When I was a kid, to say I moved around a lot is an understatement. Before the age of ten, I had lived on three continents, and had already attended five schools. With a constantly changing framework, I learned pretty quickly that customs, values, and even accents carried a lot of social capital within a group, and also, that they did not transfer easily across groups. As young as I was, I realized that a good way to connect with a new group of people was through respectful observation, withholding judgment when confronted something that was unknown—and literally foreign—to me, and the power of seeking to find meaning through conversation (what I would learn in ethnography class is called “dialogic listening”). As ad-hoc as they were, these became my tactics for not only finding a shared footing with my classmates, but for making my way through the world.
I didn’t realize how profound this was, or how well these lessons would serve me, until 1994 when I found myself sitting in my first undergraduate ethnography class. During one class, the professor was discussing some of the vocational hazards ethnographers and their families usually have to deal with. Because of the transient nature of an ethnographer’s lifestyle, he explained that it is normal for the family of the ethnographer to actually have a tougher time acclimating in a new culture, even though the ethnographer may be the one more intensely immersed in it. The reason being that the ethnographer has his/her job, ethnographic skills and methods, project goals, to orient him or herself (essentially creating a set of “knowns” in a world of “unknowns”)…but the ethnographer’s family members rarely have a similar foundation through which to navigate the new world. This deeply resonated with me because I remembered being a kid, and seeking to make sense of a strange world around me with not much more than any empathic skills I could muster up.
Another move on the horizon
Fast forward to today. Or, actually, a week ago today…when, my husband accepted a promotion that will take us half-way across the country. Atlanta, Georgia…here we come! What’s interesting to me, though; and what further ties his acceptance of this job to my ethnography class, is that formally accepting the promotion kicked off an interesting chain-of-events and communications from his company to our family. As the relocation materials filter in, I cannot help but be reminded of the lessons from my first ethnography class.
For instance, this week we have already received:
- An informational packet in the mail about the Employee Assistance Program that is available. What was striking was that the message was not geared to my husband—their employee—but rather to me and my daughter, addressing us even by name. On the cover of the pamphlet, it showed a family looking a little stressed, surrounded by boxes.
- Then, a day or two later, we received more information focused specifically on the benefits of moving. By benefits, I don’t mean emotional benefits…literally, I mean the employee benefits in terms of dollars and cents. Its main message is that this move will not create a financial burden on the family; rather that there is potential financial gain for us.
- Then of course, came the informational packets about the company-sponsored social events for families new to the Atlanta area. From a Communication Design perspective, its message reassures that there is a community ready and waiting for us to arrive; and directs us to information about groups whose members, like us, are also adjusting to the area.
Once the new kid, always the new kid
As a designer, I’ve learned to be very comfortable—almost happy— in the discovery phase of a project, where ambiguity and many open-loops reign. Luckily, I can translate that perspective into my personal life fairly easily. Many of the stresses usually associated with moving are suddenly eradicated because of my openness to new things.
Nonetheless, I very much appreciate that my husband’s company is aware of how hard a relocation may be on everyone in a family; not just their employee. Truth be told, my husband is equally enamored with the discovery process required when moving to a new place, and the world of opportunity change seems to bring about. After all, Georgia will be the fifth state we’ve lived in over the course of the past seven years! We sometimes joke that we are the demographic that is the topic of the book Next Stop, Reloville: Life Inside America’s New Rootless Professional Class.
The coming days and weeks will be interesting…but we are excited about the move. This time however, I am going to remind myself to just try to soak all that Atlanta has to offer not as an ethnographer, but as a person. I love ethnography, but I’d rather get paid for it! This time, it’s all about taking the time to make some roots. I think it’s time we stay in a place for a while.