes.  Can you give me some idea when I’ll be seen?

Receptionist:  The Doctor’s a little behind.  She’ll call you as soon as possible

.   .   .   .

Dorothy:           (In the exam room, to the nurse) I’m still having the pain I talked with you about last week.

Nurse:                Let me get your weight and blood pressure, and you can talk with the doctor about it.          .   .   .  

Dorothy:           (To the doctor)  I’m still having the pain I talked with you about last week.

Dr. Martin:        The pain in your back?

Dorothy:            No, the pain in my tailbone from when I fell.

Dr Martin:         Oh.  Let me check your chart on my computer.  .  .  .  I don’t find anything about any fall.   Gloria, right?

Dorothy:             No, Dorothy  .   .   .   .

Location:  A bed shop.  Nancy and Ann, who are married to each other, enter.

Salesman:     Welcome!  How can I help you?

Nancy:          We’re looking for a new bed.

Salesman:    One or both of you?

Nancy:          Both of us.

Salesman:    So two beds then.  What size?

Ann:              No, one bed.

Salesman:    Oh!  Which one of you will be sleeping on it?

Depersonalization is a cultural cancer.  It’s a problem that people like Anderson, Dorothy, Nancy, and Ann—along with most of the rest of us—experience every day.  It happens when people treat us as if we’re interchangeable with everybody else “like us” rather than treating us as the unique person we are.   “Stereotyping” and “objectification” are words some people use for this problem, but I call it depersonalization to clarify how you can help cultivate its opposite.

 Depersonalization happens every time people get treated as if they’re not a person.  This mean that someone fails to hear or see the choices you’re making, doesn’t notice the emotions you’re experiencing, is oblivious to the questions that you’re asking.  People also depersonalize themselves when they speak and act in ways that are just like the ways every “typical” salesperson, police officer, teller, doctor, teacher, or supervisor would speak and act.

So the Cable Guy sees that Anderson is Black and hears that he’s from Milwaukee and treats him like “every other Black guy from the city.”  Dr. Martin mistakes Dorothy for one of her “many other elderly female patients.”  The bed salesman treats Nancy and Ann like “all his other customers” who, he believes, are heterosexual. The fact that Anderson and his wife were proud of their well-kept Milwaukee yard never occurs to the Cable Guy.  The fact that Dorothy has a unique health experience doesn’t register with Dr. Martin.  The fact that somewhere between 8% and 10% of the bed salesman’s customers are LGBT never occurs to him. As a result, Anderson, Dr. Martin, Dorothy, Nancy, and Ann all experience depersonalization.  Again.

How Depersonalization Hurts

Humans are social animals.  This means that we become who we are in our relationships with others.   A long time ago, studies of infants showed that if they don’t experience human touch and human attention, they wither, and can even die.  No relationships, no human being. Today, children who are continually ignored or put down suffer lifelong hurts.  And the worst adult punishment is to be shunned—completely ignored by everybody around you. 

Depersonalization says “You don’t matter,” “You’re not important,” or even, “You don’t exist.”  It happens in families when a child says, “Mommy, look at what I found!” and mommy replies, “Get that dirty thing out of here and wash your hands for dinner!”  It happens on the job when a team member’s suggestion is ignored, when one person out of three is promoted and the other two hear nothing, and when a project that people have been working on for weeks is cancelled without any explanation.  It happens online when a racist lurker comments to a group discussing protests in Furgeson, MO., “chimps will be chimps.”

People with strong cultural identities, for example as feminist, disabled, Muslim, or Hispanic, experience depersonalization a lot.  So do people who are in some way different from most of those around them like Whites in a Black community, older workers in a business that mainly hires young people, and Jewish people in a heavily Christian neighborhood.

Depersonalization hurts because it denies the most fundamental fact about you:  That you are a person, a human being.  That you matter.

Importantly, depersonalization results from the ways people communicate.  It happens when people ignore others by not looking them in the eye, turning away, refusing to respond to their question or comment.  It happens when people belittle others by talking down to them.  It happens when people consistently glare or scowl rather than smiling, when they label people, and when they blame them for being blonde, fat, Asian, male, or autistic.

Every time I witness, experience, or contribute to depersonalization, I hurt.  “Do you understand what you just did?” I want to ask.  Or, when I’m the guilty party, “Damn!  I didn’t mean to do that.  How can I turn this around?”

The strange thing is that, in the culture at large, these reactions of mine often seem to be odd, over-sensitive, out of place. 

Lots of people around me appear to be just fine with many different kinds of depersonalization.  Some experience it at work and decide to stick with their job because it has such good benefits, there's less racism here than where they used to work, and the commute’s so short.  Some put up with depersonalization from medical providers and feel like they can’t complain to doctors who are so much more educated than they are, and receptionists and administrators who are so busy with important things.   Facebookers brag about having hundreds of “friends,” most of whom they’ve not personally engaged with for years—or even ever.  Twitter devotees “follow” celebrities and what’s “trending,” blurt out 140-character opinions about important issues, and re-Tweet oversimplified, sound-bite advice.  Families justify absurdly hectic schedules because they’re “providing opportunities for the kids,” or keeping up with their parent-peers.  And every time you see a group of people—at a restaurant, on a bus or train, in an audience, at a coffee shop or waiting room—they’re each intently focused on their digital device, siloed souls relishing connectivity without contact.

 Why is this okay?  If humans really are social animals, what makes depersonalization the accepted norm?  Many of us complain that peaceful Muslims should rise up against the radicals of their faith who kidnap schoolgirls and chop off heads.  Where’s the rebellion against depersonalization?

For the opposite of depersonalization, see parts 2 and 3 (coming in January, 2015), or Chapter 2 of U&ME: Communicating in Moments that Matter, by John Stewart

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