As almost every single human-being is in lockdown, and as we are attempting to cope to go on with our lives, another concern has been growing.
As if we do not have enough concerns already, that concern is around the speculation that we are never going back to normal.
In reaction to such a concern, a graffiti in Hong Kong read “There can be no return to normal because normal was the problem in the first place”. While I may not go as far as blaming “normal” for such gigantic problems, it’ll still be interesting to question “normal” and question certain aspects of it that we may not want to go back to.
As we attempt to define normal, we realise that so much of it is relative to a time and place and/or a mere perceived notion by whomever defined it or accepted it as normal. Clearly, there is no such thing as a normal to be applicable to every possible time, place or people.
Yet, we often find ourselves succumbing to it as not only the normal, but the only way of going about our lives.
Mistaking tradition for the normal
A story from the villages of the Czech Republic gives us an interesting perspective on normal, that is the fish baking story. It’s the story of a mum and her daughter who were baking a fish on a pan. The daughter observed how the mom cuts off the head and the tail of the fish right before cooking it.
Curious to know why her mom is doing it so, she asked her. And the mom’s only answer was “I’ve always done it that way — that’s how babicka (Czech for grandma) did it.”
An answer that did not fulfil the daughter’s curiosity, so she went to her grandmother with the same question, only to get the very same — unsatisfying — answer. Which pushed her to go to the great-grandmother, the originator of the normal way of baking the fish.
She had one simple answer “Because my baking pan was too small to fit in the whole fish.”
It was an invented normal due to a need at that time, Yet, two generations took it for granted as the normal way to bake a fish, never questioning it, although their new baking pan can fit the full fish.
Hearing the voice of authority
Normal seems to be what we take for granted and never dare to question. Such a behaviour is caused by the “Authority Heuristic”, which refers to the mental shortcut our brain takes to save on its energy, pushing us not to use it while just believing whatever a person of authority tells us. It is what we have seen in the mother’s answer: “That’s just how grandma did it”.
One normal that strikes a similar parallel to the story of the fish is the 9-to-6 office hours. We have long taken it for granted that these working hours are the only normal way to work, as if work can only get done within eight hours a day, five days a week and within the physical space of the office.
Well, just like the baking pan, this normal was only catering to a certain time. The industrial revolution pushed for the need of assembly-line workers. Hence, it was invented by the American labour union and aggressively pushed to the mainstream by Henry Ford.
Now, more than a century later, we succumb to it as a fact of life. Although no study has proven that these are the times office employees are most productive. At the same time, several studies are showing how harmful it is psychologically and physically to drag people every single day to be physically present in one place for nine hours.
Beyond the harms of this outdated normal, it is also counterproductive to jobs that require intelligence and talent. This so called “daily grind” is meant for talentless workers who only have their hard-work and time to show for and get paid.
It has always been clear that others with talent and intelligence should be following a different path, as Nassim Taleb puts it “only in recent history has “working hard” signalled pride rather than shame for lack of talent, finesse, and, mostly, sprezzatura.”.
We have seen in recent history how an industry like Hollywood was reaching its demise in the early 60s only because it wanted the talent to be bound to corporate contracts. Yet to this date, every single talent-based industry is binding its talent to a normal meant for the talentless assembly-line workers. A normal that was pushed for by Ford to meet his personal over-stretched production targets.
The 9-to-6 office hour is just another obsolete normal, but the list of such normal can go on. For instance, buying a diamond ring, which the man often cannot afford, was made the normal way to get engaged through a campaign by the copywriter Frances Gerety with her memorable line “A Diamond Is Forever”.
There will always be the legacy normal, like the flawed mass education system, and a new normal like FOMO (fear of missing out). If there’s a silver-lining to all this, it’ll be to seize the opportunity and reflect on what obsolete/outdated habits and behaviours have we succumbed into as normal.
And make a conscious decision to change them for a better, more relevant normal.
— Ahmad Abu Zannad is Regional Strategy Director at Leo Burnett MENA.