My sister fell off her swing a couple of days ago.
To be more precise, the swing broke and deposited her on the ground. My mother had made it for her only days before, and I was confused how it was possible to make a swing so utterly useless.
“I don’t understand, either,” said our mother. “I followed the instructions so carefully.”
After asking a few more questions, I realised she had googled “how to make a swing” and downloaded the first guide that came up.
(My advice? Don’t do this if you care about your own or other people’s tailbones.)
My mom made a rookie internet error because she didn’t grow up with the overload of information we have available to us now. For much of her life, when you wanted information or help, you got out a library book, found a knowledgeable neighbour, or travelled to find an expert.
In all these cases, the majority of information available was filtered, and more closely connected to the human being it came from. The author’s name was on the cover of a book, and any how-to-make-a-swing directions were presumably tested before publication. In a sense, the expert was there in person, and we could get a feel for them and whether they were legit.
Although it’s still true that there’s a human behind any piece of writing (I hope!), that connection can be much more tenuous and invisible in our current age of information overload.
“Why on earth would anyone put something totally useless on the internet?” my confused parent asked me. Aww.
It made me reflect on how, as a digital native, I navigate the bewildering fathoms of absolute crap online — and new information and perspectives in general.
I realized I have several strategies, but the most fundamental and useful one is to always seek out the human behind the words, not focus on the words themselves.
Below I take a look at this strategy, why it works for me, some of the pitfalls to avoid (such as unfounded prejudice), and what it might mean for us as readers and writers.
I don’t read books, articles, poems, proposals, manifestos, blogs, or columns.
I read people.
Even when I’m reading for information rather than inspiration, I read people.
This approach has been profoundly useful for me in the following ways:
Let me give you an example.
Not everyone enjoys cooking from recipes. As a wordsmith, however, I’m totally into it. No kidding, I even read cookbooks in bed, just for fun. Last time I got a new cookbook, I carried it around for days just in case a spare five minutes appeared in which to peruse and caress it. I like trying out new ingredients, combinations and techniques, and intuiting what makes the author tick when it comes to food.
But all recipes are not created equal. I enjoy the way the internet makes the food traditions and creative ideas of multiple cultures and personalities available in a flash. But I would never, ever, google “lemon polenta cake” or any other recipe purely by ingredients.
It could be a winner, and if you’re a pretty good baker already, you might be able to read through the recipe and get a feel for whether it’s plausible.
But for me, a far less risky and more enjoyable approach is to build a relationship with several cooks whom I trust and whose palate and style I click with.
I often own one or more of their cookbooks, read a regular column or blog by them, follow them on Twitter or other social media, and include their name when I search for recipes.
At a friend’s house with a glut of quinces, say, I’ll ask myself, “Who really respects and honours beautiful fruit, and makes lovely, simple, unpretentious cakes that are never too dry?” And then I’ll search “Nigel Slater Quince Cake Recipe” and it will be a gem.
I have a relationship with these strangers, whom I’ve never met. I’m loyal to them because I like how they think, how they perceive, how they taste things, how they feel about food and the world, and how they express themselves.
The humans come first. The content comes second.
Reading a human rather than a text goes against everything I was taught in university literature classes. We learned to take a novel as a living piece of art in its own right, and not to assume we knew the author just because we knew their writing. Good art does stuff with and without the conscious permission of the artist.
This makes sense as a way to confront prejudice and give a work breathing room. It’s a good idea to acknowledge that all of us are affected by, and reflect, the cultural conditioning that has been placed upon us. When we engage with a piece of art, a novel, or a manifesto, we are not just engaging with a human; we are engaging with a time, a place, a culture, a network of social influences, a political system — the list goes on.
Focussing on a text helps prevent us from taking the blind spots, bullshit opinions, and random prejudices of any age and immortalizing them by overemphasizing the vision of the creative individual. No one creates in a vacuum.
However, even though I live in the same cultural and geographical setting as many others, there are still people I love and respect more than others. To find great content, we need to read people, not just what they create.
In spite of, or perhaps shining through all of these influences is still, in each person, a particular way of looking at the world. That’s what I’m attracted to, and that’s what I read for: a way of looking.
It’s what most attracts me to certain other individuals, and I hope it’s what those closest to me love about me.
Research on behavioural change backs up the importance of the messenger/author: a UK Government report into behavioural change, called MINDSPACE, concluded, “The weight we give to information depends greatly on the reactions we have to the source of that information. We are affected by the perceived authority of the messenger (whether formal or informal).”
This doesn’t really surprise me because we’re people. We relate best to people, not abstract data. All information and communication has to come from somewhere, and our relationship with that source has a huge impact on how receptive we are.
We are continually choosing what to take in and what to believe based on our networks of trust with people.
When someone who I sense doesn’t like me that much says, “You’re not a very good driver,” I defensively bristle, and insist in length and detail on my driving credentials.
When someone I love and respect tells me, without malice, “You’re a bit of a shit driver,” I pause, feel a little bit offended for a while perhaps, and then ask them if they’d be willing to teach me some skills.
What gets through — and therefore what I incorporate into my reality — depends so much on what the relationship is with the source.
Short answer, yes. But if it’s positively applied, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I’m quite happy to be prejudiced towards inspiration, vision, and insight.
The fact that we judge a message based on the messenger is usually seen as a negative, because it’s usually based on unconscious prejudices towards the author.
It could lead a reader to avoid female authors based on unconscious chauvinism, or only read authors from their own country, or otherwise unwittingly only trust people “like them.”
As a reader, I need to have the self-awareness to see how I tend to blindly trust whatever is “normal” — meaning whatever is like me — and broaden out my scope. I need to engage with the quality of a writer’s vision, not their gender, ethnicity, country of origin, religion, or any other physical details.
The thing is, it’s not someone else’s opinions that I read for. I’ve got plenty of my own arbitrary, boring opinions. Rather, I enjoy things expressed succinctly, I enjoy new information, I enjoy connections made where none have been made before — but most of all I enjoy reading someone who loves something, and who encourages me to love it, too.
Jane Austen encourages me to love self-honesty and clarity. George Eliot encourages me to appreciate the richness of the human tapestry, and to love idealistic passion, in our culture of irony and clever cynicism.
To the cynic, all perspectives are equal. All authors are equally interesting (or uninteresting), because all authors are interchangeably opinionated, differing only in the details of their subject matter.
But to the reader of people, all content is not created equal. All people are equal in value, but not all express themselves in equally inspiring, interesting ways.
We are encouraged to read texts over people to avoid focusing narrowly on individuals. But the authors of the best articles, blog posts, books, poems, and other pieces of wordcraft I’ve engaged with have used their individuality to tap into something universally human. Because I’m a human too, the human factor is pleasurable and relatable to read beyond the junk-food, page-turning quality of plot. I value those who open me up to these wider perspectives.
It’s paradoxical — going deeply into the specific idiosyncrasies of an individual can actually be the gateway into a broader understanding. If you read for this broader understanding, you can skirt your way around prejudice.
What I sign up for isn’t necessarily one person’s ego trip — it’s a certain way of seeing the world. It’s a certain perspective that I somehow feel that I naturally share and want to feed.
A business or brand becomes like a human being when it can engender high levels of trust and when it actually has a personality.
This could sound a bit like soulless marketing-speak, but for me it reflects the reality that every communication and every business has people behind it.
Just like the individuals that comprise it, a business can be authentic or phoney, inspiring or manipulative, charismatic or staid. It will have values that enact the values (or often, lack thereof) of the people involved.
The most successful business person I know, a friend who sold his most recent company for more than I’ll probably earn in my entire life, told me some excellent business advice, which is actually just good life advice.
“Sales is seen as manipulation,” he said. “But it’s not, it’s service. Business, for me, should only ever be done from the desire to be of service to others, to offer them something –– not trying to get something out of them. I have always just asked myself, ‘What do I have to offer?’’’
His values moved me. They were the values of his business, and it was extremely successful on that basis. People trusted and liked him, and they trusted and liked the business.
He has an elusive something that money can’t buy. I recognized it as integrity.
When people came into contact with his business and forged an ongoing relationship with it, they were relating to this interesting, kind, moral person — even if they didn’t know it.
It’s always about people. Every good entrepreneur will tell you this. When I want good business advice, a high-quality product, or a wonderful experience, I engage on the basis of the people involved and how I feel towards them.
When it comes to reading, the same holds true.
What does all of this suggest to us, as writers and readers?
Well, it gives me what I find to be an extremely effective tool for navigating the chasms of the web. I have a whole host of imaginary friends holding my hand — writers with whom I have connected, whose perspectives I enjoy, and whose recommendations and ideas inspire my trust.
I waste far less time online by only reading what comes to me through a human source. That doesn’t rule out serendipity, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m only exposed to things I agree with, but it does weed out most of the worthless junk.
It means that when I’m exposed to new ideas and perspectives, they come within a relationship of interest, openness, and trust, which makes it easier to learn. With Nigel holding my hand, I will try a new cake recipe that I wouldn’t otherwise consider.
As a writer, this is a wonderful reminder to me to be as honest, as boundary-pushing, and as rawly myself as I can manage — so that if people connect with my way of seeing things, they will be able to trust me to speak from that place. A reader can’t connect with my frame of reference if I’m not connected with it myself.
That right there should be enough to put an end to people-pleasing, to fear of writing honestly, and to boring, tentative, safe writing. What’s the point in readers liking you if it’s not even you they’re liking?
The most fulfilling way of reading comes when you fall in love with an author — by which I mean, fall in love with their way of seeing.
Photo Credit: arastorguev
Rosalind Atkinson works as a freelance writer and editor. A great fan of an elegant sentence or a tasty word, she has authored academic pieces on William Blake, and articles for Greenpeace, elephant journal, Overland, and the Vessel Magazine, among others. She escaped academia with a Masters in English Literature, and has done time as a blogwriter, a research assistant, a baker, a costume illustrator for film, and a (kinda seasick) sailor around the Pacific and Subantarctic. She lives in a converted cowshed in the lush far north of New Zealand, where she writes, saves for an old-school printing press, and marvels at how clever and awesome nature is.