Insights on empathy and trust in remote work culture

We’re socially distant; boy are we. I don’t know about you, but I’m hungrier than ever for real human connection. I’m famished for hugs, ravenous for the sweat and noise of gatherings. Zoom, as important and innovative as it is, feels like the half-baked grocery store sheet cake of contact. In this enforced PAUSE, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes human relationships work, even, and especially, when it’s more difficult. And blame the cabin fever, but what I’ve concluded involves an old acting class exercise and a certain stalwart of fragrant produce. Bear with me.

I was standing at the counter chopping onions on yet another night of cooking at home for myself. The domestic practice doesn’t come easily for me — I’m an extrovert at heart, and in the days B.C. (Before Corona), evenings would find me out at comedy shows, restaurants, a friend’s patio… always surrounded by people, who are my place of comfort. Unable to engage with the outside world during this bizarre period of enforced solitude, I did what I could do instead: I engaged with the simple act of preparing food. I engaged with the onion.

My skills are poor, to be sure. I’m clumsy with the dicing and my eyes sting within moments. There is an art to cutting an onion that minimizes the tears. I have not mastered it. During a brief stint as a server at a cooking event company, I’d watch from across the room as the chef demonstrated proper chopping form with acuity and speed. If you slice with a sharp enough knife and at just the right angle, the tear-inducing chemical is kept at bay. I’m not a chef. When I take my dull hacksaw to the poor vegetable, the result is a massacre. My face is a mess. Why do battle with such a predictably difficult ingredient?

We know why: The moment it goes into the hot pan with plentiful olive oil and garlic, we remember. The smell is divine. The flavor is rich. The food is warm and grounding. And making it with our own hands, as messy and destructive as it might be, helps us trust ourselves. The tears are a part of it.

Humans love to understand our own psychology through the metaphor of the humble onion. In my work on zanie, an app whose mission is to help people working remotely to build trust and rapport when they can’t share physical space, I’ve gained a new respect for the vegetable. In fact, it’s informed an entire field of study. The Social Penetration Theory, developed by psychologists in the 1970s, posits that human relationships develop through a gradual process of progressive self-disclosure. That is, over time, we peel back layers as we get to know each other, from the shallow, less intimate facts about ourselves, to our deeper, more profound truths and beliefs. In onion terms, we have a thin sheath of armor that’s no good to eat but that protects us out in the world from the harsh elements. One layer beneath that, we’re a little tough, defenses up; our personalities are detectable, but nobody’s crying yet. Cut down another centimeter, and you begin to experience the truth of the onion: a riot of flavor, dynamic and complicated. And the center, of course, is the juiciest morsel of all. You could buy your onions pre-chopped, or your food pre-made, but that’s a different thing altogether: it’s a different relationship with your meal.

If the Social Penetration Theory is a left-brain way into understanding how connection works, let me offer a right-brain example from my college acting class. The exercise: we sat in a circle on the floor, taking turns one at a time standing up in the center, turning slowly all the way around, making eye contact with each person, and saying, “Look at me. I give you permission to look at me.” It was a quick, profound way to shoot an arrow to the center of each other’s proverbial onions. We were all in tears from the immediacy and intimacy of such a direct, unapologetic connection. Over 15 years later, my classmates still feel like family. There’s a level of trust that’s rooted in the ground of our subconscious. Of course, this is an extreme example, and I don’t suggest all humans on earth become actors so we can make contact on a deep level (HA!). But it’s a powerful illustration of the trust that can be built if we allow ourselves to be seen as we are, warts and all. Real, lasting connection requires we open ourselves up and invite others in.

(This piece first appeared on Medium.)

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