Cold Dead Fish

25 years ago, when my family and I first moved to the San Francisco area, we heard a joke that if Hewlett-Packard’s marketing department had advertised sushi, it would have been called “cold dead fish”.  Ever facts you could trust.

On weekends, my husband and I sometimes have cold dead fish for lunch.

I never had sushi in Denmark.  It wasn’t really a thing yet when I lived there a quarter of a century ago.  Pickled herring, sure, but raw fish?  Nah…  A friend introduced it when I moved to California.

It was not difficult to get accustomed to California Rolls.  That is mainly cooked crab and rice, so I dug in.  Later, stranger things have gradually been added to the menu.

There is a little hole in the wall in the Hillsdale Center (just off 101 and 92 if you are in that area,) where they have things on the menu, we don’t normally see in other sushi places.  The Sunday that prompted this reflection, we had some honey prawns.  If honey makes you think this is a sweet dish, think again: this is honey-wasabi sauce over right out of the fryer crispy hot prawns.

It is interesting how hot like pepper and chilies are completely different from hot horseradish.  Hot wasabi sauce sends its aromas up your nose and suddenly you are not in doubt where your sinuses are located.  After a bite, you inhale cool fresh air to lighten the impact – and then it hits you again on the exhale.  It is like having an angry cat inside your head, trying to scratch its way out through the top of your skull.  I thought my prefrontal cortex lived there, but apparently, there is also room for an angry cat.

And then you take the second bite…

We had a good laugh over why we keep coming back, exposing ourselves to this nightmare.  We are not even cat people.

Let me assure you, I didn’t go directly from California Rolls to wasabi prawns.  But I have adapted.  And my biome has gradually adapted, too, so I no longer have colic when I have had spicy food.

I am not sure if the angry cat is a lodger I look forward to or not; is it an unfortunate byproduct or a feature?  I can sit through the visit and enjoy the taste.

And that was when I connected my experience to some of the other angry felines that may come visiting.

Why is it that we can even consider ordering these prawns more than once, knowing that they carry a punch, and then have such a hard time inviting issues that may carry emotional punch?  I am sitting at the table with tears fogging up my glasses because of horseradish, but I am not getting up pacing, or berate the kitchen for selling something that has this effect, or yell for water, or in other ways get hijacked by my lizard brain even though it feels like an angry cat is where my executive function normally resides.

I think it is partly the gradual adaptation.

When we do communication training, the advice is to go 15% outside our comfort zone; into our learning/stretch zone.  It may be slightly uncomfortable to tell somebody that they have lipstick or spinach on their teeth, but it is harder to do the first time than once we have tried and gotten a profuse “thank you for letting me know.”  It is more difficult to say “please, let me finish” the first time you stand up for yourself against somebody interrupting you than when you have had an impact a couple of times.  Once it is not so hard any longer, our comfort zone has expanded.  Now we can add another 15%.

Likewise with spicy food.  We can add a little wasabi to a piece of tuna and if we don’t like it, add a little less and see how that feels.

Or we can get overwhelmed, like my friend who, new to sushi, ate a mouthful of avocado on the side of her sushi plate only to discover it was wasabi.

We can get overwhelmed if we are not ready for the stretch we are exposed to.  When somebody gives us unkind feedback, bullies us on social media, or steps on one of the very personal landmines we all walk around with unless we have done a whole lot of cleaning up in our shadow, the parts of our personality, habits, and memories we don’t really want to take ownership to.

Can we sit through the overwhelm, observe it, and feel it recede?  Inhale. Exhaaaaaale.

Looking a little deeper inside requires that we feel safe enough to do so.  Sometimes it takes having somebody support us.  Having somebody support us while we have an emotional angry cat in the attic can create a safe space for us to get curious and brave.  But asking for help is often way outside people’s 15% stretch zone and just using the term “safe space” can trigger some of the very people who may need help the most*.

Isn’t it interesting how it makes a difference what we call things if we want them to appeal to the audience we want to reach?

*Source: Ronald Levant on Psychotherapy with Men


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

SOLD OUT! JOIN OUR WAITING LIST! It's not a virtual event. It's not a conference. It's not a seminar, a meeting, or a symposium. It's not about attracting a big crowd. It's not about making a profit, but rather about making a real difference. LEARN MORE HERE



  1. Charlotte, thank you for sharing. I was blessed at a young age to have a sister that told me that dreams were an actual place where you could go and to be bold and fearless. While I have had hard times, I just kept walking toward the light leaving my trouble behind………

    • Dreams is nothing more than wishes
      you wish to come true…

      Now you have You’ve Got Mail playing in my head, Larry.

      Good for you to have a sister like that. Some say that the fairy tales we teach children live in their dreams like an archetype programming. Seems your sister gave you a hero’s role. Better than a sleeping princess, I tell you…

  2. Thanks Charlotte. I have a question. I have been contemplating and throwing ideas up in my mind in relation to adapting – stretching our tolerance in some situations.
    Clear communication is essential in the process, but that nuance is around behaviour tolerance. I have been observing behaviour at work which for me is in appropriate, but when discussing it with s the receiver of the behaviour they comment they either didn’t hear it, see or or affected by it. One comment was she was so used to it, it didn’t affect her anymore.

    As a result of this, I am questioning when do we need to say something and is it the receiver’s responsibility or does it extend to observers to raise the issue. After all, my perception of the situation is triggering me, but not others. Who is to say what is appropriate or not? Are we so desensitised to situations, that communicating perceived inappropriateness is more of a challenge.

    I apologise if these questions are unrelated to the core of your topic – expanding one’s comfort zone of communication, I would appreciate your and other’s take on this aspect of communication outside of the comfort and safe zone.

    • No apologies needed, Marmulla.

      This is a dicey question. I read that you wish to be an ally for somebody who has a thick armor against comments or behaviors you find offensive. In this case I would go very deep inside and notice what you feel. Does it make you feel less safe or is it more indignation?
      If it makes you feel stereotyping is happening, you could be the victim of stereotyping as well when you are not present and it is IMO totally legit to address that. But stay with how the specific behavior impacts you. (See the Play Ball article.)

  3. Hi Charlotte
    I loved the description of eating wasbi ” It is like having an angry cat inside your head, trying to scratch its way out through the top of your skull.” I definitely made the avocado mistake myself in the beginning. I have gradually adapted to the sushi head-sweat.
    I understand your analogy to gradual adaptation -becoming more comfortable with delivering helpful feedback or standing up for oneself.
    As you point out getting “out of your comfort zone” needs to be a choice and communications training is a great “safe space,” in which to do that.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Alan. I had a wasabi mayo today with some fish. Just a little playful kitten…

      It is so fascinating to me that most big companies realize the usefulness of giving their spokesperson some training being grilled by journalists, but don’t think managers need coaches. Is public loss of face worse than the employees walking out the door because leaders don’t know how to communicate?

salon 360°