See What Sticks: Seeing Your Skeptics

amma marfo
amma marfo

Hi everyone, Amma Marfo here. Two quick things about me that you’ll need to know before we begin:(1) I am a reader. I am a library-loving, constant tome-carrying, unapologetic bibliophile.(2) If there’s anyone you will meet who can connect what she’s reading to the world around her, it’s me.As such, I want to dedicate my time in this space to sharing with you what I’m reading, and how it could inform a budding professional’s daily life.

At the request of a great many friends, and a vehement recommendation from my sister, I have finally completed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's incredible novel AmericanahIn the past several years (read: once the Harry Potter series concluded) I haven't found much use for fiction, and have instead filled my mind and bookshelf with biographies and advice for my real life. And yet, as I read Americanah, there was so much that I found familiar, I found myself wishing for many, many more books like it. It tells the story of high school sweethearts in Nigeria, separated when the woman (Ifemelu, loosely based on the brilliant Adichie- please watch either of her TED talks for a look inside her mind) heads to America for college while her beau Obinze stays behind, spending a brief moment in England, but always dreaming of making it to the US.

During her stay in America, Ifemelu starts a blog about her views of America and its peculiar simultaneous focus and glance past the topic of race, in the brilliantly titled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. She gains praise, considerable fame, and eventually a living through her insightful and cutting anonymous commentary on race, informed largely by real encounters she had on a day-to-day basis with strangers and friends. She used code names when referring to her boyfriends or relatives, but nevertheless rode a wave of success on the backs of her experiences with these people.

When she returns to Nigeria later in the book, she finds this practice ill-received by many close to her. A notable example is when a conversation with a friend appears on her blog a few days later, coded, but written in a way that her friend Ranyi feels will obviously come back to haunt her:

She wrote a long post about the expensive lifestyles of some young women in lagos, and a day after she put it up, Ranyinudo called her, furious, her breathing heavy over the phone.

"Ifem, how can you do this kind of thing? Anyone who knows me will know it's me!"

"That's not true, Ranyi. Your story is so common."

[...] "And who are you to pass judgment? How is it different from you and the rich white guy in America? Would you have your US citizenship today if not for him? How did you get your job in AMerica? You need to stop this nonsense. Stop feeling so superior!"

[...] For a long time, Ifemelu stared at the silent phone, shaken.

This part of the story ends with Ifemelu taking down the post, driving to her friend's house, apologizing profusely, and admitting, "it's easy to be judgmental."

The trap that Ifemelu fell into is one that many of us can fall into fairly easily. When we're doing well, when something has become second nature, we default to it without wondering how it may affect the people around us, affect the people who may disagree with us. Ranyi prsented herself as something Ifem had seen little of up to that point: a critic, a dissenter, a cynic. This particular passage came back to me earlier this week, when perusing the tweets of a colleague who wondered about how his office, department, or institution markets to its constituents. The one that brought me back to attention:

I feel like I'm things would be a little better if someone asked at the end of a strategy meeting, "what would a cynical student say?"

— Kellen Manning (@KellenManning) September 3, 2015

I responded with,

@KellenManning i feel like this should be the case at ALL of the meetings we have on campuses. agreeeeeed.

— Amma Marfo (@ammamarfo) September 3, 2015

How do you think about your plan, your work, your approach toward people...when they don't or can't agree with you? I've thought about this before, and recalled a few important points when trying to do good work but also respect dissenting opinions. It's easy to just rule these opinions wrong or "disruptive" or "mean-spirited," delete the comments that create discord and move on. But it takes a strong brain and heart to engage with these ideas and try to respect them, as Ifemelu eventually did. A few tips that could help you get there:

Listen to the story behind it all. More often than not, a strong stance comes with a set of experiences or beliefs that brought this person to this set of ideas. Hear them out. Even when it's difficult, and even when the reasons given don't always fit what you believe, there's power in allowing someone to be heard. Ifemelu needed for Ranyi to point out the passage that she took as a personal affront; indeed, the context in which Ifem had been living for so many years prior hadn't forced her to confront the subjects of her posts. As such, she'd never had to think about why someone might not want to be chronicled, even "anonymously." But after hearing the story, she understood why her tune could stand to change.

This same practice is useful for anyone struggling with opposing ideas. Yes, you may have a coworker or boss that doesn't agree with your ideas, but do you know why? This is a particularly important question to ask of bosses, who may be dealing with different issues and demands than you. In order for them to help you be effective, and vice versa, you'll need to hear one another out.

Be critical, but not demeaning. Critical thinking is a wonderful thing, and we live in a world that exercises far too little of it. I welcome people asking questions of my ideas, and would encourage you to do the same- ask it of others, and be willing to do it yourself. However, I do place a caveat on this: do so with respect. You're dealing with human beings, a fact that can be easy to forget when you make your inquiries behind a screen. If you ever doubt this to be true, look to the comments section of...well, just about any site. There you'll find a festering pool of individuals behaving as though they aren't airing grievances and vitriol to humans with hearts and feelings.

Seek to invite critical inquiry about an issue, without bringing criticism or hate to the person behind it. These attacks undermine credibility and can hurt your reputation in a professional arena, and especially in personal relationships. Asking questions isn't the perceived weakness so many believe it is...but unkind or hateful behavior is.

Look for the compromise. Is there middle ground to be found? Are there concessions to be made? When you work with a blend of tasks and relationships, as nearly all of us do, the ability to blend goals to create a final product that pleases all is an asset. In the case of Ifem and Ranyi, this wasn't possible- and that's an important lesson in itself. Sometimes, the compromise is one side capitulating on behalf of the other. But whatever solution you reach, seek to make it a respectful one. It doesn't have to bend to the whims of either side, and it certainly shouldn't break rules, but aim to- as is alluded to in the previous point- respect the people behind both sides of the dispute.

As I started writing this, the end of Ratatouille was on the TV. In it, Anton Ego makes an incredible point about criticism, one that I feel Ranyi would have loved to make to Ifemelu:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new: an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto, "Anyone can cook." But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.

The people who bring criticism into our lives are important. They give us a tap on the shoulder and remind us to look in our blind spots. They share perspectives that we may overlook when we're distracted by success or a false sense of harmony. They even urge us to look deeper into why we believe what we believe. As you meet these people along your professional journey, I encourage you to engage with these people, and learn more about what you believe and why through them. Defend your work, speak up for what you believe in, and acknowledge what it takes for them to do the same. Who knows? You may not be so different from them after all.