Conversation in Cambodia (photos courtesy of Andreas)
The Importance of Being Important. This is the title of the book I’ve been writing for the past couple of years. Now and then the topic comes up of my book comes up in conversation and I find myself putting my iphone on the table to record it. I try to be objective, doesn’t always happen, but I always learn something.
The following conversation took place December 2017 at the Lonely Beach resort on Koh Rong Island, Cambodia, during a dinner with a group of new friends. Internationally represented was the UK, Russia, Germany, France (couple I call 1 and 2) and Canada (Me). I had no idea where this conversation was going to go. I hadn’t even planned to talk about my book, but then someone asked, and of course there was wine involved, so I asked everyone for permission to record the conversation and as I put my iphone on the table I said, “The most important person in the room. What does it make you think of?”
(Audio Stream is included at the end of the transcript if you prefer to listen, though full warning, there are background noises that interfere with some of the audio.)
Me: What does it make you think of?
France 1: Um.
UK: I never think that.
France 1: I think I’ve said enough tonight, I’m going to leave that. This speaks to a purpose.
Me: You never think of yourself as the most important person in the room?
UK: No, I never consciously think that.
France 2: Me neither. Never.
France 2: Important? What does it mean important?
Me: Most important.
France 2: Yah but what does it mean? Important. Being important. What does it sctually-?.
Me: Maybe something’s lost in translation? I don’t know. So if you’re the most important person in the room-
France 2: Why would I be more important than the others? –
Me: It’s not more important —
France 2: Based on what. I don’t know, I’ts a bit complicated to say I’m the most important person. The most clever? The most interesting? The most, I don’t know, beautiful? What does it have to do with?
Germany: I guess it has something to with whether you care about the other people in the room or not. If you don’t care about them, then of course you would feel like the most important person.
Me: But, you’re saying more important.
Germany – No – uh – what?
UK: Most implies some, most implies a relative concept. Most means there are other people who are less.
France 2: Yes
UK: You can’t get away from that.
France 2: Is that really good to say you are more something than the other? I don’t know.
Russia: As it was discussed before, it is against the culture, in my country, you are showing off or trying to pretend to be better than others. We have kind of the opposite. Hide in the corner? It’s fine. (Laughter) Pretend to be the most important or being the most important, it feels wrong to me. (UK It feels wrong) I have to really push myself to do so, even, I don’t know.
France 2: I guess in France it’s pretty much the same thing. We’ve got this culture of equality. So, we don’t feel like, I don’t know, maybe some do but some others feel like it’s not good to be more something than the other.
Me: So when you hear ‘you’re the most important person in the room’ you think ‘more important’ than other people?
Me: You do too? (To Germany)
Germany: Yuh. Most implies it’s even more than more. (UK: Yah) So at least a lot of people in the room must be less important when you say ‘I am the most important.’
France2: It doesn’t mean that I’m not important, for myself. But it’s something different saying that I am the most important.
France 1: In our culture in France it’s rude, just rude to think like that.
France 2: Yah. Really rude. Yah.
UK: I think in most cultures. In most cultures –
Germany: In most cultures?
UK: In the UK it would be rude.
France2: Yah, but — country I guess it’s not. I mean, I don’t know. In the US it’s a problem when people think that they are more important than the others. Is it? Do they really think—
Me: So you think it’s more important when you hear ‘most important’ —
France2: Yes. I don’t know, it may be a problem of language. My English is not very.
UK: No, no, no. I hear it. Most important implies there are other people who are not as important as you. As I said before there is a relative aspect to it.
France 2: Mmm-hmm.
Germany: For me it wouldn’t me a negative by itself. I think it depends on how you act on that thought whether it will be negative or not. I can be in a room with a lot of people I don’t really care about and in that situation it is something good if I think ‘I am more important than the others, I don’t actually have to care what they think of me, or if the want to do something and I think I am more important and I don’t want to do it, I don’t do it. I don’t have to treat them badly because of it.
France1: I’ve never thought like that. Even in my job when I have to manage some team, for me it’s a mistake, it’s something rude, and it’s against the basic humanism to say I am the most important, I am more important, there are inferior, no, it’s not like that. But in our society sometimes you have to show that you are maybe better, that you are competitive, It’s pretty the same thing I think. I’m a civil servant, working for the French government and they were taking one person on one hundred person. And it was a shock for me but it was important for me to put people behind me just to have a job. But I’ve never thought that I was more important, or more clever, or more whatever you think of these people who didn’t have that test, you know what I mean? ( Yes, but) Things are competitive. That’s a fact. That’s sad. Obviously that’s sad. But sometimes you have to be better to have a job. But I’ve never thought in my head that I was the most important in the room.
French 2: I don’t know, what do you mean behind the most important.
Me: Yah. So what if I said ‘If you’re not in the room, there is no room. That your life is central to the fact that there is life? What if I put it that kind of way, that it’s a fact, that without you here, nothing would be here. And it’s not a philosophy, it’s just an absolute fact.
France 2: But you don’t live alone. You live in society. You have to be with the others.
France 2: So you can’t. It’s not, uh, the room is not the problem actually. It could be a room or a house or a I don’t know what, but at the end it’s the society, It’s not you alone in the society. It’s just the society all together. Its the family, it’s the people you are working with, it’s the friends. You are never alone. So I don’t think you should consider your life as the only thing, the only one, because you have to interact with all the people around you.
Me: So you hear, if your life is central to all of life, that you’re alone.
Germany: I don’t see it that way. I actually think what you said about only my being here would make this place exist, wouldn’t change a thing about it whether other people that are here are important to me or not, it depends on the people if I consider them important or not. If they would stop to exist when I leave that place, that doesn’t change anything.
France 1: I think I like that but, for me in your question Linda, everybody can understand what you want in your question, it has to do with individualism. In my family, the story of my family, how can I say, it is pretty lefty you know. Politically. Not communist but yes, there were a lot of communists in my family who thought that Russia was a kind of paradise, you know. (Laughter) It was pretty strange but, uh—
Russia: We can show you how (Laughter)
France 1: Yes. I know that. But — I believe in community. I really believe in community. For me it is, maybe, not absolute evil, but it’s not good to be as individualist as we can be now, and to say, when you are in a room, now these people are going to serve me, serve my interests, are going to be my beautiful mirror I’m going to parade like that-
France 2: -yah, it’s not what she meant by the most important.
France 1: and I’m the most important of them –
Me: But that’s the way he’s interpreting it. It’s very interesting to me.
France 2: But I do understand that it’s not what you meant by that. But still I don’t really understand what you meant by that.
UK: Yes, important to who I guess is the question.
Me: To yourself. To know that you’re the most important person in your life. So that you can, I think what happens — what happened to me, I realized that I’m connected to everybody, once I understood that I’m the most important person in my life it meant I took responsibility for my life. And before that I was always thinking, ‘Oh if I’m nice to you then maybe you’ll like me. Or if I’m good to my children maybe I’ll be admired as a mother. Always looking outside of myself. So what I’m struggling with now is to try to communicate this idea that we have to start with ourselves and then we can understand other people.
France 2: It’s maybe then, caring about yourself.
UK: It’s a different question though, so if it’s ‘who is the most important person in your life, you would eventually have to come back to yourself, because that’s the only person over whom you have any agency.
Me: So it’s being in the world.
UK: Being in the room. If I am in a room with other people than me then I would never be in that situation I would think ‘Oh I’m the most important person here.’ I wouldn’t even kind of think about it, I wouldn’t think about who is the most important. I wouldn’t even think about it.
Me: That was my reaction. The first time I heard it I was in a workshop and there were twenty women and the workshop leader said, ‘You know you’re the most important person in the room and if you don’t you should.’ And I’ve been struggling to understand something else in my life and writing about it and when she said that y first response was, “No, that’s – you can’t – that’s not right – you can’t be the most important person in the room. It was exactly the same reaction. And then I started writing about it so I started trying —
France 1: I understand what you mean. We have to take care about ourself, if you want to be good if you want to be good with others, with the people, you have to be in a position to do that, and to be in a position to do that you have to like yourself –
UK: And be responsible for what you do. And who you are.
Me: Exactly, yah. You got it.
France 2: But does it have to go that far, that you have to consider yourself as the most important.
Me: It’s a provocative statement. That’s the only reason we’re using it. But, yah, it’s the first time that people have reacted like this.
France 2: Really?
UK: That makes us very special. (Laughter)
Russia: When I hear the most important it also connected for me with the permission, if I’m allowed to be the most important, I’m asking myself in my mind and then also asking others OK if I am the most important here. And I think that through my life experience I’ve learned that if I don’t care about myself nobody will care. Especially if it’s a heart situation, I always used to say I’m in love and I will do everything for you because I don’t want you to feel bad. But at some time I realized that I need to take care of myself first, otherwise it’s just not talking the right way.
France 2: Sometimes caring for the others can also help you care about yourself, and can also help you feel better actually. It’s not always about you. I told you before that I was a volunteer for the cause of the world. Actually I do something for the others and it makes me feel great I return. So it’s not always about me.
Me: But it’s your choice to do that. It makes you feel good.
France 2: Yes, but it’s not only around me. Like- I can go and get myself a lot of massage and go to the psychologist and he will make me think about myself, and you know, that’s caring about myself but I think what makes me the most happy is just caring about the others and that also helps me care about myself.
France 1: I used to work in a hospital and it was absolutely the same thing. I used to work in a hospital where old people were dying, I was like an ? I don’t know. Now I’m a diplomat, I’m working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I have a good position as we can say, and I’m maybe the most important in many rooms ( my laughter) But no, how can I say, I’m not better, I’m not happier. Maybe if the question is taking care of ourself, feeling less useful, than when I used to work in a hospital wherein the most important was the patients and I was just giving, and to be honest, I wasn’t sad, I was taking care of myself giving to other people. You understand? Like if you can forget all the bad things that can come into your mind when you are well established? You understand?
Me: Yuh. appreciating your life more because –
France 1: Yes. Appreciating. And that is a bit egoist maybe,
France 2: Selfish.
France 1: Yes selfish, but you see (attention turns to an uneaten crab on UK’s plate.)
France 2: But how did the others mainly react. I’m curious.
Me: Um, mostly, it’s uh ‘Oh yes I never put myself first, I have to do that. I have to be more important in my life. Or uh, one woman said, “It makes me want to feel better, I want to do better. If I’m the most important person I want to do better in my life. ” Maybe it’s the way I presented. Maybe it’s the dynamic of the people. You tuned right into the words right away.
Me: No no, don’t apologize. It’s good. It’s excellent.
France 1: Maybe it’s more European.
France 2: I don’t know. (To Germany) What do you think about it?
Germany: Actually, I am a bit special in the way that I don’t care much about community. I’m more of a lone wolf person so, uh, I could sign that statement. For me it makes total sense. It doesn’t exclude that I like to help people but it also means I’m free to stop whenever I like to help people. I’m not forced to do it, I do it because I want to do it. I think that’s often missing when we start talking about community.
Me: The personal choice to give.
Me: Yes, that’s interesting. I don’t think my idea compels anyone to be better or worse, to do good, you know to do better or to do worse in their life. Really it’s your choice, and really, like you were saying (referring to UK) It’s your responsibility to take your life seriously.
Germany: And I think it’s a good point to point that out to people. I often have the feeling that many people don’t think about that.
Me: No. I do too. I didn’t. For fifty-seven years of my life I’didn’t. I didn’t know that I was important at all.
France 2: Did you just say fifty-seven?
France 2: Oh my god, how old are you?
Me: I just turned sixty.
France 2: Oh really. You look so young.
Me: It’s yoga.
France 1: Speaking of you are the most important, I’m going to try.
Like I said, it was the first time I’d ever had an immediately negative response to the statement – a similar response to mine the first time I heard it. The argument against using the term ‘most important’ surprised me, and it could be a matter of semantics, or a matter of translation, but I was not at all sure where the conversation would lead, and whether or not anyone would come around to agreeing with me. I felt the desire to defend myself rise up in my mind, but after a few tense moments I let my defensiveness die off and became sincerely interested in hearing these differing perspectives.
I think it came down to the juxtaposition of words. ‘Most Important’ made everyone uncomfortable because they heard ‘More Important’ right away. They didn’t shift the view and agreed that ‘most important’ is a relative term. The shift only came after I explained a bit more, which I was disappointed to have to do. When I changed the statement from being most important in the ‘room’ to the most important in ‘your life’ everyone made the leap.
I’d love to know what you think after listening to this conversation.
This conversation has given me pause to really think about the words I’m using to get this fundamental position across. I want to grab people’s attention but I don’t want them to dismiss the idea because of the terminology.
I have to think about it some more and I’d appreciate your thoughts.
Most amazingly, hen it comes down to it, I think even people from such diverse cultures and backgrounds can agree that the central point of being the most important person in the room is taking responsibility for our choices, and to make good choices we need to know we are the most important person in our life.
The French couple were the least moved in the conversation that evening but the next day they made a point of coming to me and telling me that in fact they agreed entirely with what I’d said.
Here is the conversation if you prefer to listen. Full warning, it was my iphone, and there are forks clinking! (ie sound is not great.)
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