Humanity 101: Sawubona

Like me – and probably like you – my friend Tara is interested in how technology is affecting all of us. Unlike me (and probably unlike you) Tara works in technology, creating online learning environments. I’m hoping she’ll write within this newsletter at some point but in the meantime, it was her reference to the Zulu concept of sawubona that’s been staying with me.

She and I each heard of this concept from Seth Godin. It feels as if it’s a disservice to to call him a marketer, but that’s only because of what most of us think of as marketing. In Seth’s world, marketing is the respectful way of engaging with the people you seek to serve in order to make the change you seek to make in the world.Enter your text here...

Seth brings up the concept of sawubona in the second episode of his podcast Akimbo. The title of the episode is also the definition of sawubona: I see you.

But it doesn’t mean yeah yeah, I see you, I won’t bump into you.

(In a busy, crowded restaurant environment, which is where I spend many of my nights as a server, we’re constantly announcing our presence to each other: “Behind!” “Right here!” “Corner!” As in, I'm coming around this corner and you may not know it but now you do.  But there’s also a time when sawubona comes into play, which I’ll come back to in a minute.)

As Orlando Bishop explains, sawubona means “we see you”. 

The video is worthwhile but the tl;dr (tl;dw?) takeaway for me is that when we truly see another person we're inviting this question posed by Bishop:

"How do I have to be as a human being for someone else to be free? You tell me, and I will explore that possibliity.”

Wow, what a question.

Maybe I just need to be curious....

Sawubona and Tech, Part One

In Tara's professional world (learning and technology) the way in which people are engaged in order to make change has a name: "Product Discovery". During product (software) development, early users are periodically interviewed by the developers to discover how they're interacting with the software.

This methodology (and terminology) works fine when we're talking about developing, say, a travel booking app. Because money is involved (as in the making of money by a company) the process is optimized for results. Not necessarily for the best results, but for the best results given a certain amount of money and time spent.

But let’s say you’re designing a site that lower-income people need to use in order to obtain a certain kind of medicine.

But let’s say you’re designing a site that lower-income people need to use in order to obtain a certain kind of medicine.

Tara made the point that in a situation such as this, when the outcome has a critical real-world effect on the…”user”... maybe the "Product Discovery" process should be renamed. 

She suggested we might humanize the experience by calling it “sitting with people”.  As in sitting with lots and lots of people to understand what their real-life challenges might be, so that an “interface” might be designed that allows for a range of possible emotional, mental, and physical challenges.

We see you.

Sawubona and Tech, Part Two

I don’t have the time to go into detail here, but I feel like I should at least mention a different facet of UI/UX. (User Interface / User Experience aka designing software for people.)

When huge sums of money are at stake, design takes on a different kind of importance. Unfortunately there's a more powerful motivation to get it “right." And the definition of "right" might not be...right.

UI/UX takes on levels of insidiousness that I imagine can only be implemented by a designer depersonalizing what they’re doing. Someone who receives a large salary by rationalizing that they’re helping create the cutting edge of technology.

Our needs and desires and physiological make-up: seen, understood, and co-opted to hold our attention for hours so we can see more ads and buy more stuff.

You can read more about it in books such as Hooked or Indistractible, or even in this piece on the Offgrid Mindfulness website.

I imagine sawubona is avoided at all costs by the people creating these systems.

The Art of Interviewing and On Being with Krista Tippett

Krista Tippett and I have something in common: we both created podcasts.

Hers is still going strong; mine was a victim of podfade.

One of my twelve episodes was with a friend and therapist named Sommerville. At the time she had been thinking about the concept of interviewing, a skill of some import to her as a professional who needed to tactfully elicit information from people on a regular basis, and whose ability to do so can have huge ramifications on those people’s lives.

Sommerville was a fan of On Being and wrote of Krista Tippett’s ability to receive striking answers from her guests.

In her book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Art of Living, Krista Tippett wrote about the power of questions:

"If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words. Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking a better question."

But in revisiting these sources over the past few days, I’m struck most by a question Sommerville posed in our podcast together:

“‘Who is this person sitting across from me?' That’s curiosity, there is no judgement in that question."

I don’t have the ancestors and divinities that Orlando Bishop brings to an encounter with another person. And I can be extremely judgemental, with a tendency to categorize people.

Bringing with me the genuine curiosity of Sommerville’s question feels like the first real step in cultivating a practice of sawubona.

Sawubona Restaurant Style

In the hospitality industry there is one restaurateur who is probably more well known than any other. Danny Meyer may not have invented upscale casual fine dining but he popularized it and is its de facto spokesperson.

In his 2006 book Setting the Table he wrote:

"I want to go on the offensive to create opportunities for our customers to feel that they are being heard even when they’re not right."

(I added the emphasis.)

When I first read this (the week the book came out) it had a huge impact on me. 

As I’ve become more comfortable in my role as a server, I’ve tried to give my guests lots of chances to be heard. It starts with the first interactions – what brings you in tonight, where are you from, how did you hear about us – but if something is amiss at the table not only will I try to be present and hear what they have to say, I’ll also get a manager involved.

Depending on the situation, the manager can’t necessarily do anything that I can’t (though often they can); I’ll get them involved to give the guest yet another opportunity “to feel that they are being heard” regardless of the circumstances.

Often this is enough to make things right, regardless of the perceived wrong.

Sweet Moon Language

I’ll leave you with this poem by the Sufi poet Hafiz. I’ve heard it referenced enough times to wonder whether it’s just the circles I run with or if it’s borderline cliché, but as with many clichés, it’s cliché for a reason (in itself a cliché…).

Take it away Hafiz:

Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise
Someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a
Full moon in each eye that is always saying,
With that sweet moon language, what every other eye in
This world is dying to hear? 

Call it what you will

Discovery Process.
Sitting with people.
Being heard.
That sweet moon language.

It’s what all of us want: To be seen and heard. I see you; like me you are a human being on this earth.

Thank you for hearing me. Until next Monday,

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