New Terms for New Times
Weltschmerz, Slacksplaining, Ambient Stress, Kairos Time, Involution
Quote of the Moment
Nostalgia is the defining emotion of the postmodern era. Now, in the postnormal, it's weltschmerz, the 'homesickness for a place you have never seen', a world we may never occupy.
| Stowe Boyd, via Twitter
New Terms for New Times
This issue is dedicated to new terms I’ve recently encountered, which strangely converge on this turning point in human time.
Slack-splaining is the practice of over-explaining digital communications to ensure they aren’t misunderstood. It looks like adding extra exclamation marks, emojis, extra sentences, or filler words to be extra sure your meaning and tone are coming through exactly how you intend.
Over half of our respondents mentioned they’re worried they’ll say the wrong thing, which stems from the negative impact that miscommunication can have on an employee's mental health. Our survey found that 62% of knowledge workers say miscommunication negatively affected them, and 20% say that miscommunication and/or misinterpretation has caused them to get reprimanded, demoted––or even fired!
This trend isn’t limited to just Slack or instant messages. The survey results found it happening across email and other forms of written work-based communication too.
Too much noise, not enough signal? Too much content, not enough context?
Jamie Ducharme connects the consequences of pandemic stress with a term I had not heard:
In an American Psychological Association survey published in October 2021, 75% of people said they’d recently experienced consequences of stress, including headaches, sleep issues, fatigue, and feeling overwhelmed.
Now, more than two years into the pandemic, many people still haven’t bounced back. One reason could be “ambient stress”—or “stress that’s running in the background, below the level of consciousness,” says New York-based clinical psychologist Laurie Ferguson. “There’s something amiss, but we’re not registering it all the time,” Ferguson says. “We’re always just a little bit off balance. We kind of function at a level like everything’s fine and things are normal, when in fact, they’re not.”
In a 1983 article, researcher Joan Campbell described ambient stressors as those that are chronic and negative, cannot be substantively changed by an individual, usually do not cause immediate threats to life (but can be damaging over time), and are perceptible but often unnoticed. “Over the long run,” Campbell wrote, these stressors could affect “motivation, emotions, attention, [physical] health, and behavior.”
We function at a level like everything’s fine and normal, when in fact we are always a little off balance, affected by ambient stressors we hardly notice.
I’ve learned from Enuma Okoro about time having two sides:
The ancient Greeks had two understandings of time, chronos and kairos, both of which we adhere to and are already familiar with, even if not by name. Both are valuable, but one rarely gets enough attention.
Chronos time is simply chronological time, how we measure our days and our lives quantitatively.
When the world started keeping measurable and predictable time, the basis by which we organised and planned our lives shifted. It became more orderly and efficient, yes, but I can’t help but wonder what we might have lost alongside what we gained.
But how do we account for the qualitative time of our lives? How do we honour kairos time, what the Ancient Greeks understood as the most opportune time for something new?
To grasp kairos time we have to release some of our anxiety around chronos time. During these past months, I’ve been trying to follow the daily internal pulls I have to go outside and take a walk. […] It takes my focused attention to the present moment to slow down and embrace the length of the walk. When this happens, I tend to catch some new and unexpected insight, either from something I see and encounter in nature, or a thought that just opens up out of nowhere.
A kairos moment can open up anywhere, for any length of chronological time. It can be as minute as recognising that sudden need to take a walk in the fresh air to clear your head, trusting that such a simple act of self-care is not a waste of time, but is affordable time. Meditation, leisurely reading, walks, staring out the window, fishing, gazing at art, dancing, slow cooking, conversations of intentional listening, acting in the moment when your intuition speaks, these are all things that keep you attentive, open and in tune in the present moment, where opportunity resides, in the here and now.
So, quantitative, linear, delimited, chronos time alternating with qualitative, non-linear, flowing, kairos time.
I completely missed the emergence of the term ‘involution’, which has arisen in China along with the ‘lying down’ movement. Lying down is a term that represents a retreat from a world dominated by work, dropping out and working as little as possible to make ends meet. Involution is a companion term, indicating a state of overwork imposed by an implacable and demanding work culture. Yi-Ling Liu describes it well:
Last September, a student at Beijing’s élite Tsinghua University was caught on video riding his bike at night and working on a laptop propped on his handlebars. The footage circulated on Chinese social media, and shortly afterward more photos of other Tsinghua students—slumped at cafeteria tables, buried under stacks of textbooks—appeared online. Commentators proceeded to roast the insane work ethic on display and tag the students as part of a rising generation of “involuted” young people. The cyclist became a meme—“Tsinghua’s Involuted King”—and a flurry of blog posts on Chinese social media criticized the “involution of élite education,” while an article published by the state-run Xinhua News Agency dissected the “involution of college students.” By the time winter arrived, the idea of involution had spread to all corners of Chinese society.
The meme of involution has spread from college campuses to what is for many graduates their next destination: China’s hypercompetitive tech industry. Tech workers have begun to sense the involution of their lives: those employed at large tech firms often work hours known as “996” (nine in the morning to nine in the evening, six days a week). Whereas “996” was once a badge of honor, the phrase is now uttered with ironic despair, and has swelled into new iterations such as “007” (working online twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week). Like the students, tech workers are resisting an idea offered by the business world and the government: that the technology sector, fuelled by single-minded market competition and the relentless hustle of its workforce, will propel China into a future of wealth and ease.
An echo of the underlying cynicism behind the Great Resignation? (Or what I will be calling The Great Retransformation in an upcoming issue.)