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Stumbling Block

I was arriving late to a virtual T-group.

Where I come from, showing up late to a meeting is not polite. Being late signals disrespect for the other people in the room. I know that not all cultures have the same attitude when it comes to punctuality but, even in the US, being late for a business meeting is not seen as professional. Is a virtual T-group a professional setting? I felt a little vulnerable.

If you don’t already know about T-groups, it is a training group where people train communication skills. We give each other feedback on how the way we show up and what we say influence the rest of us. Not “Influence” as in whether we change our opinions about anything but whether what we say and how we say it makes the rest of the group want to engage more with us or whether they feel more distant.

If showing up late is disrespectful, “the way I showed up” was not all positive. I could ignore how I felt – or I could share how I felt a little on the back foot because my entry had been — less perfect than I had hoped for.

I used the term “falling on my face over the doorstep.”

Nobody cared about me being late; they were happy that I was there. That was nice.

Could there be anything other than cultural preference for timeliness that influenced how I felt? Was making an entrance something I cared about?

Inside me bubbled up stories from my childhood and of my children’s childhoods; stories that are full of ancient lore from medieval times.

So let me take you on a short detour back with me to Valhalla.

You know of Valhalla?

In modern times it is a place where Anthony Hopkins walked around with a patch for one eye as Allfather Odin, and Chris Hemsworth had long hair and a big hammer named Mjolner. That realm is of Hollywood, not of my ancestors. Better think of Tolkien’s Rohan if you want to think of Viking worlds.

To the Vikings, Valhalla was where the dead went if they had died bravely on the field of battle. There they would drink all night and during the day go and fight each other again but suffer no wounds that could not be easily patched up by the Valkyries.

And then there was the other place – Hel – where the old and infirm, those that didn’t die in battle, those that suffered “straw death” by dying in their beds, would go.

Hel was positioned way below Jotunheim. Like Styx, it had its river of dagger-sharp ice floes and the entry was guarded by Nidhogg, a feathered dragon.

The place was fenced in with only one gate, and whoever entered the gate would have to pass Stumbling Block, the board at bottom of the doorway, that by moving up and down assured that you would enter Hel headfirst, face in the mud.

Yes, things have names in Norse mythology and even concepts can take human form, putting up a good fight now and again. Try to outrun Thought or out-dance Age… They always win.

Enough Norse mythology for today.

This train of thoughts made me ponder what purpose a good faceplant would serve? Well, it is certainly humiliating. But it is also equalizing. Regardless of whether you were a thrall or had been sent off in a Viking ship; in Hel, you would all be humiliated and dirty.

So that brought me back to my T-group where, if not dirty and humiliated, I at least felt “one-down” due to my late arrival. But was I “one-down”? When nobody else seemed to care, why did I?

One thought was that allowing everybody else to be “one-up” could be a defense mechanism that assures that people get less offended, should they be so inclined. Perhaps they didn’t care because I was already contrite?

Another was how often do we carry our own stumbling blocks around with us – and then use a lot of energy trying to avoid stumbling?

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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.

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4 CONVERSATIONS

  1. So much to ponder on in this lovely post, Charlotte.

    Not “Influence” as in whether we change our opinions about anything but whether what we say and how we say it makes the rest of the group want to engage more with us or whether they feel more distant.
    I find the above thought so bright. I love the way the T-Group deals with influence. It is a winning thought.

    Valhalla was where the dead went if they had died bravely on the field of battle. Hel – where the old and infirm, those that didn’t die in battle,
    Reading the above from this post I wondered about distant countries with different histories and cultures thinking similarly. In the old Arabic history w there is a famous quote that those who die in battles are different and more honored than those who die comfortably in their beds.

    Another was how often do we carry our own stumbling blocks around with us – and then use a lot of energy trying to avoid stumbling? This is so true, Charlotte. We carry heavy negative thoughts and them we consume our energies carrying them. In any way, it was good that you we relate to your meeting because it resulted in this superb post.

  2. Thank you for this, Charlotte. As a lover of mythology, I appreciate the share. Also, more significantly, we are often harder on ourselves than others. I am sure that they hardly noticed. High expectations like sensitivity are a blessing and a curse. We are hardest on ourselves, but frequently, most forgiving of others.

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