The New Normal has been a trending topic in the last weeks, as commentators of many different kinds have been trying to foresee what could happen after Covid19 pandemics settle. The language of a ‘new normal’ is being deployed almost as a way to defeat any uncertainty ushered in by the coronavirus. But the reality is that there is nothing ‘new’, and probably we shouldn’t even be looking at going back to a stage of ‘normal‘.
Amy Edmondson has been very clear on this in a recent tweet.
The idea derives from a talk by Patsy Clairmont’s entitled, “Normal is just a setting on your dryer”, which also became a funny book.
Using the language of Normal, means not considering the world for which “normality” doesn’t mean anything, because they have never been part of the Norm.
What does “Normality” mean, after all? According to Oxford Languages dictionary Normality is the condition of being normal; the state of being usual, typical, or expected. And Normal means ‘conforming to a standard‘. But what standard are we talking about? The reality is that most people consider themselves to be “normal”, simply because each of them develops its own benchmark for confrontation. Experience shows that the most exciting people to talk with have a clear understanding they are not normal. Normality brings back immediately ideas of statistical distribution, and of being average (although more precisely we should often think of median).
When I have been running Diversity training in the past, one of the first exercises I did in class was that of getting to move away from the concept of “normality”. Because being different is often defined against a norm, we feel to consider standard. I would pick some statistics, relevant to the country and settings of the team concerned, trying to describe the average person, assuming this to be normal for the area or organisation. I would then read out each of the characteristics, and ask all the participants to stand up from their seat whenever they did not fit the feature I was reading aloud.
I just found my note of the last time I run the exercise. Here the list of characteristics that I had named in order:
- You are man
- You are white
- You are aged between 42 and 47
- You are holding a university degree in Engineering
- You are married (*)
- You have been working here for at least 5 years
- You drive a car to come to work
- You have a pet at home
I would make a mark (the asterisk in this case) when only one person was left sitting. This case went very fast, but I’ve rarely gone by naming more than 7-8 traits.
Usually, at that point, I would call for Mister (or more rarely, Mrs.) Normal, and ask them how they feel to represent and define the Standard and the Norm. As the person is usually the only one seated, the situation can be intimidating, but it’s part of the learning. Because you quickly discover that normality is a pretty lonely place to be in.
At this stage, I feel worried because there is a narrative that is developing to go back to what we know. For example, the mayor of Milan, Beppe Sala, made headlines as he called to move away from remote work, get out of the cave and go back to work. Despite the outcry of those that are seeing a potential opportunity, the calls from many politicians to go back to “normal” shows how difficult it is to really cope with the change and transformation we actually need. Everybody can immediately see what could be the environmental benefit of a world where a lot fewer people have to commute to work every day. Yet, we seem to consider first the negative impacts on the bars, restaurants and real estate of the large cities we have been living in.
It is not the first time that we invoke a New Normal. It happened after the 2008 financial crisis. It happened again after the 2011 recession.
This obsession with a “new normal” lends some momentum for the current catastrophe or craze, but nonetheless subsides as things eventually return to their long-run trend.Catherine Rampell, The ‘New Normal’ Is Actually Pretty Old, New York Times, January 11th, 2011
Normal feels a safe space that we are all used to be into. But the reality is they normality doesn’t exist. None of us is the result of a statistical average (or median) of income, health, age, tenure, education and so on. Normal is meaningless outside the world of statistics.
The right question should be, can we avoid going back in the full stream of the megatrend that characterised the world before Covid? Because here lies the issue: we will try to go back to a “normality” that is still staggered with situations we have to face, but we don’t want to. Global warming, inequality, loss of jobs, racism, gender gaps… the list is almost infinite. Are we sure we really want to go back to that Normal?
I don’t. I don’t want a New Normal. I want to live in a world that values difference and is different. Where uniqueness and individuality matter, where we can think to achieve a different purpose, and we have the energy to do so. Where we can be more human and reinvent the world of work. Where we can design new organisations intentionally, and stop defining individuals by our own bias, but rather by what they can build new every day through their learning and curiosity. I want a world that values resilience and where everybody can feel they have a safe space for discovery and self-reflection.
Maybe it’s just a Dream. But for sure is not that of a Normal World. What do you think?