I stared at the capital letters, wondering if she normally typed with caps lock on or if she was yelling toward me in frustration. It was the late 1990s and I was one of a handful of mediators chosen to test a new online mediation platform for eBay. Online dispute resolution, or ODR, was in its infancy and we were learning and providing feedback on the software and experience as we went. The disputants were located all over the world — wherever eBay purchases and sales could be made — and I sat in my NH office mediating for them via the ‘net.
The current case involved some apparently missing charms. The young woman was responding to the question I’d sent her: I don’t understand, can you say more? What do you mean when you say you don’t have the charms you paid for? Did they just fall off or something?
Pondering the all-caps response, I typed, I’m clearly missing something here. They just disappeared? I don’t get it yet, please tell me more.
Several hours later came her next reply: ARE YOU AN IDIOT? LOOK, I WENT TO THE CAVES, I FOUGHT THE DEMONS, I LOST POWER, SO I BOUGHT THE CHARMS SO I’D HAVE POWER AGAIN AND THEN THEY JUST DISAPPEARED. SHE SCAMMED ME AND I WANT MY MONEY BACK. COMPRENDE?
And you are still fighting the demons, apparently, I thought to myself, throwing my hands into the air, simultaneously acting out my despair and supplicating the heavens for aid.
Then it hit me. We’re not talking about charms for a charm bracelet, I typed, dating myself. We’re talking charms for an online fantasy game? Not physical charms but digital ones?
DUH! she wrote back almost instantly.
So easy to judge, so seductive to diagnose, so tantalizing to think we’re the ones with the right understanding of the story. And, as a result, so easy to miss the real story unless we give ourselves permission not to know and be open to what we’re missing.