Thursday, March 29, 2007

Being comfortable with the uncomfortable

Many people experience discomfort when they encounter something that challenges an existing held belief or understanding about their world. It is often not something people are conscious of, and while the reaction may occur in the form of a feeling, most often it does not: it is merely an immediate visceral rejection to the stimulus which emerges as a sense that it is simply wrong.

Comfort represents a condition or state in which a belief has solidified and become firmly entrenched. The stimulus is challenging precisely because it threatens this established order, it is literally stirring up that which has settled in the mind.

We are not talking about stimuli that are blatantly offensive, such an an image of one person violently kicking another; discomfort and rejection at a subconscious level can be precipitated by something relatively innocuous.

A case in point: OFD was invited to talk with some folks in the advertising industry recently about the luxury car brand they were representing. The task at hand was to understand how to sell more of these expensive vehicles in what is a heavily contested market. OFD raised the need to understand the intersection of the core idea of luxury with current cultural trends. The former is what people have a fundamental relationship with, but due to the modulating, moderating effect of the latter, it needs to be re-contextualized to attain contemporary relevance.

In this regard the group was asked to consider how the quality of power could be play out in the current luxury climate. There was immediate resistance. The associations which they had with this term - dominance, an aggressive attitude or display, abuse - were firmly entrenched and got in the way of openly engaging with the idea. There was much discussion, but the echoes of the deeply held beliefs about power kept coming out. The idea that the character of power could be different, something intimate, privately experienced and enjoyed rather than being aggressively and publicly displayed created real discomfort, real friction.

As a society we have stopped appreciating the value in feeling uncomfortable and forgotten how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. These are unpredictable and uncertain times, which only heightens people's tendencies to want to cling to the familiar. This is above and beyond the cultural forces that work beneath the surface of our daily consciousness which push us towards inertia and stability rather than flux and change.

In the pursuit of progress, the idea itself is not enough. The context in which the idea is exposed, the 'mental environment' in which people encounter it has a critical impact on the ability to fully understand the idea itself as well as the ability to fully engage with it.

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