After the recent death of Scott Hutchison, singer of the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit, music writer Stephen Butchard tweeted “I understand the sentiment and real care that goes into the ‘please talk guys’ response to suicide. But Scott Hutchison had been talking about MH (Mental Health) for decades. The larger problem is there isn’t widespread support and services for people who do talk. That’s incredibly isolating”.
What Butchard has pointed at in this tweet is that simply asking people to talk is not enough because there aren’t enough people listening. How I see this is that this is not just about professional services for mental health. But our everyday conversations. We contribute to this every day. For example, when we ask someone how they are doing without intending to sit and listen to them relate the haal (state) of their heart.
A child who is learning to speak is taught that the appropriate response to “how are you” is “I am fine/good/great” and is applauded for learning this well. In doing so, we are taking away the opportunity from this person to learn the vocabulary that could enable them to express the various emotions that they feel. We reduce all their emotions to an “okay” or “good” or “great” instead of teaching them to identify their feelings and communicating these to others, to be vulnerable in front of others.
Today, we have a very mechanised way of conversing with each other. We breeze by people asking “How are you?” When meeting a new person, we have a specific set of questions that we will ask people, “What is your name?”, “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?”. When meeting someone after a long time, we ask “What are you doing these days?”
Let’s stop and ask ourselves, why are we asking people these questions? Are we receiving honest answers from them? How do we feel when we are asked these questions? What do we really find out about people when we ask them these? What do we want to find out?
Each conversation that we have with a person is a chance for us to learn something new about them, their life, their challenges, hopes and struggles. Instead, we ask them questions we either do not wish to receive answers to or questions that activate stereotypes. The moment you hear the name of the place a person belongs to, your mind automatically puts them in the box of what little you know about that place. Bengali? Ami tomake bhaalo bashi, roshogulla, maachh-bhaat. Punjabi? Butter chicken, lassi, too loud. The same can be said for when people respond to what they do. Think about it, what comes to your mind when you hear engineer, doctor, teacher, nurse, homemaker, cook? What is the image that pops up when you read each of these words, what is this person wearing, what is the gender of this person, what qualities or attributes does this person have?
Moreover, when did “What do you do” become reduced to what one does for earning a living? Before asking this question to people, we need to ask ourselves that how many of us have the option of choosing a “career” of our choice or have been able to explore the various career paths available considering that none of ours schools gave us a chance to do that. We also need to realise that this becomes the most dreaded question when we are not in a job considered respectable or fancy enough and a nightmare for those of us who are unemployed.
What will happen if we change the way we converse?
What does it feel like to skip the small talk about talk about the things that matter?
What does it feel like when someone focuses on you, instead of your resume, title, achievement, status (or lack thereof)?
What does it feel like to be heard? To be seen?
What would the world feel like if we could find comfort in being honest and vulnerable in front of each other?
Carl Rogers summarised the kind of world we live in and what we can do about it when he said that “There are many, many people living in private dungeons today, people who give no evidence of it whatsoever on the outside, where you have to listen sharply to hear the faint messages from the dungeon.” He is asking us to stop and listen to not just what we see on the surface, but to pay attention to what’s underneath and the implied meanings.
On May 19, we will explore a different way of relating to the people around us. In association with It’s Okay To Talk, an initiative which aims to a create safe space to share our experiences with mental health mental illness and wellbeing, I invite you to join us. Come let’s talk about what would be required to create a world of this kind, create a little version of this world for ourselves and discover how it could feel.