At the outset of ubuntu is the agreement between two or more people that they see each other. Dumela for Basotho le ba Tswana is a cosmic contract between two people embracing each other’s being with the declaration: “Agree that you see me.” “Agee,” confirms the respondent, “I see you.” Similarly, when one says “Sawubona”, ngesiZulu, uthi in essence, “I see you”. MaXhosa wona athi “Bhota” meaning peace, when they are really greeting the presence of another.
I used to think it was “molo”, until I learned that that is a naturalised pronunciation of the Afrikaans “môre”. An indigenous greeting, therefore, is a very profound mutual agreement between people.
Today, we ritually say these words without these meanings necessarily attached. We equate dumela with good morning, an unwitting error that is the hallmark of our modern humanity. The former pivots around a profound ideological concept of “seeing” the humanity of another, and the latter is a tool that precedes one’s presence.
How has our digital communication affected our relationship to the concept of seeing each other’s humanity? I’m thinking of the capacity of an email or WhatsApp interaction to hold this fundamental idea of seeing. Whenever I make a new friend, or a new connection with a person I have shared a particularly sparkly encounter with, I take those connections extremely seriously. I do my best, without being too much on the next person who has their own personal blueprint for communication, to try to convey to said person that, hey, I value this connection and would like to build on it whatever form it takes.
Because work is such a huge part of my life, that connection can usually be mutually realised through work. For me, “let’s make a project together” is the safest way to express an interest in the other person’s being when, actually, what I really mean is: “I really see you on a fundamental level and would like to establish trust between us so we may realise the reason for the encounter on a basic and cosmic level.”
The work angle usually works to facilitate the initial exchange of contact information. But I’ve often found that this deep connection you shared with someone in real life can often lose its lustre once it is taken online. I was recently blue-ticked by one of these connections and, as much as I would like to say it didn’t hurt, it did. Blue ticking is when someone reads your WhatsApp and doesn’t respond.
People are people and we need to be generous in our interpretations of what people do or don’t do because we are all going through something, somewhere. I’ve learned, for example, that some people have a different relationship to time. When I apologised for a tardy response to a friend who lives overseas, he said something like “You don’t need to apologise. You and I operate on our own morsel of time.”
When I didn’t hear from my blue ticker after I sent him my last (very profound and quintessentially “us”) WhatsApp, I assumed the usual —he’s busy, he’s not an email person, he’s in his own time zone — and tried to accept it.
This is an old pattern in my life — sharing myself and then acutely experiencing a small rejection of that self by virtue of being ignored. It’s something I have carried since childhood and I’m pretty good at not making a big deal out of it although, on a deeper, more hidden level, it speaks to an unresolved need to be really seen. That need has nothing to do with my blue-ticker; it’s a part of my primal wound, which is part of my lot in this life.
When it happened again with another one of these sparkly connections recently, I decided to do more than shove that minor cut into the “oh well, she must be busy” category of excusing people and decided to take some emotional stock and acknowledge to myself that, actually, there is information inside this feeling of being hurt in this moment.
I’m practising to allow myself the right to be sensitive about some things and the right to admit that I’m a fragile, fragile human being and that it’s the very small things that matter. In addition to the feeling of my humanity not being seen in these digital exchanges, where a response is the only form of acknow-ledging the other person, this lack of response in a small way also erodes trust between the two humans on the two ends of a connection. Or does it?
How do we build friendships and good working relationships if there’s no room even to discuss issues of fundamental trust? The culture of “cancel him” is not always a viable option. If we all cancelled each other based on small and big infractions, what kind of society would we be? Right now, I’m kind of stuck for what to do. Do I tell these people that their blue ticking hurts me? Might they blue tick me again? Or do I let it go in the hope that our communication will form itself more naturally?
It’s easy to turn that anger of being rejected and ignored back on the other person and, in turn, ignore them. I’ve tried doing that and it’s not me. It kind of goes against this mutual agreement to see each other’s humanity. This is a piece of self-revelation that, in a world where we don’t really care about each other’s feelings, is difficult to express.