“Umbrella in the sun”


So, this happened …

When you’re young, things are really simple. Jackets are for when you’re cold (fashion doesn’t even come into it). Water is for when you’re thirsty (it’s not about proactively hydrating in order to remain healthy). A knife is for cutting food (and not representative of the art of the blade).

And an umbrella is for when it’s raining.

I don’t know exactly when this realization came to me, but I was a young child. My mom had collected me from school and was driving me home. It was a hot summer’s day, which in South Africa was really hot! Just as we were pulling up to a traffic light (South Africans called them ‘robots’, honestly) I noticed a woman walking along the pavement.

She was using an umbrella, and it wasn’t even raining!

“Haha,” I laughed. “Look at that stupid woman!”  I was pointing, but my mom didn’t know who I thought was stupid.

“There!” I insisted. “That lady, with the umbrella! She’s using an umbrella and it isn’t even raining. So stupid!”

“Greg!” my mom said patiently (although now being a parent, I know there was probably a little bit of disappointment in there). “She’s not being stupid, it’s a hot day. She’s using the umbrella to shield herself from the sun.”

And she was right. And it was suddenly so obvious. I was disappointed not to have been able to work that out for myself. I saw an umbrella in the sun, and I was the stupid one.

Simple Definition

Umbrella in the sun: In the same way that an umbrella might primarily be used for rain, it might also be very useful in other circumstances – like protecting us from the sun. We can sometimes be so smug about seeing things which appear blatantly wrong, but the problem is actually with us and our limited thinking.

Discussing what it means

The point of this #hashtag-story is to have a name for those mistaken beliefs we have when our worldview is narrower that the real world.

This is not about people having different opinions on the same matter (although they can and they do), it is specifically about when we get things wrong because we don’t know better.

The source of our limited thinking might be that we’re inexperienced, or arrogant enough to think we know it all, or perhaps we’re simply wrong.

And since there is always more to know about anything, we should remain open to the possibility that what we ‘know’ to be true, is in fact false. Having this awareness is quite a basic skill, it’s something that young children seem to do naturally so that they’re quick to be corrected and happy to make changes to what they know. (“Daddy, I want to having ice-cream.”  “You want to have ice-cream?”  “OK yes, I want to have ice-cream.”  “Sure, let’s get one.”) but as we reach our teen years, we seem to start losing that skill.

Some of my own personal “Umbrella in the sun” moments include:

  • I was proud of my spelling as a child, and I recall one evening asking my mom to challenge me with any word she wanted. Any word. She asked me to spell ‘exorcise’, and I proudly spelled ‘exercise’. She corrected me: “No, I want ‘exorcise’ not ‘exercise’.” I had never even heard that word before, so defended myself, claiming my spelling should still be seen as correct “in the context of the words I knew”. But no, I was wrong, since I had told her to ask any word she wanted. I didn’t back down, and really felt that my answer was acceptable because I don’t know the other word. That’s a silly pre-teen attitude to have, but we all know adults who don’t back down either when they’ve been proven wrong.
  • When I moved to London, England, I started catching trains for the first time in my life. The one day, on a train from a client meeting to my office, I heard someone call his wife from the train saying, “Hi Darling, I will be there in five minutes. OK bye.” I thought that was hilarious – was he a heavily hen-pecked husband who needed to give his wife a running commentary of exactly where he was all the time? Like, why say he’ll be home in five minutes, why not just go home and actually be home without the forewarning? A week later I was sitting with colleagues eating lunch in the canteen, and in an attempt to be funny I mentioned this hen-pecked guy and his silly phone. Petra looked at me unamused, and corrected me, “No, he’s not reporting to his wife. He needs his wife to come fetch him in the car from the station, so he’s letting her know he will arrive at the station in five minutes, which gives her enough time to get in the car to go pick him up. It’s very common.” Of course I didn’t know, there was no train system available to me while growing up, so I was wrong.
  • Also after moving to the UK, I saw ads on TV for a skincare range called “Boots No7”, which was another “Umbrella in the sun” moment for me. Rather than wondering to myself why it had such an odd name, I immediately came to the conclusion that it’s a silly name – who wants to associate ‘boots’ and ‘skincare’. Dumb branding. I soon found out that Boots is the name of a pharmacy and health & beauty retailer which was founded in 1849 by John Boot, and ‘No7’ is a range of skin care products launched back in 1935. So when I heard ‘Boots No7’ I was thinking about dirty leather working shoes, while everyone else in England was thinking of a trusted brand that had been around for generations. Better to be curious than judgemental, I was reminded.
  • I was waiting for a friend to grab a quick beer after work, but he was late. Again. After 45 minutes I sent a grumpy text message asking where he was. And after an hour I got up and left, without even telling him that I wouldn’t be there when he arrived. He didn’t reply, which left me seething for the rest of the evening. The next morning he called me, he’d actually been in an accident and had spent the night in hospital. He was OK and would be released later that day, but I still felt guilty for my mood.
  • There is a good chance you have heard about the McDonalds hot coffee lawsuit, where in 1992 a woman was awarded nearly US$1 million for the injury from the hot coffee that she had spilled on herself. I knew nothing about that case, but that didn’t stop me having a strong opinion that it was a frivolous lawsuit, symptomatic of the litigious US commercial environment. And I’m sure I expressed this view more than once (ironically, probably over a cup of coffee) with friends or colleagues. But if you actually read the details of the case, you’ll discover it was really bad! She got third degree burns around her thighs, buttocks & groin, and spent over a week in hospital getting skin grafts. It was a lot worse that I realized, and apparently there had been many other similar cases of people getting coffee burns around that time. But all I saw was an “Umbrella in the sun”, without bothering to look further.

Sometimes we see an “Umbrella in the sun” because we don’t know enough facts, because ‘exorcise’ just isn’t amongst the words we know. Sometimes we see it because our worldly experiences are not so worldly, like not (yet) being aware of the rituals of catching trains in England. And sometimes we observe an “Umbrella in the sun” because circumstances have changed and we’ve not caught up.

The point is to remain aware of the possibility that we are wrong. And we should also learn to accept that sometimes the people around us are wrong about something, and that’s OK too.

Making it personal

Before we get into trying this on for size yourself, remember that we are not talking about differences of opinion, we are talking about being factually wrong about something. So make sure your examples below reflect this.

What examples can you think of when you’ve scoffed at someone carrying an “Umbrella in the sun”, but it turned out you were wrong about what that actually meant?

(If you can’t think of many personal examples, then maybe you need to increase your awareness ? .)

Can you think of a recent occasion when someone commented on your “Umbrella in the sun”, even though you knew it wasn’t as dumb as they thought?

Are there certain types of “Umbrellas in the sun“ that you more commonly misinterpret, that it’s worth thinking more broadly about, so that you don’t keep making the same mistake in future?

Who is the person closest to you, whether in your personal or work life, who regularly laughs at so-called “Umbrellas in the sun”? You might make a point of telling them this story, without ‘teaching’ them the lesson. And then later, the next time they do this, you might reference the “Umbrellas in the sun” story. Prove to yourself how effectively you can use #hashtags to deal with situations like this . This can be done to just politely plant a flag umbrella at a single instance when it happens, or to plant a series of flags umbrellas to subtly highlight how common these misinterpretations happen with this person. See how gentle you can be while still making the point over time.

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