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Fountain of Useless Knowledge

My parents used to refer to me as their “mobile encyclopedia”.

I know it sounds like boasting, but one can’t really boast about having a good memory any more than one can be proud of being tall. Most of it is genetics and the rest is probably a good diet when you were a kid.  Perhaps I am part Neanderthal?

My memory is like mating flypaper with a sieve.  It is the weirdest and not always the most useful things that stick.  Hence the “Fountain of Useless Knowledge” moniker.

After we moved from Denmark to the USA, my father would from time to time call and ask some silly question that he could just as well have looked up in his 36 volume real encyclopedia.  (He never got into that you could just as easily use Google.)  In retrospect, I realized that this was just an excuse to call.

Based on Jungian psychology, the work of the late Debbie Ford refers to our light shadow; the parts of our potential we haven’t (yet) taken full ownership to while we really admire them when we see them in other people.  (Ford’s work is carried on by Pernille Melsted, from whom I have learned so much.)

In families, members are often “assigned” roles.  Like I was being the person who “remembers things”.  I remember things that my older sister has long forgotten.  Perhaps her role was to “be responsible” but not to “remember things”?  In the shadow vernacular, good memory would be in her light shadow, being responsible would be in mine.

One of the problems with these roles would be more apparent if I were totally irresponsible or my sister couldn’t remember anything.  Fortunately, it is not as bad as that.  But every time I try to step into my full self, there is this little voice that says that I don’t want to compete with my sister.  For her, there are similar feelings that if she does this or that, she competes with me.

One could reasonably suggest that we are just afraid to step out of our comfort zones and to stretch ourselves.  But as anybody who has ever wrecked a relationship because they no longer wanted to show up as expected can attest, these dynamics can be very sensitive – especially when we love the people involved endlessly.

Another problem with these roles is that although playing your role works fine within your family, playing the same role in other contexts may not be as welcome.  But because you play this role so well, it easily becomes a default to show up that way.

Like the proverbial hammer that makes all problems nails, my “encyclopedia” role often makes me show up as a knower of stuff when I probably should just open my heart to the interaction.

Even when I know that this context calls for me to meet it with an open heart, my head wants so badly to get involved.  Look at me, I know stuff!

It is only recently I made the connection from my head-first approach to my father calling me.  Could I be conditioned to stay in the head by receiving a ton of positive emotions and close connection when I showed up this way?  And because my father was a very private person, was he uncomfortable when I showed up more open-hearted?

Unfortunately, I can no longer ask him, but this nugget of insight has at least/at last, given me an explanation for why it has been so important for me to be seen as a “knower of things”.  With this insight, I may (hopefully) be more intentional about when knowing stuff should be my M.O. and when not.

Because as useful as “knowing stuff” can be, when the context calls for a heart-first response, I really don’t want to show up just as a fountain of useless knowledge.

Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamphttp://www.usdkexpats.org/
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 USDKExpats.org. 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.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Charlotte, this post is my story in reverse order. My elder brother has a photographic memory. He remembers events when he was less than three years ago. My memory is not bad, but compared to my brother. I fall way behind.

    This encyclopedic memory is indeed double-edged. It helps in socializing and being active in discussions. But also, like you said, it also becomes a silo for irrelevant memories and makes forgetting what need to be forgotten a difficult task. Yes, it is a delicate balance.

    • Thanks for relating, Ali.
      I am not as worried about remembering things as I am of how I use them. One trap is the one described here. Another – and I have been guilty if that as well – is that as we only know our own memory and what it is or isn’t capable of, we may judge others for their level of recall. If (generic) you don’t remember something that is important to (generic) me, would I infer that it was not important or interesting to you? And if so, how does that impact our relationship?

  2. Charlotte, Very insightful message. I see most of the things that confront us as simply life. My father always said just keep walking it is just a patch of road. While that is knowing it was also from the heart. Thank you for sharing .

    • Thank you for commenting, Larry. Your father was a wise man.

      The picture that came up in my head was how a black doormat or piece of carpet can keep people with Alzheimer from wandering off because they interpret the black as a hole they don’t want to fall into. Don’t we all sometimes see an insurmountable obstacle in what is just “a doormat”?

  3. Charlotte, I met you only recently, and we had a few interactions through commenting. My first impression of you was that you are a “knower of things,” thoughtful, and logical. Your comments are not superficial and hollow compliments. This article reveals more of your true inner self. You opened your heart and showed your vulnerability.
    The big truth is that we are all products of our culture. It influences our way of thinking and behaviour. But there’s much more about every one of us than what is seen on the outside. Your head is more close to your heart than you recognize. Your writing shows that.

    • Thanks, Lada, you are so right about the differences in expected behaviors influencing how we show up. In my latest weekend class we had a little productive discussion on the advice “you should smile more” – both a sexist and cultural imperative. I don’t see Angela Merkel smiling the way Kamala Harris is supposed to, and I doubt any German would tell her to.

      I do believe there is nothing wrong with my vagus nerve. I guess I am a not uncommon product of a childhood of too many “you are too emotional”s.

      • Interesting thought about smiling as a cultural imperative. Actually, the perception of a smile differs across cultures. I don’t have much trust in politicians who always smile in public. It doesn’t seem sincere. That’s why I have more trust in Angela Merkel than other politicians. :)

        You mentioned the vagus nerve. A few years ago, I read that we can stimulate it. There are many ways. The best one for me is socializing and laughing.

  4. Charlotte — I started to write a comment, but realized – “Oh, drat!” – that Kimberly had already said it much better than I could. Let me just put it this way: whenever I see a piece you’ve written or comment you’ve left, I know they’re worth reading.

    • Thanks, Jeff, I hope you have read my answer to Kimberly’s comment.

      One of the things I love about BC360 is that as a general rule members don’t only read the posts, they also read the comments, whether here or when Dennis pushes the articles to LinkedIn. And that often makes for much better discussions than if every trail is just one reader and the author.

  5. Oh Charlotte, I don’t know what it is about your writing, but I always feel emotional after I read your work. My experience of you is much more expansive than “you-know-a-lot-of-stuff.” While you may approach life from a head-space, I would counter that your head is closely married to your heart, and that is what leads you to so thoughtfully interact with others. The fact that you’ve even explored the question around why your father called to ask you something, is proof of your ability to think deeply about things. Most people wouldn’t even consider the “why” behind the calls. I’ve told you this before and I stand by it, you “see” deeply and mirror back that richness in a way that causes others to look more deeply in your wake. If that’s not heart, I don’t know what is. Sometimes we’re so close to our gifts that we don’t recognize them for what they are. Yes, you know a lot of stuff (and I won’t let my envy get in the way of appreciating you, as I forget why I climbed the stairs to get something most days), but your “knowing” is just a small piece of what you offer the world. It’s simply your springboard.

    • This is such a kind comment, Kimberly, thank you. I was not on a fishing expedition for affirmation; I do try to be mindful when I respond to posts or comments, and I am happy if it shows.

      But writing allows us the luxury of time that speaking does not. We can read what we wrote and edit and delete if the tone is off. We can use the thesaurus if we need a word to be softer or sharper. So trust me, I am more eloquent and thoughtful in writing than when I get triggered. :-).

      As for the “Why”: This is the bane of Danish culture. Ask any American who have been asked to lead a team of Danes. “Because I said so” holds no currency.

      Personally, I am of the belief that any habit we have, we have formed for a good reason. But that reason may have gone away and now we just are stuck with the habit. So if we can find that reason, we don’t need to beat ourselves up over our “bad” habits but can say “thank you for your service, you may leave now”, knowing that we are still safe and seen.

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