By Chris Chavez
What if we are doing all the right things at all the wrong times?
This week, I was emotionally moved by an advertisement from a beer company. Like many others who viewed the “World’s Apart” Heineken Beer spot, I felt a small, piercing sense of closure. The people participating in the ad decided to talk about potentially sharp differences after taking part in a series of simple exercises and collaborations prompting them to engage and share with each other. I’ve included the ad below in case you would like to watch it again or for the first time.
Turning a critical eye to the ad leaves many questions unanswered. How were the participants chosen? Were there more participants than the ones included in the final advertisement? What were the agreements made ahead of their participation? How long did they actually engage with each other before learning of their differences? How long did they converse? What will happen after their conversations? How did the production team come up with the format? Could this kind of engagement work with more culturally diverse participants?
For me, the sequencing of the story presented by this ad cuts through these questions. It’s a kind of social or civic sequencing.
Here are the ten elements of the sequence as it stood out to me:
1. Heineken created and organized a physical space.
2. Strongly implied and assumed — the participants agreed to follow the given instructions or they expressed some kind of openness to the experience when they were recruited, hired, approached to take part.
3. The people we get to observe start on their own. They self-observe and self-identify.
4. The people meet each other as they navigate together through Heineken’s predefined environment.
5. There are outside instructions inviting them to act, share, engage.
6. Strongly implied — there’s a sense they are being guided at each stage of the process, or at least witnessed, by an unseen chaperone. The context feels private and intimate, but it’s actually out in the open.
7. The prompts and instructions encourage interaction on a material level. They physically build the bar in stages. As the build unfolds, the participants develop a shared level of certainty, ie: “we’re building a bar,” in an environment that appears to start as uncertain.
8. During the unfolding of shared certainty about their project, participants are invited to make observations and define themselves to each other.
9. Once the project is done, they are invited to witness their individual starting points, together, and listen to each other’s starting testimonials.
10. They are given a clear invitation to stay or go.
There is an art to this kind of sequencing. I presume experts advised the Heineken production team on how to apply it in order to set up the rich exchanges we end up seeing. What gives me pause is that I’m getting excited about the presence of this expertise, however incomplete or imperfect, in the context of an advertisement.
The short answer. It feels like we have a shortage of people revealing social or civic sequences for how to cultivate common ground. These sequences are more than just techniques for empathetic communication or authentic connection; they are techniques that are contextualized within some kind of order. This order enables people to construct a relationship greater than and outside of their own personal narratives of the world. Instead of meeting and butting heads on their disagreements, the participants in the Heineken ad were directed in a process that created space for sharing and maybe even a bit of confrontation that wasn’t emotionally claustrophobic. They created a space that allowed room for a simple relationship to develop based on a consistent, ordered exchange of small tokens of trust and invitations for engagement.
If Context is everything, so is Sequencing.
At least once a week, I read an article or have a conversation with a friend or collaborator that strengthens my sense of collaborative optimism. I leave the conversation or reading feeling like I have gained another ingredient to make my contribution to the soup of humanity taste just a little more soulful than it did before. Then, with confidence and often with a not so veiled enthusiasm, I deploy my newfound ingredient in the roiling waters of humanity around me. Sometimes, to my disappointment, something I felt would add brightness to the whole, dulls it. My intention could be spot on. My use of the tool could be flawless. But, if my timing is off, none of the above matters.
Ask any cook about their process and you will quickly learn that sequencing matters. In a commercial kitchen, the cook will start the cooking process with a practice of mise en place. This means they will prep all the ingredients in advance, chopping, dicing, seasoning, marinating, however, the recipe calls for it. After prepping the ingredients, each one will be organized and ordered in a way that makes sense to how the dish will cook. Without this preparation and ordering, the cook risks not only creating an inefficient kitchen but also having all the right ingredients in all the wrong combinations for any given dish.
Sequencing that happens on a social or civic level must start with an empathetic mise-en-place.
The simple flow of interaction illustrated by the Heineken ad makes me wonder. What if we are doing all the right things at all the wrong times? The ad reminds me that tools and techniques, practices and good intentions are not enough. We must know how to use and share them in a relationship. The ad reminds me that knowing how to use tools properly without knowing how to use them in the right order can also be self-defeating. The ad reminds me that solutions to our social challenges must incorporate our heart’s peripheral vision. We cannot transcend our differences with a diagnosis and a prescription for direct action. The ad reminds me that our goal is not efficiency. It’s empathy.
When our efforts to cultivate relationships go awry, or when we feel that a path forward is impossible, it might not be because we are doing the wrong thing or that the involved parties are unreasonably entrenched. It might be because we are doing all the right things at all the wrong times.
If these thoughts resonate with you, let me know in the comments. It feels good! Your dissenting and affirming opinions are welcome. If you would like to discuss hospitality or non-violent approaches to civic transformation, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.