Out-of-the-box or Jack-in-the-box?

14 Oct

Ever wondered at the paradoxes around you? Such as when you were small, your parents and elders might have told you things like, “Children must be seen and not heard,” or “Be quiet, your opinion doesn’t count.”

Children are taught to be quiet, respectful and most of all conformist. Sri Lankan culture is a very conformist culture that abhors deviations and aberrations. God help the child who thinks or acts ‘differently’ from the mainstream. He or she is likely to be bullied at school as well as sneered at by the adults.

And so most of us grow up learning to conform.

The ‘rebels’ out there, who deliberately disobey your parents, have wild parties and indulge in behavior which you know that society does not approve of – for your information, you are ‘conforming’ too. You are conforming to standard set practices of what you think it means to rebel.

We are not very creative as a culture, whether it comes to conforming or even, ironically, not conforming. Yet, when you start entering adulthood, have you noticed?; you are taught at most courses in university or private institutes to think ‘creatively.’ When you enter the workplace, bosses ask for creative solutions to problems.

What exactly do they mean by creativity? And just how do they expect us as adults to suddenly think out-of –the-box as they term it in their jargon, when as children, we had such thinking literally boxed out of our ears?

Children are naturally creative in their thinking and problem solving skills. It is the several years of adult conditioning around them that drives it out. Most of us can relate to childhood memories of being looked at like Jack-in-the-boxes for coming up with some out-of-the-box suggestion. Then, the adults might have told us – nope, this is the way you have to think, this is the way you have to walk and this is the way you have to talk.

When you hit adulthood and realize what a mess they have made of the world you are to inherit with that mode of thinking and acting however, they acknowledge (or at least the more progressive ones do), that what they are doing is not working and so they want you, the next generation to think out-of-the-box and come up with creative solutions to fix it.

Right, Good Luck!

Even as a child, I remember my mother criticizing me for constantly asking questions. “Goodness, child, why must you always ask so many personal questions of people?”
Because I was naturally curious and wanted to know? Because children are still learning about the workings of the world around them and so ask a lot of questions?

As a seven year old, I was fascinated to find out for the first time they was such a thing as fake gold, which looked (to my eyes) prettier than real gold jewellery. So when a lady sporting a very decorative jewellery set on her person visited my home, I asked her, “Wow aunty, is that fake gold?”

The woman’s face blackened like I had deliberately set out to insult her and my mother apologized for having such an obnoxious child. She said that I was always asking such idiotic questions of people and she didn’t know what to do about it and then the conversation took the route of ‘kids these days.’

After having it drummed into me throughout my childhood that I was NOT to ask inquisitive, probing questions of people, I found myself as a journalist in adulthood doing just that. What had come so naturally to me in childhood had to be re-learned all over again.  As a green young intern, I wouldn’t ask any probing questions of people and would come back with only information they had volunteered.

Asking them ‘personal’ questions was a no-no, remember? Rule Number One that I had learned as a child and found so difficult to unlearn as an adult: NEVER ask ladies their ages. I can still remember the kohl rimmed furious eyes of the aunty who snarled, “None of your business kid” to that question.

The very first interview / profile I wrote as a young journalist did not mention the interviewee’s age anywhere. When my editor pulled me up to ask my why, I had to shuffle and admit I hadn’t asked. When she asked again WHY, (the thought did flash in my mind whether she hadn’t ever been taught not to ask ‘WHY?’), I had to point out to her, it was considered a culturally inappropriate question to ask.

This time a pair of flashing eyes from behind steel rimmed glasses glared at me. Déjà vu!

“You are a journalist and we don’t conform to social niceties. Go and ask the question and put it in your article.”

Sigh, Right!
It took me nearly two years to re-learn how to fearlessly and inquisitively ask people questions of their work and lives, the way I had done as a child.  Because I am a journalist. And what people would love to know but wouldn’t ask for themselves because they have built all those societal rules around them, I have to ask on their behalf and put in the paper. So that they can then read, know about and understand the world, in a more ‘civilized’ fashion.

Meanwhile, the rest of you start thinking ‘out-of-the-box’ as the adults around you would now tell you. Because thinking within their boxes didn’t get them anywhere and it’s up to you now to set the world to rights.

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