On being … a uniting way

By Ingrid Sapona

The United Way (UW) is a non-profit organization that raises funds that it then distributes to charities and groups within the local community. (I should point out that that’s my definition – not theirs. I imagine many readers are familiar with the United Way, but I thought a brief explanation might be useful.) I’m sure the UW raises funds all year long, but in the Toronto area its big fund-raising campaign is in the fall.

My first exposure to the UW annual campaign was 30 years ago when I worked at a large accounting firm. That’s when I realized that the UW’s primary fundraising approach is to partner with companies to tap into their employee base. This strategy has two significant benefits: it heightens peoples’ awareness of the work of local charities that are supported by the UW, and it provides access to a large pool of potential donors. Indeed, I don’t know if UW originated the idea of donations via payroll deductions, but that remains one of their signature methods of raising funds.

The company I’m currently working with has historically run a three-week UW campaign. In addition to signing folks up for payroll deductions (far the biggest source of donations), the campaign features a number of small fundraising activities. As you can imagine, putting on these activities can be quite labour intensive.

So as not to burden the same business unit year-after-year, the campaign is assigned to a different group every year. To their annoyance, the business unit group I’m working with was put in charge of this year’s campaign. Given that the campaign is an annual event, I was surprised at how disorganized the unit was at the start.

Though the company runs many of the same events every year (a bake sale, a company-wide bingo game, a 50/50 draw, silent and live auctions, a pancake breakfast, a hockey pool), it seemed no one had a clue about how these events were run in the past. It soon became clear that part of the issue was an attitude problem. Indeed, the phrase I’ve heard leaders in this organization use to describe their grudging participation in the corporate campaign is that they were “volun-told” to work on it.

I find that expression offensive. The way I see it, given how well off all the workers at the company are (they’re paid well and have rich pension benefits), I feel they should be volunteering to help a cause that gives back to the community – not waiting to be told to do so. I also think that such an outlook is bound to play out in terms of the campaign’s success. Indeed, that put-upon feeling clearly contributed to the inertia that the campaign suffered from at the start.

But, things started to come together once some of the co-op students and younger staff got involved. They gladly lent a hand with the “usual” activities and they came up with some new ones, including a haunted house, karaoke, and a foosball tournament. Though not everyone was keen on all their ideas, their enthusiasm made the decision easy: let’s give ‘em a try.

The campaign just ended and the final tally of how much was raised hasn’t yet been determined. Given that the purpose was fundraising, the dollar amount is undeniably an important measure. But, in terms of measuring the value of the campaign to the company, there are so many non-monetary benefits to running a campaign.

For starters, it’s a tremendous team-building exercise and a rare opportunity to work with folks from other business units. Each event required those involved to reach out to others within the organization for support – from working with facilities folks to stage different events, to the communications folks to advertise events, to getting folks to sell tickets, and getting people to come out for events.

It can also be an outlet for folks’ creativity – perhaps the best example of that was the clever story and props the students developed to bring the haunted house to life. And it can be a chance for folks to show-off their skills and talents – from baking, to singing, to foosball prowess. In other words, it can be a terrific way for people to share themselves. And, of course, it provides the opportunity for folks to give back in small ways (for example, contributing items for the bake sale) and in big ways (for example, through regular payroll deductions).

Maybe corporate United Way campaigns shouldn’t be seen as mere fundraising campaigns. Instead, they should be seen for what they can be: a uniting way campaign.
© 2019 Ingrid Sapona


On being … a lifelong learner

By Ingrid Sapona

Have you noticed how “lifelong learning” has become a thing? Well, it has. There are lifelong learning institutes and even an entry for it in Wikipedia. (There it’s described as “ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons.”)  While that sounds lofty, I think that definition is too narrow. Missing from it is the role necessity often plays AND the fact that traditional ways of learning – like classes, lectures, seminars, and discussion groups – aren’t always available or particularly useful.

The first time I really focused on what it means to be a lifelong learner was this past spring when my 92-year-old mother had to learn how to maneuver herself to and from a wheelchair. In the assisted living world, such movement is called transferring. Before moving to the wheelchair she’d been transferring using a walker that was not particularly stable. 

Initially, thinking Mom needed to develop more upper body strength in order to continue using her walker, we got her physiotherapy. That helped her get stronger but her physiotherapist brought in an occupational therapist, who suggested it would be better if Mom used a wheelchair instead of the walker. The two convinced Mom to try it and they worked with her to show her how to safely transfer.

Though it sounds straightforward, there are a lot of little things to learn (and get used to) when using a wheelchair. The occupational therapist was terrific, making suggestions that we’d never have thought of on our own, like angling the wheelchair a certain way, so that the transfer is safer, if not easier. On top of that, the therapists showed us ways of re-configuring her apartment to make it easier for her to get around with the wheelchair.

In the first or second week she was transitioning to using the wheelchair, I remember one day when she was almost in tears because she was overwhelmed at all the things she was having to re-learn to do. But, she took all the suggestions in and figured out how to adapt them, given her personal physical limitations. Besides being impressed (and grateful) at her determination to learn these new skills at 92, I couldn’t help think that she was a living example of a lifelong learner. I also realized what a difference finding the right teachers (the therapists) made.

The other day another lifelong learning example cropped up – this time for me and my sisters. All of us have iPhones and over the past week I had conversations with both my sisters where we all complained about some of the iPhone functions that were changed after the most recent operating system updates Apple pushed through.

Though I’m an Apple fan, I always feel a bit of dread when there’s an operating system update, as I wonder what changes I’ll have to get used to. Though some updates are relatively inconsequential, others install new apps and other “features” I don’t care about. When that happens, I just move the new apps to a folder I created for “extras”.  But some updates make changes to apps I rely on, and this can be extremely frustrating. In some cases, not only are the apparent “improvements” not obvious, it’s irritating to have to figure out how to do things you used to know how to do. 

It used to be that when you bought something, you got a manual that explained how to use it. But these days, if there is a manual, first you have to find it on-line. And, when you do, it’s almost guaranteed to be out-of-date, given how often tech companies update their products. Yes, Apple provides an information blurb with each update, but have you ever tried to make sense of them? The blurbs are jargon filled and cryptic for those who aren’t computer scientists. Here’s the beginning of the blurb for the pending update (for iOS 13.2): The update “… introduces Deep Fusion, and advanced image processing system that uses the A13 Bionic Neural Engine …”. Get that? Well I don’t… Is it any wonder I no longer bother reading the description before tapping: Download and Install?

My tech guru friend Sandy has taught me it’s usually worth googling the issue because sometimes you’ll find information about it. I do that – but often all I can find is reiteration of the tech speak Apple used and I’m no further ahead. If it’s a feature that I really depend on, then as a last resort I ask Sandy for help. But what do folks that don’t have a Sandy of their own do?

Well, the other day, I happened upon a source for helpful Apple operating system tidbits that I hadn’t thought of before. It was a NY Times piece titled: “16 Useful Gems in Apple’s New iOS 13,” by David Pogue. I recognized the name immediately because I’ve seen pieces he’s done for CBS Sunday Morning and I always found them a great combination of entertaining and sensible.

The piece was everything I could hope for – and more. It explained some of the changes my sisters and I were confused about and he talked about some cool features I never would have thought to try. (Surely it wasn’t just me that never realized that every September Apple does a big update – one that rolls out all sorts of things! No wonder my sisters and I felt helpless – it was a September release!)
Besides all the truly useful information in that article, finding it sparked a curiosity that I don’t have when I view tech changes as something merely to be coped with. In other words, it reconnected me with the joy of learning about new ways of using the tools at my disposal. It also helped me realize that I should search out more curated content to learn certain things. (Thank you, New York Times.)

I realize these two stories seem pretty different, but for me, they represent what lifelong learning is all about. At its core, I think lifelong learning is a mindset that accepts that as you go through life, things change and you can either be defeated by them, or you can learn to change too. And, it requires a willingness to try things and to be open to sources of knowledge and information that you might not have been exposed to before.

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona


On being … allowed

By Ingrid Sapona

I’m writing this on Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada. I’ve always loved Thanksgiving and though it took awhile, I’m reconciled to the differences in how it’s celebrated on both sides of the border. For example, in the U.S., once the turkey and pumpkin pie are over, the weekend is focused on football and shopping. Here, folks tend to squeeze in the turkey and pumpkin pie between cottage closing activities and getting out to see the autumn colours.

Despite these subtle differences, for me, Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on – and celebrate – all the things in my life that I’m thankful for. Like many, family, friends, food, and a lovely place to call home dominate my list.

But one particular news story from the past week has made me think about how much I have that I value and that I take for granted. The story was about the fact that for the first time in decades, women were allowed to attend a FIFA World Cup qualifying match in Iran. When I first heard the story, I thought I misunderstood. I had never heard – or thought – about women being prohibited from attending a soccer game.

I admit that I have exactly zero interest in soccer (at the World Cup level or any level), so perhaps it should not have surprised me that I’d never heard that women going to a game was an issue. I remembered being shocked at the news in 2018 that women in Saudi Arabia had finally “won” the right to drive, but I never thought much about what else women needed permission for in some places.

Though there are obvious common denominators to these two stories, somehow the idea of not being able to attend a soccer game seems very different to me. I guess I always assumed that things like driving bans are rooted in some misguided view of what women are capable of. All those ridiculous fictions about women being the weaker sex, or not as physically as capable, or not able to concentrate and focus – arguments that are total crap – are what I assumed were behind the panoply of limitations put on women in so many parts of the world. But none of these excuses could possibly apply to women who simply want to attend a soccer game.

Financial circumstance is another factor that often has a more direct impact on women than men. How many stories we’ve heard of families who – when they can’t afford to educate all their children – choose to only educate the boys. Of course, often what’s behind such decisions is another unfairness: the fact that girls are expected to work at home, while boys are free to learn – or just play. But even if we assume that poverty is equally disadvantageous to men and women – money can’t be behind why Iranian women soccer fans were not allowed to attend a game. (Clearly these women had the financial means to afford to attend a FIFA World Cup qualifying match.)

I’ve always been aware of the tremendous good fortune of having been born where – and when – I was. I don’t think I’ve ever taken that for granted. So, while I knew from an early age that there were things I wouldn’t be able to do or be – for example, a physician, an astrophysicist, or a concert pianist – I’ve always believed the reasons for this have to do with my personal aptitudes, skills, and interests. In other words, these things were never off limits because of my gender.

Mind you, I’m not saying there’s true equality between men and women in Canada or the U.S. – the wage gap and glass ceiling are prime examples of the inequality that still exists. But women are not systemically discriminated against here, as they are in so many other places in the world.

I suppose, in the spirit of celebrating Thanksgiving, I could embrace the Iranian soccer game story as a victory for Iranian women. Indeed, maybe it will prove to be the first step in “allowing” women other freedoms. I certainly hope it is. But honestly, though the story brought home to me all the freedoms I enjoy, more than anything, it made me angry for all the women of the world who need special permission to do something as simple as attend a soccer game.

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... good advice

By Ingrid Sapona

Unsolicited advice is a funny thing. Maybe it’s because it’s freely given, it’s often easy to ignore – and easy to forget. But it can also end up being profound. That’s certainly how I see the advice I got in 1987 from someone who offered me a job.

I was working overseas and I was applying for jobs to return to North America. Growing up in Buffalo, I thought Toronto, which was only about 100 miles away, would be an exciting place to live. So, I applied for positions in Toronto and in New York and I had an offer in both cities. Both offers were at large, international accounting firms and the positions were very similar.

By coincidence, Bill, the person hiring for the New York job, was a Canadian who was overseeing the NY group I would be working in. He was a dynamic guy and someone I thought would be interesting to work with. Rich, the person offering me a similar job in Toronto, seemed nice but I found him hard to read.

I was quite torn. I had truly hit it off with Bill but I wasn’t particularly interested in being in New York. Hoping Bill might understand my preference for Toronto, I asked him whether there was any way I could work for him there, instead of New York. He explained that wasn’t possible, because the job was with the U.S. firm.

Recognizing my trepidation, Bill offered me the best advice I ever got. He told me he thought I should choose the job in the city I wanted to live in. His rationale was that being where you want to be is more important than following a job. I took his advice and turned down his job offer, accepting Rich’s Toronto position instead. What neither Rich’s firm nor I realized was how tricky it would be for me to get permission to work in Canada. I ended up having to get full immigration status rather than come up on a work permit. The process took more than 18 months.

This past February I celebrated the 30th anniversary of becoming a landed immigrant in Canada. I ended up celebrating the actual day with Shanon – the immigration attorney who facilitated my immigration – we’ve been friends since she worked on my case!

If you’re surprised I didn’t write an On being … about that important anniversary, it’s because this year marks an even more momentous anniversary for me. Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of my becoming a Canadian citizen.

Growing up in the U.S., I always felt that voting is the most important right – and responsibility – conferred on citizens. To me, being able to vote means you have a voice that can shape the direction of your community and country. Without it, you’re not a full member of society. In both Canada and the U.S. only citizens can vote.

Back then, I think the rule was that you had to live in Canada for five years before you could apply for citizenship. On the one hand, taking Canadian citizenship was a no-brainer, given how strongly I feel about being able to vote. But, at the same time, it wasn’t something I did lightly. The main underlying question I asked myself was whether I thought I’d remain in Canada for the foreseeable future. Though I had only been here for five years, I was happy and felt at home here and I saw no reason to think that would change. So, I decided not to delay, and I applied for – and was granted – Canadian citizenship.

Given how significant these two anniversaries are for me, I thought a lot about how I might frame an On being …. I thought about writing about what all immigrants have in common: the conscious act of leaving one’s native country and settling in another country, often leaving friends and family behind. Of course, there’s no question that my immigration experience was charmed by comparison to many. But even so, there’s something humbling about asking a foreign government for status and having to make the case regarding what you have to offer that country.

I also thought that maybe I should write about what it’s like to be both American and Canadian, as that’s a somewhat unusual position to be in. I thought about writing about how, as a dual citizen, you feel you have a vested interest in both countries. Or perhaps I should write about how I relate to – and see – each country now, versus how I did 25 years ago.

But my mood is far too celebratory to delve into such weighty topics. Instead, this week I’ve been reflecting on how it is that anniversaries come about. The truth is, though we tend to celebrate anniversaries as though they’re an event that happens on a particular date, what we’re really celebrating is the choices we made that got us to the happy date.

When I think back on the root of these two anniversaries that mean so much to me, I can’t help think of Bill’s unsolicited advice. What a life changing gift it was, and how glad I am that I followed it.

What about you? Any advice you’ve been given that’s shaped your life, or led to a happy anniversary? Any advice you wish you’d followed?

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona


On being … calmer

By Ingrid Sapona

A major Canadian grocery store chain (Sobeys) recently announced it’s introducing “sensory-friendly” shopping hours. The first I heard of this was in a newscast that I had tuned into half way through. So, the only detail I caught was that store lighting would be reduced. When I heard that, I assumed the rationale was energy-saving, which I’m all for.

It turns out, however, there’s a lot more to the initiative than just reduced lighting. The program is designed to accommodate people with autism. According to Autism Ontario, many with autism are hypersensitive to lights and sounds. I had heard about those challenges, but I never really thought about how that might impact something as common as grocery shopping.

News stories about Sobeys’ announcement explained what this means to folks touched by autism – parents with children on the autism spectrum and adults with it. One woman with a daughter with sensory challenges welcomed the news, noting that grocery shopping is the task she dreads most, given her daughter’s issues. Another customer who shopped in one of the stores in Sobeys’ pilot said she was never able to take her daughter shopping. She was thrilled that her daughter could – for the first time ever – pick out her own treat at the grocery store. Ah, the things we take for granted …

The comments by adults with autism were just as moving. One woman explained that she and her partner usually shop together so that if there’s something they need in an aisle that’s “potentially overstimulating”, her partner can go and get it. An example of an aisle she usually finds challenging is one with lots of different smells, like those that emanate from laundry detergent and cleaning supplies. I have some idea of what she meant, since most of the chemical “fresh” scents give me a headache. So, I generally avoid those aisles too, unless I need something. But, while there might be one or two aisles that I skip, that woman said that in a normal grocery store, her partner ends up having to get about 70% of their groceries.

The adjustments Sobeys makes during its sensory-friendly hours are more extensive than I thought would be possible. For example, they dim the lights 50%. They ensure the store is as quiet as possible by not playing any music and not making announcements. They also silence the scanners (all those beeps) and registers. As well, during those hours they don’t gather up shopping carts and they encourage staff to speak more softly.

When they tested the idea in a few stores, they were concerned that with the lights so low, folks might think the store was closed or having a problem. But, when anyone asks about the changes, staff simply explain they’re trying to make the store more inclusive and welcoming to folks with sensory challenges. The feedback they got during the pilot was positive – and not just from folks on the autism spectrum. Some shoppers said they appreciated the quieter experience and others said they liked it because they found it relaxing.

I think the idea is fantastic – and not just because it could help people with autism. Creating quieter, calmer places is a worthy goal in itself. Everywhere we go we’re assaulted with sounds and smells. Only a handful of them are naturally occurring (the sound of birds chirping, dogs barking, food cooking, the smell of fresh cut grass, and so on). On top of that there’s the human-made background noise from traffic and talk and the constant hum of things like refrigerators and air conditioners. As if all that’s not enough of an assault on our senses, there’s “background music” and perfumes and “mountain fresh scents” added – all in hopes of drowning out other noise and masking other smells.

I truly believe most of us are overstimulated. For proof you need look no further than at the phenomenon of noise cancelling headphones or folks turning to people like Marie Kondo, who makes a living promoting techniques for bringing calm and serenity into homes.

I can’t wait to try shopping in a sensory-friendly environment, and I hope others will try it too. I think Sobeys’ efforts will raise awareness in more ways than they anticipated. Indeed, if nothing else, I think the contrast between normal grocery shopping the experience of shopping during these special hours will help folks appreciate just how much stimuli we’re bombarded with every day. I’ll bet this ends up appealing to a far broader spectrum of folks than just those diagnosed with autism and sensory challenges.

What about you? Would you go out of your way to shop in a sensorially calmer store? Do you think such changes would enhance – or detract from – your grocery shopping experience? Are there any other places you’d nominate for a sensory-friendly makeover?

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona


On being … in with the In Crowd?

By Ingrid Sapona

A couple weeks ago I read that an Ontario municipality (Richmond Hill) is going to provide residents with the option to pay their property tax using the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. As it happens, Richmond Hill’s the second Ontario municipality to do so – the town of Innisfil was the first to allow this. Innisfil has had a “Pay with Bitcoin” option on its website since April. 

My initial reaction was, “Say what?”, quickly followed by a suspicious “WHY?”

Seems a Toronto-based “payment processing company” called Coinberry has entered into agreements with these municipalities to facilitate such payments. Coinberry, which describes itself as a financial technology company, runs a platform where people can buy, sell, and “remit” Bitcoin. When a property owner clicks on the Pay with Bitcoin option on their municipality’s site, they’re then connected to the Coinberry app. The property owner electronically sends Bitcoin to Coinberry, who then converts the Bitcoin to Canadian dollars and pays the town.

Richmond Hill’s deputy mayor is quoted as saying this option’s no different than going to your bank and converting your Euros or Pounds into Canadian currency. That may be so, but Bitcoin’s been more volatile than traditional hard currency, so there’s some currency exchange fluctuation risk. Though Coinberry says it will “instantly” (that’s the word in their press release) convert the Bitcoin to Canadian funds, if there’s a price change during the transaction process, the property owner will have to make up any shortfall.

Given that the towns don’t actually end up with Bitcoin, Coinberry’s basically a middle man – an intermediary. Before Coinberry came to them with this “solution”, did Innisfil have a payment processing problem? Previously, Innisfil residents could “only” pay via phone or internet baking, credit card (using another third party service provider), cheque (via mail or dropped off in a box at the front entrance of the Town Hall), or pay in person using cash (presumably Canadian currency), cheque, or debit card at the Town Hall during normal business hours. And, if you have a mortgage, your mortgage company can pay your property tax. Come on – aren’t those enough options? I guess not…

According to Coinberry, credit card companies charge municipalities about 3% but Coinberry charges 0.5%. So, Coinberry’s service is arguably more cost effective than credit card payments. But I still have trouble seeing the need for such an option. Innisfil’s website explains that over 5% of Canadians currently own some form of cryptocurrency. Innisfil has about 36,000 residents and, assuming my interpretation of recent census data is correct, about 8,700 of them are home owners. So, maybe 435 Innisfil property owners hold some cryptocurrency. Interestingly, the lone Richmond Hill counsellor who voted against the idea did so because there was “no evidence whatsoever to support this new service”. I guess he doesn’t think they need to cater to the (apparently) 5% of Canadians who own cryptocurrency.

Cynics might wonder how much Coinberry “wined and dined” counsellors (if not actually greased some palms) in its effort to persuade these municipalities to offer this new “solution”. But even assuming nothing fishy was going on, what’s really motivating these politicians?

The answer appears to have a lot to do with wanting to be seen as modern and cutting edge. Innisfil’s website says it’s offering this because, “Innisfil facilitates innovative solutions to everyday issues that enhance our residents’ quality of life…”. Seems to me the folks whose quality of life might be improved by this venture is primarily folks who own Coinberry – not the town residents, but never mind.

Bragging rights also seem at play here. In a Coinberry-issued press release Innisfil’s mayor, who describes the new payment option as “exciting”, is proud to be the first to take this “bold step”. As she sees it, “By getting into this now, we are making sure our municipality is ahead of the game, and signaling to the world that we truly are a future-ready and innovative community.” I’m not sure what game they were concerned they might fall behind in, but never mind.

And it’s not just the towns that are claiming bragging rights. Coinberry now proudly boasts it’s “the only blockchain based cryptocurrency platform to have secured partnerships and provide solutions to two Canadian Municipalities – making it the leading and most trustworthy platform in Canada.”  No doubt Coinberry will use this as a selling feature to other towns – after all – who wouldn’t want to be associated with THE leading platform?

Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s good when politicians are open to change and innovation – and there’s nothing wrong with a town fostering the image of being hip. But, I can’t help think there are other pressing, real problems these politicians should be spending more time trying to find innovative solutions to.

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona


On being … an inflection point

By Ingrid Sapona

Today’s column was inspired by a recent Smarter Living column by Tim Herrera in the New York Times. In that column, Herrera was musing about work habits and how perfectionist tendencies can get in the way of productivity. He used his own habit of starting a column and then putting it aside, returning to it “every few days, reworking the same few sentences” as an example. He described this behaviour as being an editing and re-editing spiral and dolefully admitted that the end product is probably no better as a result of the “incremental faux-progress”. Boy could I relate!

Herrera went on to talk about strategies for managing such behaviour. One that I found particularly thought provoking related to “inflection points”. Rather than paraphrasing what Herrera said, here’s a paragraph from his column that talked about it:

“At some point, we must remind ourselves, any changes we make to a creation no longer make it better but just different (and sometimes worse),” Dr. Alex Lickerman wrote in Psychology Today on the topic of just getting things done. “Recognizing that inflection point – the point at which our continuing to rework our work reaches a law of diminishing returns – is one of the hardest skills to learn, but also one of the most necessary.”

I find the idea of an inflection point beyond which what you’re really doing is just making things different quite useful. If for no other reason, assessing whether you’re at an inflection point is helpful because it involves stepping back and considering whether it makes more sense to continue spinning or to go on and take the next step. So, for example, when I’m in a re-writing spiral, by considering if I’m at an inflection point, my focus shifts from trying to find the perfect way of expressing an idea to deciding whether it’s better to publish and get the idea out there, trusting that what I’ve written is reasonably clear.

Indeed, there are other ways I think applying the idea could be useful. For example, have you ever found yourself in a decision-making spiral where you’re just weighing and re-weighing various factors? When that happens, maybe it would be helpful to look at it as a possible point of inflection. In other words, stop and ask yourself if you’ve considered all the relevant factors and – assuming you have – consider whether making a decision and moving forward from the inflection point is a better choice than continuing to spin.

I also love the idea that recognizing when you’re at an inflection point is a learnable skill. I have to admit, when I first read that, I was skeptical. But, in thinking about the actual steps that might be involved in applying it to different situations (like writing and decision-making), I can see how it’s something you can train yourself to do.

So, putting this new skill into practice, I recognize I’m at an inflection point for this column. I could go on, talking more about why the idea so grabbed my imagination. But instead, I’ll leave it to you to ponder whether becoming better at recognizing inflection points might be helpful in your work and life.

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona


On being … invisible

By Ingrid Sapona

The other day I was meeting a friend for dinner after work and I decided to walk to the restaurant because it was a lovely summer day. Rather than taking the most direct route, I decided to walk through the University of Toronto campus. Whenever I go through the campus, I take note of the different banners that adorn the light stanchions. I’ve always loved such banners: they’re festive and they’re always a signal that something special’s happening or coming.

In the case of the banners around U of T, they remind passers-by of the importance and benefits of the University. For example, some banners feature the name of a prominent alum or faculty member along with information about that individual’s achievements. Others promote discoveries that are somehow related to the University, like Banting and Best’s discovery of insulin.

Because of my extended, leisurely stroll through the campus, that afternoon I read all the banners I came across. There was a series of banners with the word BOUNDLESS across the bottom. All of them seemed to relate to research I figure was being done at the University. One in particular caught my eye – it read: INVISIBILITY: SCIENCE FACT OR SCIENCE FICTION? It also featured a drawing clearly meaning to conjure up Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility.

I loved that the banner did exactly what I imagine the banner designer intended: it caused me to stop dead in my tracks and smile AND think about the question. As I pondered the answer, I realized I was in the part of the campus that hosts hard science faculties. That, I figured, had lots to do with the wording of the question.

Indeed, I immediately thought that the question of invisibility isn’t just relevant for those studying physical sciences. As it happens, the phenomenon of invisibility’s been on my mind a lot lately, but from a sociological perspective. I’ve been thinking about the different ways people have of making other people seem – or feel – invisible.

The feeling of being “unseen” is a common complaint among seniors, for example. As proof, they often point to all the marketing aimed at younger folks. But, beyond reminders that one’s not in the coveted demographic, I’ve been in many situations where others’ subtle behaviours have made me feel invisible.

For example, I’ve been in business meetings where it’s clear some people in the meeting had information that a few of us didn’t. When this fact subtly surfaces, it’s often clear it’s not meant to hurt or alienate. (By contrast, I was recently at a meeting when someone said: “I’m privy to information that you aren’t…”. When the person didn’t elaborate, it was clear to all that it was a power trip.) In any event, the result’s the same – those not “in the know” may as well be invisible.

Ignoring people’s calls, emails, or comments is another way people make others invisible. Again, I’m not necessarily saying that such behaviour is intentional – I’m just talking about the impact of such actions (or lack of action). No fancy invisibility cloak is needed: the person left hanging, unacknowledged is, in effect, invisible.

The question posed on that banner – and my admittedly weird riff on it – got me thinking about whether – or how – I might treat others as invisible. As I made my way to the restaurant, I couldn’t think of ways in which I might be doing so. In a business context, for example, I always respond quickly, even if my initial response is that I’ll get back to them. The same with responding to friends. Whew, I thought… not guilty…

But, given that the topic had been percolating through my mind of late, I thought it would be something I’d feature in a column. Then, as these things so often go, it came to mind last night as I was stopped at a traffic light. The road had a centre median and up ahead I saw a man walking down the row of stopped cars holding out a cup for change.

This gentleman said nothing and did nothing other than hold out his cup as he paused by every car. None of the drivers – myself included – gave him anything. In fact, as he approached my car, I consciously avoided making eye contact. After he passed, I watched him in my rear view mirror and I saw that the person behind me did the same thing.

As I sat there waiting for the light, I began to feel bad because I realized I had done my best to make him invisible. Regardless of the reason he was panhandling, as a fellow human being I should have recognized his existence by at least making eye contact with him. Shame on me…

I don’t think there’s any question that invisibility is a fact. Maybe there should be a banner with the question: Invisibility: What can we do to combat it?

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona