Some of us pride ourselves on our flexibility; Not of the yogic contortionist variety, but of the human kind. Flexibility of beliefs, habits and character is in some ways the filtered evolution of what most human beings are: set in their ways, narrow-minded, and completely self-centred. Flexibility makes for people who are more open to new ideas, new behaviours, and change, that ever present factor in human life. For a species as adaptive as our own, flexible individuals are an essential driving force. Still, flexibility is not the trait of the majority and if you are one of these flexible people, to whatever degree, you are in constant danger of being taken for granted by everyone around you. Whether it is done consciously or subconsciously, it can get very tiring, and frankly, as a flexible person, you should know better than to be so exploited.
It is important to recognise some common situations in which we behave in set ways, either flexibly or inflexibly. Few of us question or observe our own behaviour, we are usually much busier studying those around us and passing silent judgement, so it requires a metaphorical mirror held up to our faces.
Food is a basic part of all our lives. For some, it is a defining factor, due to its shortage, or excess, or due to our growing world obsession with food as a cultural interest. There’s a lot of etiquette and modes of behaviour when it comes to sharing food that varies from culture to culture, family to family, and much of this we pick up as children when we aren’t really thinking about it, or when we’re being told what to do. For example, I grew up in a family where it was made clear always that things needed to be shared. If you were eating something you offered it to everyone else. What was there was evenly split and that was that. But that’s not necessarily everyone’s experience, or even the ‘right way’. It is just one way, and one that is practical when resources are not unlimited. Increasingly, I think urban people are growing up imagining that resources are unlimited. We must all have everything and now, not a practical way of looking at the world, but this sense of entitlement is at an all time high and food, being one of the most biologically easy things to obsess over, also gets treated the same way.
Entitlement leads to all out greed and so you will often observe tiffs over food, even in strata of society where there is no shortage of it. Food becomes a competitive sport among children and mostly among adults, which is where the children learn it, let’s not forget. Most siblings will have stories of competitiveness over food and most adults continue that into adulthood, albeit with the delusion of more sneakiness or subtlety. They’re not subtle.
Invariably, in the great food wars that break out silently across tables, floors, fine china, cheap plastic cutlery and every other possible culinary stage, someone either eventually gives in, or is less competitive and let’s others have their way. Know it or not, you are on one of the sides to that equation. Over a bag of French fries, a box of cake slices, a plate of food, are you the one who attacks first and picks the largest piece, or are you the type to wait, to specifically try to take a modest helping, to give others a chance to pick? Choosing food is actually a great indicator of character, I find, and you can sometimes tell more about people over a dinner table than you can over years of small talk and deep discussion. Such things can’t be read into from one stray incident, but most of us have consistent behavioural patterns when it comes to food. When we talk, we usually show what we want to show, but when it comes to eating and such basic instinctive needs, our social filters are less effective. What do you say about yourself when there is slice of cake to be picked off a plate? Something to consider the next time you’re sharing a meal or a snack.
I really hated group projects in school and college. It always meant one or two people did all the work and the rest just pretended to be doing something until they didn’t have to do anything any more. That was almost my universal experience on the subject and perhaps it was because I was always one of the former group. Of course, ask any of my group mates and I’m sure they’ll tell you they carried the whole group on their back down a flight of flaming stairs personally. But then most people are likely to rewrite such things in their heads, so we’ll forgive them their one and only exercise in imagination.
I remember one particular class where a group of five of us had two weeks to research and prepare a 15-minute presentation. The idea was for the team to decide a topic, break it apart, let the individuals research and prepare their own piece, and then the actual performance would be a coordinated effort, each speaking for 3 minutes or thereabouts. A relative piece of cake. As the two weeks passed, and group meetings made it more and more clear than no one knew what they were doing or even the material that they had supposedly researched, the final day saw me standing up there for 15 minutes, alone, with slides made by me, covering the entire topic. You see, I was flexible, and frankly that presentation wasn’t even a blip in my busy schedule of proper design-projects that kept me working into the early mornings at the time, but the inflexible always take advantage of that. Our group was penalised a little for everyone not presenting, but the mild penalty didn’t really bother me much and the rest of the group probably got a better grade for their “work” than if they would have actually opened their mouths in public. Such is life if you want to ‘get the job done’ over assigning blame, but it’s easy to make a habit of it.
There’s an other aspect about working with others that is important to realise, from offices to families, from colleges to creative collaborations, and I touched on it glancingly with the bit about burning flights of stairs before. In the average team, you have one or two people who actually do everything, the rest will pretend and keep delaying until time has run out and the one or two have no choice but to shoulder the extra burden. After all, they now know more than everyone else; It’s only logical. At this point, or even before, the light-weights will talk, and boy will they talk endlessly! The stories they will tell, the theories they will spin about the intricacies of the work at hand (which they didn’t do and aren’t doing). These people will likely go and write the book about the work that they didn’t do, and it will surely be filled with a lot of large words and lofty concepts. It will also include stories of how they saved the day by carrying the entire team down a flight of burning stairs on their backs.
The ‘system’, whether it be education or employment or industry, is often set up by those who talk, not by those who do. They’re the ones who have enough time to set up the rules and make all those neat little labels on coloured paper while others were shouldering their actual responsibilities. The system will often tell you about ‘playing well with others’, which is usually their way of telling the ones who work to do so quietly and not spoil their delusions of indispensability. As a person who works, you might go along with the charade at times, and sometimes you might not, but it is useful to really dig deep into your self and find out which side of teamwork you fall on. Do you talk too much, or do you do too much? Because I’m sorry to break it to you, but the majority of us talk too much.
Of all the resources that you can be flexible with, your time is the most precious, and also the most often and casually exploited. This becomes doubly true if you go through most of your life wearing the label of freelancer. Like it or not, in most people’s heads, this translates to ‘jobless and sitting at home with infinite time on your hands’, and they will often treat you accordingly. The same can be said when you are on vacation, and since my life is usually divided between freelancing and rarer bouts of being on vacation, I know a bit about this topic.
I think time is important. I think people should be on time and keep to agreed schedules and appointments and such. I also think our modern world is too anal-retentive about the subject, and selectively and hypocritically so. In the real world, stuff does happen, even to the most conscientious of us; Tyres go flat, traffic gets blocked, there are emergencies, and some days are just not your days. All these things, I think deserve to be shown a bit of flexibility on some occasions. If someone is stuck in traffic everyday and keeps you waiting an hour, then you have a problem.
During my days of more actively chasing every stray comment about someone needing a ‘designer’ — I use the quotes because what they usually needed was a nanny-slave — I’ve done my share of waiting for people to show up, or even waiting for people to open the door to their office and simply let me in, usually not for any good reason. When it comes to work and business, there is a lot of power-play surging under the surface, a sign of feeble and insecure minds, the same that are secretly declaring war over a dinner plate. People seem to think it’s impressive and intimidating to make you wait in some ways. I just think it’s childish, but needless to say the population of the childish above the age of 10, is not to be underestimated.
If you are a flexible person, everyone else in the world is always much busier than you. It doesn’t matter if you run a nuclear power plant, or a 24-hour cat delivery service, somehow, people with 9-5 jobs where they extensively update Facebook have no time when you need it. Try to make any shared plans, and they are bound to be cancelled or postponed several times, because you take it. Try to get them to commit to a casual meetings, and you’d think a United Nations disaster-relief feasibility team needs to get involved before their schedule will be clear enough for you, mostly because you take it, and also because you will say yes immediately and adjust around your priorities when they call you on a whim. Which kind of creature are you? Are you always waiting and twisting your schedules around others? Or are you the one making people wait and juggle?
Being flexible starts off on a more basic level, that of empathy. The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. If you think in that particular way, it’s not always easy to take everything people do as a dire personal affront. It makes you understanding, not just in the practical worldly issues of food, time and work, but also on a more abstract human level. Human beings are complex creatures and our ability to think abstract thoughts have made us both extremely adaptive and also messed-up. Our thoughts and motivations are often at war with themselves and it is quite a miracle that most of us maintain a modicum of sanity.
Part of the mechanism that helps us stay on the mental straight-and-narrow is not an internal one. Social interaction is in many ways our steam valve. We make friends and share things even with strangers because it helps us cope. In communicating, our internal idiosyncrasies are robbed of their sharp edge and we continue functioning normally and without the cares that would overwhelm us without any outlet for our thoughts and worries.
For sharing though, you need people who are not just as enthusiastic to share, but are even more enthusiastic to listen, to understand, to empathise. These listeners are not as common as you’d think, even though they hold such a crucial role in human society. Think about your own life and friends, how many of them would you trust with your thoughts? Your real inner thoughts, not the stuff you say at people to make conversation. I would hazard a guess that that list of people is closer to one or a very small number rather than many.
Listeners need to be understanding, because they cannot be judging what they listen to all the time, and even if they are, they can’t express it to the person trusting them to listen. That would remove the effectiveness of the listener in the transaction. The peril of being a listener, however, is that if you think most people have it tough finding someone to talk to, you as a listener are going to find it exponentially tougher. Most people don’t want to listen to the listener. More likely, they aren’t even really capable because their relationship with the understanding listener was formed largely because they had things to say and he/she was an understanding listener. The deal was never that the favour would be reciprocated, or even could be.
Don’t get me wrong, those who listen well usually like to listen. It fills a need in their lives too, to absorb and understand and comprehend and help. But, listeners are just as fraught with internal conflict as anyone else and even they sometimes have enough of being a resource of understanding. Then there is the fact that the listener is automatically in the position to see patterns of behaviour and recognise when someone is being an idiot in whatever they are thinking, or complaining about, or worrying about. Understanding calls for kid-gloves and mild suggestions rather than full-frontal attack on the motivations of the person sharing their mental secrets, but sometimes a sort of understanding fatigue does set in and all of us who depend on others to listen must always appreciate that burden. We take it for granted too often that they will always be there for us, even when we are not for them.
In my home town of Bombay, there is common refrain in the local dialect of Hindi that says “adjust karneka”. Basically “One must adjust/accommodate”, a sound piece of advice in a city with 20 million people, where personal space is a luxury you are not always allowed, certainly not in public transport. The trains in the city are a phenomenon that defies description and I’m sure breaks all sort of records for number of untrained contortionists that can be fit within a closed container, but I’ll speak more about the buses run by BEST, which are both wonderful in their convenience and ubiquity, and are also a great exercise in studying the adjustments and impositions people make on each other’s personal space.
I love the buses in Bombay, they are rudimentary, simple, airy, cover almost every nook and cranny of the metropolis with startling efficiency, and they just work. Of course, there is as much of an important human element involved in this sort of travel; You interact more with the users of the service than the providers of it and a lot of patterns and unsaid rules get formed out of the chaos. First off, the dos and donts in a bus in Bombay seem to vary based on location, with the more pragmatic office crowd in the centre of town being a lot more adjusting and live-and-let-live than the sometimes hostile and petty familial crowds of the suburbs; It is a strange dichotomy, but very apparent at times.
When I was very young, I remember being told of a time when the buses in Bombay had abolished the system of reserved seats for women. There were still a few seats up front for the disabled to be given preferential access to the door at the front of the bus, but I remember my Mother telling me that public feedback and gotten rid of the women’s special seats because in a teeming culture with no broad segregation of the sexes, it complicated travel to unacceptable levels. But then that was probably sometime in the 70s. Obviously that wouldn’t last. Over the following decades, the reserved seats have been increasing. There’s a block for women, some for senior citizens, the original few for the disabled and the rest (the actual majority in number) need to scramble for what remains, because anything with a label on it is always in danger of being claimed by someone, often wrongly, out of sheer entitlement. That in my mind has been the biggest shift, a move from a culture of social courtesy and adjustment, where a seat would be offered to a woman or someone elderly through deference or request, to a culture of entitlement. Respect being demanded, not commanded. This isn’t understanding any more, this is enforcement with threat of consequences. Threats don’t make us more understanding, they make us disgruntled.
In general, however, things are extremely smooth on the bus as long as most of the passengers have seating. It’s when the standees collect and grow in the aisle that the human element becomes more interesting and challenging. Technically, a bus is rated to carry a certain number of standing passengers and no more. Practically, as with most things in Bombay, transport and space functions at levels of load much beyond the the call of duty. Buses do get packed, to levels that would alarm those that value their personal space, but the whole exercise goes surprisingly well, or as well as it can under the circumstances.
The central aisle in a regular BEST bus is not a grand boulevard. It can comfortably let two average sized Indians pass each other, in 1972. Today, it would only accommodate one average sized McDonald’s junkie. Additionally, at rush hour, the increasingly above-average-sized urban Indian must deal with being either one of the two rows of standing passengers pressed against the sides of the aisle, or the lone acrobat trying to make their way down the aisle, pretty much running the gauntlet between plump persons, heavy handbags, angry commuters, and a sliver of hope at the end of the human tunnel. There are those that make way and those that are inconsiderate, both in the ones hanging on for dear life and those trying to walk through the mass of humanity.
Even if you do get a seat, there are adjustments to be made and those who are civilised and those who aren’t. During rush hour there is a lot of adjusting to be done with those standing over you in the aisle and sometimes leaning over you, out of necessity to let someone pass behind them, or out of sheer exhaustion. Some of this you need to allow for, as a sensible person, because you know that in their position you would not have a choice just as they don’t, but some of it is also simply people being insensitive or not caring. You can understand the occasional handbag that will bump you in the head as someone passes by, see it in the right light and you will even smile at it, I have. But some people do walk by with no regard for their fellow passengers and that’s not a good thing. There are even those who will stand in the aisle and lean on the side of your seat, and will let go of all responsibility of holding themselves up in anything resembling a standing position, until you’re practically bent over in your seat for having to adjust to their laziness; That’s not a good thing either. And then there’s the person you’re sharing your seat with and how they might be good and stick to their side of it, or assume the whole thing was actually for them and you are merely intruding. It takes all types.
Speaking of sharing seats, this reminds me of an observation I need to make about the back seats of cars and penises. No, no, it’s really not what you think. Whatever gender you might subscribe to, have you noticed the startling ability of some men to always instantaneously grow a large penis when they are sharing the back seat of the car with two other people? That’s the only explanation I can think of why they need to keep their legs wide apart enough to take up half the seat and force their co-passengers to squeeze into the space that remains. I only point out men because it is a more common phenomenon with them (ignoring the real or metaphorical penis), but I suspect it is largely social conditioning that allows them to do that while most women still prefer to sit in a more (and I use quotes for a reason) ‘lady-like’ stance. I also suspect that as gender conditioning becomes less of a black and white issue, such imagined tumescence will begin to plague the female population as well. Besides, lets not forget the scientific fact that any three people of female persuasion can and will block corridors of any width no matter how modest their individual girths might be when they are walking together. Flexibility and inflexibility in sharing spaces with other human beings is everywhere to be seen. Are you the kind to make way for people or the one who’s constantly elbowing people into submission?
Being accommodating is partly hard-coded into us as social animals. It is the encouragement of our social systems to be a good ‘team player’ and that often involves accommodating the needs and demands of others. This is why we, as a species, have an inherent fear of saying no to things and this is why marketing works. Having said that, we are quite hypocritical about this issue. We seem to have no trouble saying no to some things, like pesky charity representatives, but have an inordinate amount of trouble with other things, like that limited special offer on TV for the combined refrigerator and vacuum-cleaner with free lifetime supply of garlic mayonnaise. Our propensities are often selective and convenient.
That said, accommodating people isn’t always about someone selling you something, even if an idea. Often it involves making changes in what you want to do, for friends and family, or changing plans or dreams or hopes for someone else’s and to suit some one else’s hopes and agendas. Flexible people do this all the time, but so do cowards and it is often difficult to draw a clear line between the two. I’ve talked before about how saying no is important and how it’s also important to say it well and without losing control, but it does get to a point where the decision to say no is crucial above all else, and how it’s done and to whom need to be ignored. Flexible people can often let their own accommodating tendencies get the better of them and being accommodating while resenting it is not very accommodating at all. You must learn to say no, and others must learn to hear it. It serves everyone well.
On the subject of flexibility, I claim no moral high-ground; I am on the inflexible side of many situations more often that I’m happy with, but that doesn’t change the fact that such divergent behaviour exists and can be seen in you and around you. While flexibility is an important element in society, it is also one that is too often taken for granted, and for that exploitation, the flexible have only themselves to blame. Be flexible, because I think it’s the right thing to do, the human thing to do in most situations, but to make it your blind and default reaction to the world with no regard for whether or not those around you have earned your understanding is an inhuman and automated choice.
If you think you’re flexible, I applaud your work in the world, but flexibility is the ability to adapt and adjust to every situation and need, and sometimes that need is to be inflexible so that others may realise their mistakes, see their inflexibilities, or just realise the existence of the many crutches you provide. If you’re the ever flexible kind, growing a back bone is always a good idea. On occasion, scare the hell out of the cowardly horde by displaying yours. Out of the blue, choose the largest piece of cake, refuse to carry their weight in a team, cancel on too often changed plans and appointments, tell them they’re being stupid when they share their unrealistic worries with your patient ears, stand up and sit tall and unaccommodating to seat hogs and every other manner of insensitive co-traveller on your journey in life; Say no.
And if you’re one of the cowardly horde — Yes, we all like to think we are sacrificing angels, but most of us are in this category on most occasions — You’ve been getting too many free rides for too long. Wake up. Flexible people can stretch a lot, but they don’t always have to and without them you’d likely be lying flat on your face, both literally and metaphorically, in many of life’s situations. Temper your ways, because you won’t like it when they snap back, and you’re not flexible enough to take it.