Untold · By Zul Andra

Our Stories Define How We See the World

How frames of reference shape the way we communicate.


Picture: The Dubai Frame, an architectural landmark in Zabeel Park, Dubai.

In nearly two decades of writing, and in the time I spent designing brand stories, and communication workshops, the legendary writer Anaïs Nin’s quote always rings true. “We see the world not as it is but as we are.”

Imagine if we are computers with an inbuilt operating system. You upload all of your life experiences into an external drive, and I delete all of mine. I download yours into my system. What would the world look like?

Let’s call your life experiences a “map of the world”. Everyone has a different map of the world made up of a tapestry of rich experiences — like splatters of paint on a blank canvas. No two maps are ever alike.

In the context of an operating system, we’ve installed various programs, patches, updates, and, perhaps, the viruses that came along with it, throughout our life.

Our map of the world is the frame in which our emotions, thinking, behaviour, and actions operate. What does our frames of reference, or our map of the world, look like in real-life situations?

A CLASH OF MAPS OF THE WORLD

An example of how we apply our frames of reference in the real world is an exercise I enjoy conducting in communication workshops. I call it “The Blind Leading The Blind”. The activity achieves a parable moment on how we make choices based on our life experiences.

Participants are grouped in random pairs. Each of them will take turns guiding a blindfolded participant across a maze and towards a finishing line. The maze is made out of office chairs, tables, a stack of books — haphazard obstacles. They are not allowed to touch their visually impaired friend and can only shepherd them with verbal directions.

In the process, I’ve observed three kinds of guides: those who lead from the front, the side, and the rear.

Those who lead from the front tend to be more gung-ho, driven by a can-do and almost militant attitude, and are determined to finish first. Those who lead from the side are more nurturing, empathetic, and are always attempting to steer their blind partner with a reassuring hand.

The last type of guide is the ones who lead from the rear. No matter how slow or how fast their blindfolded buddy is, they will never leave them behind. There’s a fourth, though rare, guide — the one who doesn’t give a shit and is reluctant to participate.

No matter the calibre of guidance, usually none of them would do the one thing that matters most in basic communication: ask the “blind” how they’d like to be guided.

Some of the guides would command with military precision — 12 o’clock forward; to your six, backward. Others would cheer on without providing any sense of direction while a number would bark orders like a shepherd’s dog.

Some of the guides would express disappointment when their blindfolded partner is lagging or recount their winning strategic ways when they finish first.

None of them asked their blindfolded buddy how they’d like to be guided. What if the visually impaired had no clue what a “12 o’clock” direction is? What if herding them like sheep cause panic? What if they preferred to lead rather than to be led?

The exercise is called “The Blind Leading The Blind” for this very reason. Both of them are blind.

Upon sharing this epiphany with the participants, I’d always hear a gasp and notice a shift in their behaviour — less selfish and more selfless.

FRAMES OF REFERENCE: A GUIDING CODE, NOT A UNIVERSAL GUIDE

Different things drive us. During my coaching sessions with creative people, one of the most common adverse experiences they’ve shared with me is the feeling of being stuck. They can’t find a way to move forward; they feel like their backs are against the wall; there seems to be no option or a clear line of sight.

When the situation calls for it, and they label the experience clearly, I’d invite them to a visualisation process that I like to call “Disposition Position”. What I noticed is that we don’t get stuck because of circumstances or obstacles that might present itself in the future. We get stuck because of what’s happening in our heads now.

The process starts with a simple question: “What’s the fastest way to get to Terminal 1 of Singapore Changi Airport?” — or this could be any landmark in your country. My coaching clients would usually pick one transportation service. Drive there, take a taxi from here, take a train from there, and so forth.

No one would ever say that they’d walk to the terminal and, glaringly, no one would ever ask me where they are in the first place.

The parable moment: if you don’t know where you are, how do you get anywhere? One could be at the taxi stand of the terminal, and merely walking in would be the fastest way. One could be in another country, and driving would be a long-ass, scenic route.

Before we find out how to get to our destination — our goal, our next milestone, our first step forward, we must first acknowledge where we are. Understanding our current “Disposition Position” is what allows us to take the next step.

How we frame a positive or negative position is based on our past experiences — our map of the world. When you feel stuck or stable, what would be the first thing that you do? Where did that approach come from?

It’s incredible what we can do when we feel stuck: the ability to find it in ourselves to ask, give, or offer from the mana of our potential. But the opposite is also true, that we could beg, borrow, or steal when we feel that there’s no other way out.

I’m also under no illusion that just because we feel stable, we could impose a negative label: of self-sabotage, of the feeling of being an imposter, of overcompensating. Similarly, the opposite is true; stability breeds stability.

All in all, how we confront a positive or negative position is based on what has worked in our past experiences, in our map of the world, even if it causes grief or hurt. Our frame of reference is a guiding code, not a universal guide. The former is harder to change unless a newer, more impactful frame of reference comes along.

However, and here’s the twist, our frame of reference isn’t as apparent as we think it is.

Untold

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    Previously on Untold

    The Art of Getting Over Yourself · November · The shedding of the proverbial skin; when was the last time you got over yourself and let your true self glow?

    The Perils of Mistaking Confidence for Competence · October · How one can be misconstrued for the other and the destruction that lays in its wake

    THE INVISIBLE FRAMES OF REFERENCE

    In an episode titled “Frame of Reference” from the podcast series Invisibilia, two stories caught my attention: one, about the US Army’s concern with the morale of African-Americans from the North stationed in the South during World War II, and a woman who has no frame of reference.

    During World War II, the US Army stationed African-Americans from the North in the South. This is in the era of racial segregation, discrimination, and lynching. The Army was concerned with morale but found, through sociologist Samuel Stouffer and his team of researchers, that it was still relatively high.

    Stouffer discovered that when African-Americans who left their hometown in the North for the South, they saw other African-Americans living better lives with better jobs and better pay. Life was still hard but better than the Northerners had experienced before. Likewise, for the Southerners, they saw themselves as, relatively at least, blessed.

    “Stouffer called this the theory of relative deprivation,” reports Hanna Rosin, the host of Invisibilia. “And in fact, later it became the basis for an entire area of study in social psychology.”

    Rosin adds: “The idea is it’s not your objective situation that determines your happiness. It’s this invisible frame of reference that you carry in your head, a frame of reference that you don’t even know consciously that you’re using. But you are using it, and it filters your experience of the world and how you’re feeling.”

    But what if the wiring of our brain doesn’t have the capacity, or the ability, to lay out a map of the world? What if we had no frame of reference at all?

    ZERO FRAME OF REFERENCE

    In the same episode from Invisibilia, the reporters interviewed a 54-year-old woman, Kim, who, for most of her life, could not identify subtle emotional cues.

    That was until she went through an experimental treatment called TMS, or transcranial magnetic stimulation. Here, researchers placed high-powered magnets over Kim’s scalp and fired up specific brain cells for 15 to 40 minutes.

    Kim was asked to read a sentence before the treatment started: Is this a hold-up? Did they make up? “I was reading them just kind of as a sentence,” Kim explains. “You read the sentence, and this is the way it is.”

    Once the TMS was turned on, the sentence was completely different. “I read the sentence, is this a hold-up, which I had read before just as words,” Kim reports, but something in her is changing.

    Kim continues. “Is this a hold-up? And there’s a question at the end, so you raise your voice at the end of the sentence. And then all of a sudden it’s like, is this a hold-up? So there was this sense of: ‘Oh, my gosh, this would really be fearful if somebody was thinking they were being held up.’”

    For the very first time, Kim felt the emotion in words.

    “Because the effects of TMS are so short-lived, Kim’s ability to see words this way only lasted for another 30 minutes,” show host Alix Spiegel explained. “By the time she drove home an hour later, it was gone. But in a certain way, that didn’t matter. Her life was changed. Kim had been given a whole new frame of reference.”

    This story reminds me of John Elder Robison’s who, in his memoir Switched On, shared his experience with TMS and living with an undiagnosed Asperger syndrome. The treatment made him more attuned to his environment, albeit for a short period, and he became more sensitive to his wife’s depression that led to an eventual divorce.

    “He was awkward,” reported Amy Ellis Nutt for The Washington Post. “He couldn’t read physical cues in other people and was emotionally detached during even the most stressful situations.”

    But as Robison writes, “Being emotionally blind isn’t the same thing as being uncaring or amoral. . . . It’s just that my senses and abilities were limited, so I didn’t always do what they expected.”

    It’s like life imitating the science fiction short story Flowers for Algernon. The story follows Charlie, who, with an IQ of 68, undergoes an experimental treatment to increase his intelligence. The treatment was a success with a laboratory mouse named Algernon.

    But as written in Charlie’s journal in the story, he realises over time that the increase in intelligence is temporary as evident in the worsening style, grammar, and spelling of his report.

    The ability to cite our frames of reference, our map of the world, consciously or not, is a way for us to make sense of our environment. Without a frame of reference, the very thing that we see has no context unless it’s grossly apparent.

    If you thought Kim or Robinson’s experience was unimaginable, a mental condition called Aphantasia takes it to a different level.

    Aphantasia disrupts the ability to visualise mental imagery voluntarily. Aphants also report the inability to remember sounds, smells, or sensations of touch. Some even reported prosopagnosia — the inability to recognise faces.

    As reported in the New York Times, Ashley Xu realised that she couldn’t picture things in her mind’s eye. In an attempt to explain, a friend asked her to visualise an apple.

    “I couldn’t see it, but I didn’t know that was abnormal,” Xu explained. “In my mind, it was black, but I knew that there was a little leaf, there was a brown stem, it was a red apple, but I just couldn’t see it.”

    THE POWER AND DISEMPOWERMENT OF FRAMES OF REFERENCE

    If we acknowledge Anaïs Nin’s adage, that “we see the world not as it is but as we are,” it becomes a new frame of reference for our mind’s eye. The fact that our frames of reference are a guiding code as opposed to a universal guide reveals how similar and, yet, distinct we are.

    The idea that what we do is based on how we experienced it being done says a lot about how we communicate from our frames of reference. This has yet to even account for the revelation that some people have no frame of reference.

    To be empathetic of everyone’s map of the world is perhaps the first step to recognising that we all speak in different languages and that the best way to learn is to listen and understand where one is coming from.

    Imagine the kind of stories we will hear when we give others the space to share theirs. Imagine if people took the time to listen to our stories. If stories define how we see the world, what new frames of reference can we equip ourselves with when we hear the stories of others? Without prejudice, without judgment, and without fear.

    That’d be a pretty interesting frame of reference.

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    About the author · Zul Andra is a communication strategist, trainer, and coach. The founder of Zazoozoo has shaped narratives for global brands and in sectors such as technology, education, finance, travel, and lifestyle. A former Editor-in-chief of Esquire, Zul’s 4-year tenure saw his team winning over 30 local and regional awards. He also won best feature article in 2014 and best editor in 2016 at the MPAS Awards. Zul is a proponent of human-centric connections through the stories we tell.