8 Things I am missing during lockdown

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How many times have I wished for time off where I could stay at home and sleep! Despite not sleeping too much during lockdown due to my permanent state of angst, not uncommon I believe, there are a few things that would have made it bearable:

  1. Books

I am a touch-it-turn-it kinda reading gal. The libraries closed for lockdown too quickly for me to stock up, even though the seven books they allow you would have been finished in the first week anyway. And of course I couldn’t have used Shannon and Michael’s cards as usual because there are fines on them (again). Yes, the shame! I don’t learn. And it’s not that I don’t read fast enough; I just don’t get around to returning them, despite ‘holiday’ stamps and amnesties.

I love the comfort of holding a book, and being able to page back to check on facts or reread lyrical passages. And since I could never afford to buy all the books I read, the library is my place. Mind you, some of them do reek of old ladies’ cigarettes and there a few unidentifiable (thank goodness) food stains on them from time to time. But then to be honest, I have probably been guilty of dropping a teeny bit of avo from my pizza onto an Elizabeth George novel on occasion.

Once I had finished Shakespeare by Bill Bryson (enjoyable, even though he pooh- poohed the idea that it was actually Marlowe who wrote all the great works, or the sonnets at least) and Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (gripping with a powerful anti-colonial, anti-war message, and part of my ongoing love affair with modern African literature), I had nothing. Unless I wanted to lose myself in The Maestro’s tomes on Liszt (I didn’t), I had to do as my girls had insisted and try online.

Well. That’s been a disaster. First of all, our wifi is about as inconsistent as an adolescent love affair and the adverts… really they could make a maiden blush! I have started two books both by Harlan Coben, another favourite of mine, but I keep losing internet, which freezes the narrative at a critical moment; then the page refreshes to forty pages before where I actually am, and I have to wade back through it all so much that I need to splint my wrist from all the swiping. And I do not need to be looking at penile extensions more than once a day thank you (who does that to themselves anyway?!).

The girls say I am using the wrong sites. Andrew says he’ll pay for me to download better versions, but honestly, I baulk at paying for books.

2. Sunday Lunch

Sunday lunch is a tradition in our home even more important than Friday pizzas. Now don’t be mistaken we’re not being starved of our sabbath prandials (far from it – the fair Caitlin, our resident Masterchef, has stuffed us like willing Christmas turkeys with so many delectable vittles that the family scale has signed a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ form.) But Sunday lunch at our house usually involves all the special people in our family who don’t live in the Mad House with us, arriving in a cacophony of hellos and hugs and we all catch up.

It’s when the children’s other mother, my sister Brigid, debates with The Maestro about which news channel in the US is more biased, whether capitalism is better than communism (every Sunday); she admonishes the young people about the dangers of jumping stop streets, walking alone, locking doors, and taking Sandown Road late at night. She warns Liam that Nellie is not getting enough exercise and that I work too hard. I miss her nagging love. And she always brings those scrumptious tiny Doughnuts from Woolworths.

It’s when Michael and Gabby, and Lizzy and Dylan sail in when they can and the love gets louder. Sometimes we Facetime Sean and Jordan and before he left fot the UK, Mika’s dry humour also graced our table occasionally, especially if there was lamb.

I miss my other family. My people. I miss the noise. (Ok not the noise – there’s still plenty of that.)

3. Cappuccino, Hot Chocolate and Haircuts

Okay so I might as well get my middle-class entitlement out of the way, but I really do miss popping into The Mugg for a cup of chatting and only News Café can make Hot Chocolate that special way – they use cream of course. And Aruna the Lion Mane-Tamer is much missed.

4. Zara

While smokers and drinkers are venting about draconian shopping rules, spare a thought for the other addicts – the shopaholics among us. I know we can shop for clothes now, but you can’t try on in most places and what’s a girl to do if she’s not sure?!

Also, I bought two darling little suits before lockdown and now I feel like a jilted bride with nowhere to wear them. Never mind the fact that I probably can’t fit into them anymore (thanks to the fair Caitlin’s culinary excellence) and will stumble around like a nerd on a first date in my high heels.

I miss dressing up.

I know I’m shallow.

But not entirely:

5. Live Mass

I miss going to mass and being physically present to worship with my community. The online thing just doesn’t do it for me. It’s like watching a film and playing church-church when we were little. I hope I don’t sound blasphemous, by saying that, but I want to be in God’s house with my family of believers.

It’s tough being on time for church now because Fr Carlo can’t see you race to your laptop to join in (or not) and the guilt of being late for mass is greatly reduced. As any good Catholic can testify to, we are a guilt-driven bunch. It also doesn’t seem quite right to be in your pyjamas in front of the Lord. (I know I know, God doesn’t mind, but still it feels unseemly). And the temptation to boil the kettle for a cuppa during the sermon quickly is quite strong…

6. Choice

I’m not crazy about exercising, as my pristine gym outfits, shiny white cross trainers and the exercise bike, formerly-known-as-the-clothes-horse can attest to, but I do like to go for a stroll on the weekends. Mostly if I walk at all though (when it is an azure, wind-free day that Cape Town is renowned for)  I amble along the beachfront path anyway: I avoid walking on the beach itself. But being told I am not allowed to put my tootsies in the icy water of Table Bay, makes the thought of being on the beach all the more alluring.

It’s the forbidden fruit syndrome I suppose.

I like being able to just pop into the shop quickly on my way home. Now I have to be home by a certain time, and the shops are closed after a particular hour. I miss the whole concept of flexi.

Normally I’d love to be told I have to work from home. Now I am bristling at not being able to go into school. I want the choice.

Mind you I am such a goodie-two-shoes I would never dream of disobeying the law. I’m blaming it on my convent upbringing combined with my rebellious Celtish forebears for making me so conflicted. I hope their inherited genes are just as warlike in antibody production when it counts.

7. Guilt-free Rest

We’ve essentially been working every day since lockdown and have missed out on the April school holidays in the race to ready schools to morph into online institutions overnight. Don’t get me wrong, there has been some down time (especially because I haven’t had frequent interruptions – you know those – ‘Have you just got a sec?’ inserts that tend to catch you mid-email or profound thought, and result in multiple open Windows in your brain crashing into early onset dementia, never mind the software ones which make your laptop slower than morning traffic on the N1 (pre-lockdown of course).) But I cannot seem to shake this permanent state of anxiety. I think it’s guilt (blame the Catholic in me again) that I should be in my office, or with my children, or working harder, or watching a ministerial update, or doing something I’ve forgotten… like going to work.

8. Hugs

Much has been written about how hard it is for affectionate people to social-distance. How we are going to avoid dishing out such love to our school children is going to be a real challenge. But it is really hard, even for us. I touched a colleague’s arm in thanks today and felt as if I’d committed attempted murder. (I had just sanitized my hands, but the guilt was huge.) And to avoid natural gestures for a tactile person is tough.  

I suppose we’ll get used to social distancing. I mean we do that don’t-come-in-my-space dance in the shop with strangers, but it is more difficult with those we love and haven’t seen for a while.

I also noticed a weird (in a good way) phenomenon on the road driving home today: cars are keeping better following distances – it’s as if we have grown accustomed to keeping an eye on the spaces between us in queues and we have extrapolated that into traffic. Long may that last!

But I miss a good hug though.

All this missing things shows that I’d have made a terrible citizen in wartime, and I have to remind myself that eventually we shall have all these things again. This is a war though and we simply MUST. So others CAN. Altruism may be in short supply, but now is the time that those of us who are leaders should be modelling it.

There is something unique to humans, even those of us who may be champing at the bit: we can and do adapt to change. And remarkably quickly too. (The Maestro did the washing today so evolution is real). Darwin would be proud of us.

The rest is just weather. It too shall pass.

A picture paints a thousand words

Picasso’s Madonna, 1909

I like Picasso. His paintings anyway – he himself was rather a womanizing SOB.

Despite having two particularly arty children, I can’t say I know much about cubism. But I like the angular, sharp edges of the style. I like the seemingly jumbled aspects of the same object because I think that is often how ambivalent we feel about life.

My life is a cubist painting. Especially at the moment with lockdown and its attendant multi-facetted emotional experience.  The jagged, glass-like slivers of reality fit together, not always neatly juxtaposed or aligned, but often in a higgledy piggledy fashion in a collage that sometimes piles elements on top of each other.

How do we make sense of it all?

I find my competing responsibilities working overtime in a stressful, shifting montage, even more demanding than usual and I am sure others must be feeling this way too.

As a head of a school, I am returning to my school tomorrow to receive our supplies of PPE for staff and to assess our readiness for re-opening and oversee the disinfecting and deep cleaning of all the buildings. It’s a daunting responsibility and I feel it keenly – the health and safety of so many beloved souls that I am accountable for. Me.

I must juggle this with responding to our parents’ real fears and concerns and financial predicaments, as well as a staff of gallant educators who are in danger of burning out as they live remote teaching and learning well into the evenings, having not really had a holiday in April. What heroes they have been in this time, some bewildered at first, but changing tack mid-curriculum to reinvent themselves as online interlocuters, while juggling their own unique family circumstances.

My Picasso painting has overlapping shards for each of children and my worries and guilt over whether I have done (am doing) enough for each to support them. Or have I hovered awfully?

How will poor Liam negotiate this matric year: is he getting enough sleep; doing enough schoolwork; being careful when he walks Nellie each morning now that we can exercise a bit? I have random thoughts like how many razors will he need to de-fuzz for school and should I buy extra hair elastics, because those lovely locks of his will need to be tied back in (gasp) a man bun, until barbers re-open. What is he thinking?

Just how soul-destroying is Mika’s telesales job in the UK?! He left on his gap-year adventure so full of hope and enthusiasm for his opportunity to remake himself and now stuck in digs outside London, I hope his satirical YouTube channel is taking off. Will we see him soon? When? I hope he’s eating and is not living an emaciated, Withnail and I sort of existence.

Is Shannon reading too many romantic gothic-fantasy novels and how will she accomplish Year 2 of a Fine Arts degree from her bed, where she reclines like a Greek goddess? She’s definitely not getting enough exercise but considering she received more than her fair share of the clumsy genes, perhaps that’s a good thing. She appears to be able to roll out essays easily enough (although rather vocally).

Lizzy’s moved homes from boyfriend’s family to her mom. I hope she’ll be able to study there. At least she’ll be in familiar surroundings. I miss her too. I wish she’d come here.

Michael is the earthling most suitable to lockdown since his business is online, but without football matches happening it must be hard to weave new stories and articles, even with the transfer window looming. I hope his advertising contracts don’t disappear.  He has cleverly taken this time to get his other sites up and running though and is hiring new writers so he should be fine. And since I can’t see whether he and his flatmate are washing dishes, and using clean towels, I don’t have to worry about him. (Even though his emotional state is low because Uber Eats is not delivering to his complex!)

How can I keep up with Caitlin’s cooking sprees and reduce the size of my waistline in time for Sean’s wedding in the spring? I mean, malva pudding and custard is a scrumptious dessert and if I don’t have anything else for supper, it should be okay…shouldn’t it?

And, of course, I’m wondering whether the airlines will be operating and whether we’ll be able to travel by September for Sean and the lovely Jordan’s nuptials. No way can I miss that! How we’ll get there and where we’ll stay are still unknowns.

To be truthful there’s a little cube in my artwork that is rather sad to be ending this forced stay at home. It’s been pleasant to work around the maestro again and hear his genius at work, and I am not a little apprehensive to be venturing forth into the new way of doing things, given that as an aging matron, I suffer from hypertension and so am at risk from this virus.

But I shall be donning my mask both literally and metaphorically and pretending I am a surgeon sailing into an operating theatre, like the best of Greys’ Anatomy prima donnas. I do have a wrinkly face more suited to radio (especially since Woolworths is not selling foundation make-up yet – surely face putty is an essential item?!) so a mask is not a bad idea. I’ll have to take my tea intravenously or via a straw (Don’t tell Caitlin about the straw).

Picasso’s Madonna looks a little like my quizzical self and it looks as though she too is having trouble keeping her mask on. But that sideways sliver of her face reminds me that every now and again, I intend to move my mask away and breathe in great gulps of fresh air.  

And smile. Even if they can only see my eyes.

We only ever see a fragment of other people anyway.

The Psychology of Uncertainty: Why I’m glad Ntate Cyril[1] gets it

We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end.

Blaise Pascal

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The brain is a weird organ.

According to Dr Bryan E Roberson writing for Psychology Today and Forbes, the brain prefers to know an outcome one way or another, even if the outcome is unpleasant. According to him, scientists have discovered that job uncertainty, for example, is worse for your health than actually losing your job. British researchers discovered that study participants who were told they would definitely receive a painful electric shock felt ‘calmer and less agitated’ than those who were told they only had a 50% chance of getting the electric shock. So uncertainty is problematic.

This puts us at a slight disadvantage during the coronavirus lockdown, when even if we’d prefer a negative outcome that is certain, we cannot get absolute answers, because so much is intangible and uncertain.

For example, knowing schools will only re-open in September, horrible though that thought may be for parents struggling to teach their offspring the intricacies of long division and educators being jettisoned into the morass of remote teaching who hope parents don’t teach them old-fashioned long division methods), is preferable to this are-we-aren’t-we opening-in-May twilight zone we’re occupying at the moment.

My friend, Frank said the other day he almost wishes he could just get the virus and be done with worrying about getting it whenever he goes out. His view, though a rather desperate response to uncertainty, is not an isolated one.

Many people are recording increased insomnia, brought upon by fears of what might happen. I am battling to fall asleep of late, and upon my enquiring about her ‘wellness’ in this time, one of my colleagues told me she is waking up at 4 am worrying about a multitude of things, running a myriad of awful scenarios in her mind. Many others are similarly lying awake imagining the worst-case situations which may or may not in fact ever come to pass (what my aunt calls ‘borrowing tomorrow’s troubles’). My insomniac friend can attest to not being alone in this midnight mental morbidity, because when she goes online in the witching hour, she sees how many others in her network are also online at the same time.

And that raises another contributor to our uncertainty angst: watching too much news. I remember being in the USA after 9-11 and psychologists telling viewers to stop watching 24-hour news channels because not only do they stream permanent panic, the dramatic music and tone of newscasters and talking heads amplify stress levels. And they seldom agree with one another so the channels tend to exacerbate uncertainty.

I want to put in a word here about children and stress: be careful of projecting your anxiety onto your little ones. The generation of young children living through this year (and what follows) will almost certainly be somewhat scarred or unlikely to escape unaffected. Infants (and their older siblings) cleave to our emotions instinctively and know we are stressed even if we don’t know we are. They know when our toddler-tolerance has reached its capacity and they sense we are uncertain, even when we pretend we are not.

And children are still learning to process emotions so are less adept at prosaic acceptance of things. Someone on my neighbourhood Facebook group posted the other day about her 10-year-old who burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably about how afraid she was. So, talk to your children about fears. It’s okay to own up to being a bit worried, but be sure to say how you are going to overcome your disquieting thoughts, so they know it is possible to cope.

Owning your uncertainty with them also empowers them by allowing them to see you overcome being less than perfect and dealing with the nebulous nature of uncertainty. I’ll never forget when my eldest son failed his driver’s licence in matric, and shared his emotions in an inspirational speech at school. He was one of the ‘cool crowd’ and by owning up to being less than perfect, he gave so many others permission to not be perfect also. But he gave them a way out of the pit he was in (his mother bought him lessons!) and that is how we can assist our beloveds – own it and make a plan to overcome it. Just don’t brush off their fears. They are real.

‘You can be both a masterpiece and a work in progress simultaneously.’

– Sophie Bush

The effects of COVID-19 lockdown will not vanish when the nurseries re-open. Who knows how our children’s early development will be impaired by being surrounded by adults in masks, not seeing their smiles to respond to, or their lips to mimic sounds. Baby class educators will be torn between doubling down on face protection or only perspex covering to allow their charges to imitate them, as they need to. There are no easy answers to these predicaments, but the schools that know about these potential problems though, are the ones which will make provisions to counter such obstacles. We cannot become bogged down in these fears of what could go wrong.

There is a definite link between emotions and negative thoughts, but likewise there is a link between imagining positive outcomes and being less anxious. That makes sense of course – and my mother always said psychology was just common sense. In other words, in order to reduce our anxiety in uncertain times, we need to think of positive potential outcomes more deliberatively to improve our mental health and assist in coping with uncertainty.

The much-maligned little Pollyanna of literature, she of the count-you-blessings sunshine philosophy actually had it right when she said:

“And most generally there is something about everything that you can be glad about, if you keep hunting long enough to find it.” ― Eleanor H. Porter, Pollyanna

If you don’t believe her, Oprah said it too:

“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” — Oprah Winfrey

(Of course, if your couple of ‘blessings’ happen to have two feet and two arms, runny noses and badger you with endless questions while you are trying to tele-conference, this might be a difficult strategy to reduce your stress about uncertainty – especially if Oprah’s suggestion is you’ll end up with more ‘blessings’ and you had given away the black motorbike!)

[Aside: If you don’t want surprise babies/blessings: never give away the black motorbike. I should know].

But I digress.

How can we combat uncertainty? It’s not just about being positive and hopeful, although I laughed out loud at Jennifer Saunders who declared that the good thing about the delay of the Olympics is that we now all have a chance to train in time to qualify! (Not even Pollyanna would agree with her on that!)

 According to Lorena Pasquini, Anna Steynor, and Katinka Waagsaether of the University of Cape Town, there are 3 strategies humans employ when dealing with uncertainty:

1. ‘Strategies of suppression refer to the denial of uncertainty, such as ignoring uncertainty, relying on intuition, or taking a gamble.’

People like my friend Frank who are wanting desperately to put an end to the tension of will-I won’t-I get it, are in danger of engaging in risky behaviour like purposefully not washing hands (just urgh) or refusing to wear a mask, in order to escape the stress of not knowing. This thinking also explains why some people are calmer about death when they know they are about to die than the anxiety they experience before a diagnosis; why parents of children who have gone missing in many cases suffer more than those whose deaths have been confirmed.

Gambling intuitively or risk-taking in business may be exceptional qualities in the normal business world, as exemplified by the likes of Richard Branson and his ilk, but at a time of crisis, these same mavericks are crying out for government bailouts.

Leaders who respond with intuition and gamble on outcomes of herd immunity, like the leaders of the USA and Sweden at the moment may live to regret not being more measured.

2. ‘Strategies of reduction involve trying to increase information or predictability.

Some examples of reduction tactics include collecting more information, asking for advice, or delaying action until more information is available.’

This is what the South African education departments are doing at the moment: consulting, researching, delaying decisions of when and how to return to school. Companies, shops and schools will be delaying re-opening strategies until they have a better idea of what lies ahead. This is obviously a practical way forward and a more scientific approach, but can cause a hugely emotional response from clients and employees desperate for certainty. However, as New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo (one of the only American politicians making sense at the moment) said today at a press briefing:

‘Emotions cannot drive re-opening strategies; facts must.’

– Governor Andrew Cuomo

3. ‘Strategies of acknowledgement take uncertainty into accountin selecting a course of action or preparing to avoid possible risks.’

When society does unfurl itself from the lockdown-hibernation, allowing for uncertainty is so important. The plain sense of South Africa’s planned return from lockdown takes this into account, with its multiple stages, allowing for upwards and downwards movement between levels depending on changing circumstances. It involves managing change.

I am so glad we have someone with emotional intelligence and psychological insight leading us through this crisis. Thank you, President Ramaphosa!

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In the end, we are alive. And that is the whole point of this exercise.

So, be calm; think of opportunities which can be had out of this difficult time and act on them, and be grateful to be alive. Stop worrying and try multiplication at 4 am – like how many sheep are needed to make a Zara jersey – that’ll be better than counting sheep:

“But I have my life, I’m living it. It’s twisted, exhausting, uncertain, and full of guilt, but nonetheless, there’s something there.”
― Banana Yoshimoto,The Lake


[1] Ntate Cyril – Father Cyril – a reference to President Cyril Ramaphosa

“Sometimes the appropriate response to reality is to go insane.” – Philip K. Dick

Comic by Natalie Dee

I had a killer of a match with technology today. Technology: 5 – Colleen: 0. To be fair all five of Technology’s points came from own goals (I got the illumination wrong for a video; ran out of power mid-meeting; broke Liam’s camera tripod and then ran out of data on both my phone and tablet)

But it is the rematch tomorrow and I plan to win on goal difference.

Still, by the time the daylight faded, it became obvious I’d have to wait for better light in the morning to film my presidential address to my parents (sans sign language interpreter, because only Liam is able to do that, but he is not really camera-ready: Having avoided the holiday barber visit, he looks like a sort of New Romantic Wolverine, with his foppish hair and ginger beard. He says he prefers to see himself as brave Mr Tumnus, the Narnian faun, but still he’d need to shave to be my presidential sidekick) My anxiety levels rocketed, following my frustration, as did my asthmatic cough, and I felt my heart racing. I had to force myself to breathe deeply and lighten up, but I realized just how much angst we are all living with, during lockdown, and how easily that can spill over.

I gave birth to five children! I don’t generally scare easily, but I have to admit that lately, when even inconsequential things pile up, I start to feel really fretful.

I have heard from folk living on their own that they have experienced panic attacks, during this time, even though they are not usually the nervy type. I can believe it.

This virus may be an invisible threat, but so is stress and we should recognize that our cortisol levels are probably heightened at the moment. And we can’t fight (except with our family and that’s all rather blah now) and flight is not possible because we are stuck in lockdown. I read an article today about how people are recording raised levels of insomnia too right now.

So we all need to calm the farm, but I find myself worrying about so much all at once: how my four children who don’t live with us are doing; how my sister is coping on her own in her apartment; when and how we’ll return to school; how much or how little to involve parents in our remote learning; which parts of the curriculum to cull; planning for 2021; how to get through the scores of emails in my inbox; whether we’ve flattened the curve; what Bra Cyril will say tomorrow. Then my thoughts deteriorate into a panic about where the hell the ‘nasty hobbitses’ hid the chocolate; whether my tea bags will last if the lockdown is extended; whether The Maestro will notice that I illicitly washed his Bayern Munich top with all the other clothes; how many bananas Liam can consume in a day without popping; and oh hell did we put out the bin today, and other such weighty matters.

I need to take my own advice: exercise more (sigh); reach out to others; sleep more; be kind to myself. My aunt has always told us not to borrow tomorrow’s troubles, so I’m off to get that exercise going downstairs to hunt for the chocolate to eat before I go to bed for a good kip.

As that great philosopher Scarlett O’Hara said, ‘Tomorrow is another day.’

And I have blood pressure pills.

The Lockdown Terrarium

I am in lockdown in a nice safe, middle-class suburb, which unfortunately allows me to be locked away from the reality of my neighbours’ lives down the road in Dunoon, no matter my lefty leanings. Some days I forget why we are even in lockdown because I am so busy I don’t see the news. Because we are only travelling the short distance to the shop once a week or so, not seeing the suffering of the shack-dwellers on the other side of the railway line, and not encountering and engaging with their reality at the moment, we run the risk of living purely in our TikTok-challenge, foodies-Instagram; and meandering-mindless-meme feeds (no matter how clever or funny they are), stuck in a sort of rarified closed-system that is incestuously self-centred. Similar to the way the algorithms on sites like Facebook and other platforms control what we see on our newsfeeds and screens, based on what we search for, making us run the risk of receiving only information that corresponds with our world view, like a kind of inbred feedback system, echoing back on itself; so does Lockdown prevent us from engaging outside our socio-economic bubbles, as we live in our own private terrariums. For example, in my home, the five of us are happily co-existing in our individual work hubs. The Maestro and I are focused on the work of our two schools, me at my window desk in our bedroom and him galloping between his piano in the lounge and his laptop in his den. Caitlin, as an accounting trainee for one of the major accounting firms in South Africa, continues to do her number magic (well it seems so to ignoramuses such as me) disturbed only by her mother’s rant at the person who left a sticky hot chocolate spoon to attract flies on the counter (in the middle of an online meeting with her partner! Oops, Mom.) Shannon’s Art classes continue, albeit in a slightly different form and I hear her mutter that her lecturer’s belief that beetroot and shoe polish are not naturally occurring substances in her home! Liam is committed to his matric curriculum, delivered via live online classes and project work, earphones perched on his woolly head like a disc jockey. He has been rescued from the evil Edward-Scissor-Hands of the local barber, by Lockdown and alternatively yells expletives to his brother as they game themselves out of boredom. (I hope Caitlin’s partner didn’t hear that!) and exercises the now-fat Mad Lab. Liam has also called in our resident musical expert so The Maestro is guiding his beginner piano lessons – I realise now why learner-pianists are called ‘plonkers,’ although in Liam’s case, it’s more like plinking. (No left hand involved in his music yet!) We come together at mealtimes or to bully and be bullied into exercise or chores and we talk about – our lives. Then we carry on. There is not enough cross-pollination of thought outside the home. We are not hearing the tales of people struggling to scrap together enough for food with the collapse of the informal sector. And we can’t see its absence either. Because, worse even than during apartheid, we are here and ‘they’ are there. Lockdown has prevented us from seeing the raw need of indigent workers congregating on street corners or bin people rummaging for food. Liam came to me today though, and proclaimed his disillusionment about the injustices in our society and he wasn’t just speaking about the naked ugliness of the digital divide, exposed so clearly in this time of national crisis. After his Business Studies lesson, he came upstairs and vented about how selfish business is in its ultimate goal only to benefit itself. We discussed the way he can do things differently one day by becoming a social entrepreneur as opposed to a rabid capitalist. I was grateful for that moment in his education where I was able to engage him about the concept of King IV and ‘people, planet, profit’ (in that order!) – see even an English major knows something about accounting principles. But he also nudged my thinking about how Lockdown tends to make us selfish and drains our generosity of spirit in this closed-circuit living we are experiencing, which has prompted this post. So how can we overcome the tendency to be purely inward-looking at this time?
  • If you can, contribute towards the SA COVID-19 Solidarity fund. https://www.solidarityfund.co.za/ The State President has just announced there is a massive tax rebate for doing so, if you need a less-altruistic reason.
  • Call your employees, especially if they live alone. Assure them their jobs are safe. Hopefully you can.
  • Check out your local neighbourhood pages for community projects like food parcel packaging and mask-making. There are still things we can do.
  • Participate in the many fundraising efforts for South African artists who are so often called upon themselves to do free concerts for world causes. https://www.bizcommunity.com/Article/196/16/202932.html
  • Donate Blood if you can.
  • Pray for our essential service workers.
  • Paste more suggestions in the comments section of this blog and share.
Thuma Mina!

3 Things to Remember about Video Conferencng from Home

Happy Young Asian Woman Using Stock Footage Video (100 ...

For the record, I am a Luddite.

I missed the start of the computer generation because as a devotee and part of the vanguard of the baby boomer generation, I was well…booming. Then, in 2003, with 5 children under 12 I was forcibly returned to the teaching workforce upon the collapse of my first marriage and, in the time I’d been away, those nice ladies in the front office of schools had stopped typing all examination papers; the internet was there and I was nowhere!

I remember taking out Dummies Guides to various aspects of the cyber world from the library, cramming at night over borrowed literature from my cousin’s training courses and spending hard-won rands on a series of Saturday morning lessons in a warehouse near Kenilworth Centre to upskill myself on what the difference between hardware and software was. When I say I had no idea how to turn on a computer even, I am not joking – who knew that box on the floor also needed to be switched on, to get the screen thingie to light up!

Those days are long gone fortunately, and I am a veteran of years of 21-page literature examinations typed up with both of my own two fingers and for a good 10 years I no longer do things twice – longhand and electronic. I am actually pretty fast, even if I am a trifle heavy handed and loud on the keyboard (a leftover from the era of typewriters!)

So now that the electronic age has advanced to online learning and remote teaching during lockdown, the age of teleconferencing has really taken off. In my profession, it has been useful to be able to continue my day with some semblance of normalcy which involves countless meetings with staff and other stakeholders in my busy school community.

But it comes with some challenges.

  1. Time and teleconferencing wait for no (wo)man

You cannot be sloppy with other people’s time. This is true of any meeting of course, but it requires the speed of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and the flexibility of a pole-dancer to race down the stairs; empty the washing machine and hang up a load of washing; worry that the back neighbour’s home grown dagga seems to be lasting a long time and the odour may permeate my clean sheets; spring over the mop left out by the adolescent slave; shimmy over the kitchen island to pour the just-boiled water into my favourite tea mug; pause momentarily to smile at the maestro’s hilarious music teaching style, as he informs a piano pupil to avoid using the thumb – ‘humans are more civilized,’ and leg it back upstairs in time to click ‘Join the meeting.’

There is no efficient PA-Paula giving me a wrist-tap reminder of time through my glass door (whoever decided to give the head’s office glass doors, I do not know, but that’s a thought for another time) or delay a visitor with a ‘she’ll be with you in a minute,’ when I’ve nipped into the loo quickly. I have to keep my own time. And I’m not that good at it. It’s exhausting.

  1. Make sure you’ve made your bed 

‘If you wanna change the world, start by making your bed,’ – US Navy Admiral William Raven 

I work in my bedroom, and my bed is visible in the background, if I am not sitting with my back to the window, so I’d better not look as if I am working from the tousled boudoir of a brothel while I discuss finances with my bursar. (The Tretchikoffs on the red wall are decadent enough).

Our school’s organization works on Microsoft Teams though, and the video settings have this nifty button for altering your background so you can appear to be calling from a beach, a Parisienne loft, outer space or in a Minecraft game. The trick is to change the setting before others see you though, so…. see point 1.

I’m also more sensitive to whether the evidence of my crunchie tin raid is still showing in my teeth, because the camera reveals all they say. Then again, you only have to look good above the desk. No one can see your fluffy slippers or ski pants and tackies beneath the table. The alternative is to keep your video off. But as is often the case, I am chairing the meeting, so I have to make a fleeting appearance at least.

By the way, if you want to save your data, turn off the video as much as you can. That also prevents bad connections making you look like a modern Picasso (who’s the Luddite now?!)

It also allows you to sneak out to the ladies’ room if a meeting is dragging, but beware that you don’t get called on for comment just at that moment… one can always blame a poor connection of suppose, which has me wondering now…

  1. Mute your mike if you’re not speaking 

“There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.”
― G. K. Chesterton

 Many people are clever enough to wear earphones when on a call so they can listen carefully to what is being said in the meeting. This is an excellent plan if you look good in earphones.

However, many don’t realise that passing traffic outside; the husband/wife/child/dog/parrot/vacuum cleaner/rumbling stomach can be heard in the background and you don’t notice because you have your recording artist look going. Don’t get me wrong, the attention-deficit extrovert in me is always happy to say hello to a bored toddler or be amused that even the high-ups have pets, but it can be disconcerting to be in a meeting and trying to listen to what a manager is saying when we can also hear his spouse’s work-from-home calls at the same time.

As with video, poor connectivity can result in annoying feedback (the sound kind; advice from collaborators is (almost) always welcome) and even staccato type robo-voice. It can be hard when you are the only one affected, but if someone has been smart enough to press ‘record’ at the beginning of the meeting you can listen later at your leisure. In fact, if you drifted off because you spotted an accursed lockdown violator strolling too close to another similar social deviant down the road outside your window, or because you lost track of a technical conversation, it’s very handy to listen to the meeting recording. I don’t recommend it if you have been doing most of the talking – you will the realise that a) you are boring; b) my goodness how nasal you sound, c) you say ‘um’ too much or d) all of the above.

As we enter Season 2 of the Lockdown Series, I am already sick of hearing expressions like ‘the new normal’ and ‘when the dust from this crisis settles.’ (My life can never be described as ‘normal’ – perish the thought – and the ‘dust settling’ is just so clichéd).

But we shall emerge from our Sleeping Beauty castles eventually – out through the wild grass (uncut for weeks because garden services are not essential services) relieved that the wavy fronds can hide the fact that we haven’t shaved our legs for a while, and then we shall have to get back to the office (after we find the razor of course).

Many wax lyrical about how much will be changed and that this period will have launched a new way of doing things, and I do believe that more companies will consider trusting employees to work from home; schools may contemplate a timetable which allows a grade to work from home once a week or other such innovations which will benefit the planet and our travel times in traffic, but I, for one, will enjoy having real meetings with actual people not hologrammed humans.

I suppose I am still a Luddite after all.

Reading: Of Muggles and Magic

Choosing books for boys

In 2000, for a six-month period of about 10 years, I homeschooled my (then) four children, aged eight, six, three and not quite a year.

I may have been a teacher, but I was a high school educator, not a Primary School Wizard. So, I did it all wrong, but one thing I got right was the reading. And that was mainly because I made the eldest one read to himself and both he and I read often to the others (I when I was not busy with another of my whining, squirming, unwilling pupils – not that they seemed any different from some of my former senior students in those characteristics.)

There were no handy online classes or resources back in 2020 (we didn’t own a computer), just little workbooks I found at CNA. There were only a handful of internet users in South Africa at the time. I had never heard of Google and there was no YouTube to search for how-to videos; and no curriculum-aligned, packaged remote learning programme from school.  So, I force-fed times tables to the older two; tried desperately to get my Grade R child to learn to read (and by that, I mean I wondered how and what magic beans Grade 1 teachers sow to take an illiterate to the wonder of the world of books). I puzzled over how on earth to teach my pre-schooler to write his name, although I probably wondered more about how I would get the toddler’s scribbles off the rental apartment’s wall.

At the time, I felt as though I were neglecting Sean, the eldest, by leaving him to read for long periods at a time, or abandoning his sister, Caitlin, to stare longingly at the pages she couldn’t yet read, because the others took up so much of my time, but the time spent exploring books about his own interests, or yearning to be able to read in her case, have served them well. But I also made lots of time for snuggled-up, whole-family story time, when I read aloud to them, the old-fashioned way, ending before they’d had enough, when they pleaded for more. I made no-reading-before-lights-out the consequence for poor behaviour and so put reading on a pedestal as a treat.

My introverted eldest son, a timid eight-year-old who in Grade 2, was a little behind in reading. But he read copiously during this time (no doubt grateful to be away from the haranguing witch, instructing his siblings in the kitchen while scrubbing pots or ironing). He caught up his age lag (he was a November baby) and surpassed his biological age in reading several times over. Today, he has a Master’s degree in English and makes his living writing screenplays and directing films.  

My daughter seems to have thrived on her Mathematics drills and can now write CA(SA) after her MCom and name (the less said about her remembered trauma of my Muggle reading lessons the better). She too is a reader though.

Michael writes a blog with millions of followers for a living and so even if I didn’t teach him to write neatly, he can write!

And the puny Picasso is studying Fine Art at UCT Michaelis School of Art (Handy Andy cleaned the wall too.)

Now I plan to make my fifth child’s matric year miserable by looking over his shoulder at home – it’s only fair he should suffer too – his siblings would say. I shall also be thanking God for Curro’s Microsoft Teams teaching.

What is my point? It’s not to brag about my clever kids (although what mother could resist?), it’s to show that children survive crisis education, no matter how poorly we parents facilitate the learning. What they need is to read.  Studies show that irrespective of socio-economic class or type of school children attend, the readers are statistically the successful ones.

If you do anything with your children during this lockdown, encourage reading, both solitary and family sharing. Teach them to love it, to yearn for learning and to choose it. And read for your own pleasure.

Cut yourselves some slack. You’re doing a great job.

And thank the teachers who know the spells to unlock the doors that we can’t. They’re waving their wands online now. It’s not called Teams for nothing.

“But still like dust I’ll rise” (Drawing on my Strengths during National Lockdown)

The Quiet Strength of the Ambitious Introvert

That great philosopher, Bob Marley, once said, ‘You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice.’

If ever we needed to be strong, it is now, during a national and global time of crisis caused by something we cannot see, and find so difficult to fathom because of its invisibility.

We have no choice but to to be resilient; to be creative; to find our inner Wonder Woman and go to war.

At my school this year we did a whole-staff workshop on finding and developing our strengths, based on the CliftonStrengths34 Test. Who would have thought that this would be most opportune?!

https://www.gallup.com/cliftonstrengths/en/252137/home.aspx

How useful I am finding what I learned about myself – especially the fact that actually I am STRONG to start with in particular areas.

Just to summarise the concept: the test identifies 34 strengths we possess in varying degrees (which are clustered around how we execute, relate, strategize, or influence in our world) and guides one to amplify your top five, as opposed to highlighting weak areas. It presumes that one’s strengths can also be deficiencies, but prefers to focus on magnifying our talents, rather than dwelling on limitations.

So the big reveal: my top strengths are:

  1. Achiever (Executing) – this girl is no shrinking violet!
  2. Positivity (Relating) – yeah I’m one of those annoying ‘let’s make lemonade out of them lemons’ kinda gal
  3. Input (Strategizing) – I am a collector – of information, ideas, facts – fortunately this has not devolved into collecting dodgy figurines or stuff! There is no stamp, or spoon hoarding for me – I collect thoughts (and children, but that’s another story entirely!) – I research.
  4. Connectedness (Relating) – I see links between people, like puzzle pieces and dominoes.
  5. Communication (Influencing) – step aside Instagram influencers, copywriters and politicians, here I come.

Apparently because I have strengths across the clusters, I am well-rounded – and we’re not speaking about my hips for once. So I can do stuff; I’m good with people; I study and research well; and I can influence others (if only I could influence my offspring to have a deep, abiding love to replace the bin liner, I could rule the world!

The big question is: how am I going to utilise these superpowers during the quarantine which has been extended for another 24 days (see I used my research drive to check the actual number!). It’s hard when the goalposts are moved, but there are things we can do to cope.

A colleague sent me a list of how folk with my skills respond to this lockdown and it’s scarily accurate for me. I don’t know the source so apologies to the original author. The comment are mine:

Things people like me say:

  • Achiever – “There goes my to-do list, at least working from home can be more productive.”

I’m always trying to ringfence admin time to get through things so to be honest I was pleased to have the time to get to my To Do List. My problem is that a whole of other minor things were added – like risking my life along the venomous aisles of supermarkets, sidestepping mask-clad aliens who despite covering their faces, have NO idea of social distancing, wondering where the nasty Corona critters are lurking: if I die, just remember it was a tall, elderly man called Mike with thinning grey hair, who kept creeping too close behind me in the trolley queue, despite my actually jumping like a pre-schooler onto the large circles on the floor to draw his attention to the demarcation of safe distancing. (More aerobic exercise than I have had since my last disastrous dance class with Caitlin.) I can’t add anymore distinguishing features because he was wearing a mask – I did consider coughing loudly over my shoulder to frighten him, but I am much too polite.

 Then there are the chores that have found their way onto the list (and I am not speaking of daily chores like sweeping or laundry) – I had to wash my windows before I made a video for my staff; every time I walk down the stairs I remind myself that I must remove all the dusty lamp fittings and wash them; I’m scrubbing light switches with the fervour of a nun; Jikking the shower and rehanging curtains that have bothered me for years because some idiot didn’t use the correct hooks, not to mention having tidied every shelf in my cupboard. Mind you, some sanity has prevailed because I have not yet been sucked into the vortex of the maestro’s cupboard, but… 24 more days…

So the To Do List is still there, stood up like a Tinder date…

  • Positivity – “It will all turn out for the best! This is an opportunity for some great new things!”

The closet Pollyanna in me is secretly enjoying the freedom of the lockdown and finding many bright sides to the gloom of being trapped with 4 other family members. If anything kept me going through all the years of single-parenting five children all two years apart, it was an ability to be cheerful and have fun.

As a leader, it is vital that I now encourage and support my staff and parents and I must say, my school, Curro Century City, is producing enormously creative teaching and learning at this time, by educators who have overnight transformed the manner in which they deliver the curriculum; our estate manager is teaching his community via video to make masks and one of our admin staff is hosting Watch Parties to inspire us with her haunting soprano voice, accompanied by her husband on the trumpet. Curro schools have stepped up to assist in the production of face masks for medical personnel, using our 3-D printers. The learners are having fun and learning to work steadily at their own pace. I had to chuckle at Grade 8s who, when given some teacher-mic-off time to socialise (a sort of digital break time), refused to turn on their cameras because of bed-hair…but there is so much to be positive about.

This crisis has forever changed the way we shall teach in the future and I am so proud of my team. We have taken the threat and turned it into an opportunity.

In our home, Shannon is writing a novel, publishing it serially like Charles Dickens, on an app called Wattpad (I’ll hide my grammarian cringe for now at that spelling). It’s called All the Colours of Light if you’re running out of reading material. And now I have learned something new about publishing – and it’s free.

  • Input – “What else can I read and research on this, so I can share it with others?”

I must confess to doing some searching online about this virus that has brought the modern world to a standstill. It’s quite beautiful really, this little microscopic fellow earthling: the models make it look like a soft, fuzzy felt pincushion, or one of those kitsch, crocheted toilet roll holders found in tannies’ loos. It’s hard to believe that this odd-looking structure has laid waste to centuries old civilizations in Europe and threatens us all.  Move over asteroids and volcanoes; Armageddon is in the microscopic detail. Those Spike Glycoproteins promote entry into cells and love the environment of our lungs. Like millions of medieval horsemen with their spiked flails, the virus army soldiers into war with our antibodies. And it is clear that it is winning in many cases. Poor tuberculoid lungs weakened from battle with the advance army of the TB virus, or the body desperately using the rear guard of antiretrovirals to stay off the onslaught of the HIV virus, quickly succumb.

These things may look like your grandmother’s doilies, but they are lethal. So. Stay. The. Hell. At. Home!

  • Connectedness – “This all makes sense, we are all connected.”
Connectedness – The New Differentiator - SWOOP Analytics

Standing in a queue at the supermarket, glaring at mask-clad strangers who dare to step forward closer than their allotted line on the floor, it is possible to see there is a crisis in the world; having the imagination to truly appreciate how a microbe from his hand, which has scratched his rheumy eye can fly to my shopping basket can move from the handle to the food item to the cashier’s hand, to her mouth, to her lover’s hand, to his mouth, down his oesophagus and into his TB compromised lungs, takes some imagination. And we just don’t know, do we – whether is me or you who passes that virus on?

To be honest the not-hugging thing is hard. I saw my son at the shop yesterday. Couldn’t hug him. Wanted to – really badly, and will again fiercely, but it could be me who visits this on him and his flatmate. It was the most frustrating thing for a mother – but far preferable to not being able to visit him in a hospital ICU.

The knock-on effect is also so evident in the economies around the world: as containers lie fully laden outside closed ports, importers cannot access their products to sell, to pay employees who cannot sell it and so now have no income to feed their children, or pay their school fees… I am so grateful for the altruism of the parents at my school that those who can are paying their school fees so that the school can continue to educate their children and those whose parents are suddenly impoverished and so we shall still have a school to return to when this is all over.

In pipes Positive Me: “It will be over. We shall emerge victorious from this. We have a warrior leader to look up to – ‘cometh the hour; cometh the man:’”

President Cyril Ramaphosa is our superperson! Captain South Africa!

Keep the emotional connectedness with people – check in regularly.

  • Communication – “Who else can I talk to about this?”
How communication skills can help you become a better Business ...

Well this is me generally. Not for no reason did almost all of my school reports say, ‘Colleen talks too much in class.’ Clever me, I picked a profession which allows me to speak a lot.

But in this time, I am making sure I call my sister (connectedness) and talk things through. I have to say that I always thought I was her person, but am seeing now when I cannot see her, how much she is my person too. Fortunately, I am surrounded by children I can make listen to me too and occasionally my husband comes to snuggle close. I have always been one of those people who needs a sounding board and someone to discuss things with. How fortunate to live with a fellow educator with whom I can unpack some of the challenges our educational system is facing now, someone who gets it. Our dinner table often hosts heated debates and we laugh our way through most things

The Mad Lab makes a good listener too, although her theories on how to do strategic planning accurately in a time of great flux are a trifle elementary.

As leaders, it is vital that we communicate clearly with staff and learners.

Illustration by Catherine Song. © The Balance, 2018

Even though we do not all have electron microscopes to magnify this cursed virus so we know it’s real and an obvious threat, we do have the ability to magnify our strengths – then we shall feel we are winning in lockdown… well the competitor in me who wants to win would feel that (but that’s a story for another day…)

“Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.

Lao Tzu

5 Ways not to be Short-changed by Shortlisting.

5 Strategies for hiring the right employees

Related image

People make an institution. No matter what your institution is, in the modern world, it’s a no-brainer that you need to hire the right people. In my experience the key to all of this is the shortlist.

Here are 5 tips to help you obtain the right staff members for your organisation:

  • Find people smarter than you
  • Search for service-orientated staff
  • Beat your bias
  • Look within your organisation
  • Take a chance on someone

1. FIND people smarter than you

Well qualified people lend gravitas to an institution and those who question and challenge the status quo are an asset to growth if properly managed. (I’m not talking about toxic nay-sayers and negative obstructionists. They are poison and should leave.) But innovators will often see what can work better and these creatives should have a place in your team. (Note I equated ‘smart’ with creative.

Image result for smart people cartoons

I have witnessed bosses systematically clear their staff of people who are better educated, and those who challenge them. This is a sign of an insecure leader. Don’t be one.

More than anything, look for what your team lacks and in senior staff be sure to know your own gaps and bring on board experts to drive those areas.

And when they have been employed, they will make YOU look good too.

2. SEarch for service-orientated staff

Look for extra-milers. How do you tell this from a CV though?

Look at their after-hours involvement and then build into every interview what call the ‘heart question.’

For example, look for the ones who link their sport to charity works. Search for applicants who are busy and seem to lead full lives – they will make the time. Shortlist those who identify people skills or the poorly named ‘soft’ skills as their strengths.

But don’t take their word for this self-sacrificing way of life. In the interview ask searching questions about their understanding of generosity of spirit or how they manage relationships at work and how these apply in the workplace (plus how they have implemented such a philosophy). Ask them how they have fun at work. And then check these when you do a reference check!

Image result for service oriented staff quotation richard branson

Then when you have employed them, (and this is key) look after these gems because they may well burn out if not protected from themselves. However they will build the character of your school or company. Richard Branson was right when he spoke about staff wellness and customer satisfaction.

3. Beat your bias/es

Now before you deny that you have such skewed judgement, take any online test and you will see that we all have blind spots. Accept this imperfection in yourself as fact and then make sure that your innate prejudices do not make you overlook quality staff.

I knew a head of a school once who asked his PA to tippex out any reference to gender on applications because he knew that as a product of a boys-only environment, he tended to favour male applicants. (Mind you, good luck to any school principal who can find good men who apply for a teaching post these days – in South Africa, male educators are a rare bird indeed – pardon the sexist pun). But I digress: Whatever you need to do to avoid bias, try very hard to deliberately shortlist someone in that category – they may surprise you. Inevitably when I have done that, that person has proved to be the best candidate.

Image result for bias

4. LOOK WITHIN YOUR ORGANISATION

Image result for quotationsabout interviewing staff for promotion

Always interview someone from your institution who applies for a job. (Yes, even if they are not suitable.) If they are entirely unqualified for the position, call them in and explain what they need to do to be considered for an interview.

Every interview provides growth opportunities for your employees and a chance for you to give meaningful guidance and direction. Also, it forces you to re-look at people’s CV’s and to see them with fresh eyes. It is absolutely vital however to give them good feedback afterwards so they know how to improve if they did not get the job.

Transformation starts from within. It is incredibly gratifying to promote or develop staff from the ranks and then watch those people flourish. Remember to support them and train them as they move up, and back them against doubts from colleagues.

The other benefit from this approach is that you end up with loyal staff who know that you have their best interests at heart.. And you are making a difference.

5. TAKE A CHANCE ON SOMEONE

Shortlist an outlier.

Image result for outlier people

I will always be grateful for the heads who interviewed me despite my erratic early professional work record. I look horrible on paper because my ex-husband worked for a large company that transferred us all over the country at short notice. However I have learnt to turn that into a strength in the sense that I have worked in so many different types of schools and systems so that I have a strong sense of what works and what doesn’t work. And I am more flexible as a consequence too. Furthermore the reason for my multiple moves is no more because I am no longer married to that person.

We interviewed someone once who was given a terrible reference from her ex-boss, but we had inside knowledge about him, as well as a gut feel for her. So we sought out another reference. The teacher turned out to be an excellent choice.

In another case, the choice was between two candidates: one with years of experience in the company and expert knowledge and one man with less experience but loads of energy. He has proved to be a major asset to the school.

Image result for shaking hands

In the end, all hiring is a risk, so consider these wise words:

“Hire character. Train skill.”

Peter Schutz, former President and CEO of Porsche

One Word which Kills Transformative Dialogue

The moment you use the word ‘surely’ in conversation or debate, you have closed yourself off from hearing the other person’s view and lost an opportunity to be changed by diverse viewpoints. It is the conversational version of crossed arms.

Image result for cross person with hands crossed

I love being around young people because I learn so much from them. The negative view of the word ‘surely’ comes from my daughter who has been lecturing at the University of Cape Town for the past year. Challenging the use of the word comes out of conversations specifically around transformation and diversity, but has much wider implications for all relationships.

Think about it: Every sentence that begins or ends with ‘surely’ immediately suggests that whatever the other speaker is about to say cannot contradict your opinion, because your ten cents worth is assuredly correct.. ‘Surely’ is a verbal roadblock to being open to another theory and it kills collaborative activity.

Image result for conversation roadblocks

And then we combine it with the ubiquitous ‘but’ which automatically translates as ‘No, you are wrong’ and so doing, we show ourselves to be arrogant and patronising. This is how we communicate our prejudices, patriarchy, misogyny and colonial attitudes, in fact our bias. ‘Surely’ almost inevitably introduces gaslighting of some kind.

But surely, you can see… (your ideas are rubbish)
But surely the government/taxis/women/other races should… (I know what is best for everyone)
But surely you must… (I am going to make you do it my way)

Translation: You/they are wrong. I want you to think, speak and do what I want you to.
I am in charge.

And out the window go empathy and compassion. Harper Lee in the famous To Kill a Mocking Bird speaks about walking in another man’s shoes and even goes so far as to say we should climb into someone else’s skin:

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”


Chapter 3, To Kill a Mocking Bird

We don’t have to physically climb into someone’s shoes or skin (that’s a bit creepy anyway) but listening without judging requires us to suspend our ‘but surely’ retorts so that we open ourselves to innovative ideas and truths and see the world through another’s eyes.

If we are going to have any meaningful transformational dialogues we have to find ways in which we can ensure individuals are heard.

So drop this one word from your vocabulary. Try saying ‘I think’ when stating your vision. Better still, ask what someone else thinks.

And then shut up and listen.