Curious About…Dignity

It first hit me in Fuxing Park last spring.

I was being interviewed by a journalist from Beijing. She was keen for us to get out of the office to walk and talk, to have ‘culturally immersive’ experiences together, to both react to these experiences and discuss the implications.

Fuxing Park (复兴公园) lies at the corner of Shanghai’s former French Concession and is where many older Chinese people gather early every morning to do their exercises, gossip, and start their day. On this particular day, the cool spring mist gave everything a slightly surreal, otherworldly air. There were all kinds of activities going on: a strange form of choreographed badminton done to music that had a very stylized, almost balletic feel to it; various singing groups singing traditional folk songs; a laughing class that had to be seen to be believed; a particularly bizarre hair-pulling exercise group; top spinning; kiting; and interwoven through out the park, various dance troupes—samba, marimba, jive.

But it was the waltzing that really got to me.

I was standing watching with two colleagues and the journalist (and unfortunately her photographer as I later found out). We heard a slow, very evocative Chinese vocal (from the 1930’s or 40’s, I assume) and a lilting, waltz rhythm. Suddenly, out of the blue, at least 150 Chinese people glided by us in a perfect, synchronized waltz, pairs of people I later found out did not necessarily know each other before that day, many with their eyes closed. Most were in their sixties, some older; they were beautifully dressed—women in skirts and heels, men in suits. The joyous simplicity and honesty in this moment was pure perfection. Something welled up in me and almost without realizing it I found myself in tears. Turning around I saw that my colleague Alice was also crying. Alice is originally from Hong Kong, has lived in the UK for many years, and is slowly rediscovering her Chinese roots. Neither of us spoke, but we were both moved by the same thing.

It was their dignity.

I know it’s an odd construct, to connect old people waltzing in a Chinese park to dignity. But watching them drift by me, I could not help but wonder what they had seen, what struggles they had overcome, but see only their incredible calm mixed with tangible joie de vivre. They were SO in the moment. All I can say is that it showed. Although I’m a Brit I consider myself a New Yorker, having lived on and off in New York for over 20 years. I could not help but imagine the same scene played out in, say, Washington Square Park or Battery Park. Would it have had the same inherent lack of judgment, joyous abandon or simplicity of emotion? Or would people have been more self-conscious, ‘shown-off’ more, wanted people to notice and ‘see’ them? More to the point, would it have moved me to tears, or would I have shuffled past, ever the New Yorker, slightly annoyed and a bit embarrassed by it all?

In Tohoku in Japan a few months later I was moved again by something altogether more serious. Doing research for a TEDx talk on post 3-11 earthquake-stricken Japan, I started looking at images of disasters around the world, both natural and man-made. Three image in succession disturbed me—first, National Geographic’s images of The Superbowl in New Orleans’ being wrecked by looters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; second, the sheer raw violence of the clash between rioters and police in London’s riots this last summer, and thirdly, in stark contrast to the other two, an image of the Fukishima baseball teams in Japan one month after the earthquake and tsunami, standing in perfect lines facing each other and deeply bowing. I later found out that this team was in fact a hybrid of several teams, as many had lost team members in the disaster, and that they had cleared the baseball pitch of debris themselves as a community. The quiet dignity of them, of the scene, of the collective respect, moved me to say on stage: “Seeing these images, I would be proud to call myself Japanese.”

Finally, Bangladesh. I went to see Grameen Bank in action a couple of years ago, to meet Muhammad Yunus and understand how microfinancing really worked. One particular fact struck me: Grameen gives out small, collateral-free loans to beggars, except that they are called strugglers, as everyone struggles, some more than others. The interesting thing was that almost nobody, less than 1%, defaulted on their loan payments. The fact that they were treated as equals with everyone else made the social contact of belief in them come alive, and they paid on time. I remember thinking to myself as I talked with people who had overcome tremendous adversity through the loans that they had been given and the trust that had been engendered: “This thing is not a bank. It is a dignity engine.”

What Of It? As I approach middle-age, I wonder if dignity is a byproduct of getting older, or if that is too simplistic a way to see it. Watching pairs of people who just met waltz in perfect unison in a public park in Shanghai, seeing young women calmly carry water in Bangladesh and people quietly lining up to sell milk by the jug to the local Danone village dairy in Bogra, I am beginning to think it is a mindset, one that we seem to have forgotten. I am not for a minute saying that people in certain geographies, or only poor people or victims are dignified, but I am beginning to think that dignity is cultural, and that we in the West seem to be losing it, trading as we do on the insanity of reality-show newsfeeds and endless streams of crazy and undignified acts, appealing to and manipulating our basest instincts. If dignity is inherent in us, does modern life somehow push it out?

I Am Curious about understanding how to design more dignity into the work my colleagues and I do. We’re lucky in that IDEO looks for opportunities to explore domains and problems where this kind of human emotion is central—and in many cases, we can help amplify that. People need spaces left for trust, mechanisms for human expression, compassion, and honesty to shine, ways to inherently allow their better selves to come to the forefront, to be in the moment. I am looking, as I was in China, Japan, and Bangladesh, to be moved by dignity and to help it thrive.

Paul Bennett is Managing Partner and Chief Creative Officer of IDEO. Among his many contributions to the firm’s evolution into a global practice he’s worked on consumer experience design; helping to establish IDEO’s presence in China; and co-founding the New York office. Paul is based in Shanghai and is focused on bringing to market commercially viable, socially significant new businesses and consumer products, services, and experiences. He is responsible for company-wide content excellence, and he actively develops ideas (and publishes articles) related to the field of human-centered, design-led innovation.

Follow the link for Paul’s other Curiosity Chronicles.

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