Conditioned to Buy

My beautiful inside-and-out roommate Natalia, author of this eat-well-live-well-feel-amazing blog, reminded me the other day of this quote by Dave Ramsey:

“We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”

So true. When I was moving into my new house, I found that there was not sufficient room in my wardrobe to store my socks and underwear. So I thought I’d buy some plastic boxes for extra storage on the wardrobe floor. Before buying those, I went grocery shopping, and guess what I used to carry my bananas, milk and wheetabix home? Right. Boxes. Perfectly stable, not even unpretty cardboard boxes. I’m obviously a very good citizen, with a mind that is so incredibly adapted to solving problems by buying stuff. I’m determined to change that without procrastination and make everything possible myself in the new house. I’ll start with a bed made out of old palettes, like this one: (and I think it will impress people I actually like, hehe)

palette bed! Whoohoo!

Addiction, Sex, Dirt and Death- things we all have in common

I’m reading a lot about heroin addiction in Third World countries right now. It’s a sad and dark topic, yet a good example for something really important:

Under any circumstances, people are people. You might think that you’re very different from a Tanzanian sex worker that has been raped by her stepfather throughout her entire childhood and just recently started injecting heroin after being tricked into the addiction by her current boyfriend, who also regularly beats her up. But you’re really, really not.


“They [people who do not use drugs] despise us so much; they see us as a certain insect. Yes we, who are heroin users, we perceive our fellows who are not using as better than us, because for us to take bath is a problem, for us to wash is a problem.” (McCurdy et al., 2005)


This isn’t incomprehensible to us, is it? These are so obviously not the words of aliens that act and react totally differently to our world than me and you. Nevertheless, they’re treated like aliens, or worse, insects by their neighbours, by their government and by global health policies.

I grew up in the most protected area of one of the cities with the lowest unemployment in the most conservative state of one of the richest countries in the world. “Heroin junkie” was a single story told to me solely by the media, because there were no real life examples around. The term linked in my head to “poor, dirty, dangerous, homeless, crazy, alone”. So when I was working with injecting drug users in Berlin, the experience of hanging out with patients in the waiting room struck me as most surprising. I was surprised to find people polite, easy to talk to and funny. They might have been raped in their early childhood by their parents, or were forced to work in the sex industry, or they might have killed someone with a bread knife when they were only nine years old, but that hadn’t changed the fact that they were living, breathing, feeling people with a whole bunch of traits that had nothing to do with their severely damaging socialization. On one of my first days I interviewed the bread knife murderer. Obviously, we had an extremely interesting conversation. Afterwards, I thanked him for his openness about his incredible life story and stretched out my hand to shake his. He looked at my hand for a few seconds in bewilderment, before he took it. He had the saddest smile on his face, when he looked back up at me to say goodbye. I didn’t understand what had happened for a while. It felt like I had done something wrong, but was too insecure to ask him about it. Only after meeting a whole lot of other patients with similar life stories, some of them coming right from the street, looking a lot more ripped and dirty than my first patient, I understood his hesitation in taking my hand: They were all not used to being treated with respect and kindness. They were used to people changing their seats on the underground because of them. They were used to being judged and distrusted.

Realizing this pained me and it still does. During my time in Berlin, it became so glaringly obvious to me that not only do we actively hurt minorities by stigmatizing them; we also have the power of bending what they believe about themselves, so they eventually start hurting themselves. Heroin addicts might be a quite extreme example and surly, no one is going to solve their problems by shaking their hands without hesitation. But think of all the other people that you might be treating with prejudice and contempt. Maybe, if you approached them with an open smile from now on, you’ll find a few really cool new friends and broaden your horizon. Just sayin’- I have friends in Berlin now that could probably kill you.

McCurdy, S. A., Williams, M. L., Kilonzo, G. P., Ross, M. W., & Leshabari, M. T. (2005). Heroin and HIV risk in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Youth hangouts, mageto and injecting practices. AIDS Care, 17(sup1), 65–76. doi:10.1080/09540120500120930

I’m corrupt, don’t let me judge you

Sometimes, friends or family members come up to me and say things like “You know, I drive to work by bike every day now!” or “I only drink soy milk!” or “I haven’t spent one penny on new cloths this month!” or “I just donated a hundred Euros to this organisation!” and then they look at me with bright, shiny eyes, apparently waiting for my enthusiastic appraisal of their actions. I even had several people ask me directly if I think they’re a “good person”. It made me deeply uncomfortable, because I absolutely have no right, nor any conscious intention to claim a prerogative to judge others on the grounds of ethics.

I’m not the kind of person who does things without caring what other people think. To be quite clear, almost every decision I make, everything I say or do has a strong social component. I think, I’m probably even more dependent on other people’s attention and opinion than the average. BUT this should be entirely one-directional. I don’t want to judge people, neither in a mean way nor in some kind of benevolent way. Many of my psychologist friends suffer from not being able to dislike people wholeheartedly anymore, because we’re trained to understand the enormously complex causalities of human behaviour. You don’t dare to point you’re finger at anyone anymore, after you read some papers on really polarizing topics, such as paedophilia, suicide or domestic violence.

That’s one reason, why I don’t want to judge anyone. The other reason is more personal and obviously even more important: I have pretty damn obvious weaknesses. I’m a pain-in-the-ass know-it-all, I’m terribly prejudiced against men, I eat when I’m lonely, sad or stressed, I spend way too much time thinking about irrelevant crap, while making it seem as if I was deeply in thought over the most pressing philosophical questions, I’m terrible at taking criticism, and I’m as dependent on attention, appreciation and approval as a beaten dog. My god, I could go on forever…

So, if I’m ever like: “It makes me cringe when people don’t recycle.”, just please know that I cringe way more often about my own behaviour, than I do about others. And if I ever congratulate you on being an awesome person, I don’t mean that I have any special, superior ability to judge that. I just find that, in my humble and so easily corrupted opinion as a fellow human being, you are an awesome person. 

Me marvels

This is an absolutely amazing TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie I kind of need the entire world to watch this, so please do me the favor of looking at it, will ya?

Every reason why I became interested in intercultural psychology comes up in her talk. When I was 18 I decided to study psychology instead of art, because I wanted to understand the human mind from inside-out not the other way round. It took me a while to realize, that the more I learned, the less I knew. Don’t get me wrong, I love science, I find numbers hugely satisfying and the picture of a few neurons firing at the expected time gets me really, really excited. But what actually, literally makes me cry out of happiness is looking at a picture that an epileptic, red-head maniac has painted almost 200 years ago. There is absolutely NO WAY science will ever explain to me why the hell Vincent van Gogh makes me cry (even while I’m writing this, I’m tearing up, I swear!).

So, my point is: Overly simplified statements- be they political or scientific- butcher what really makes us human on an almost hourly basis in our daily lives, thanks to the omnipresence of information technology. You would think that at least psychologists understand that, but weirdly we get more excited about 0.3 correlations than over an unrepresentative, yet meaningful statement of a single person. When will science finally stop feeling threatened by intuition and accept its role as the tip of a large iceberg called reality? Why am I asking questions like this? Maybe because I want to make a statement, but don’t dare to make it, so I’d rather pose a rhetorical question? Do you find that very wanna-be philosophical and kind of annoying? Am I trying to use humor to dissolve the tension after a fairly personal and controversial blogpost? Should I stop now? Ok.

A guide to diplomacy for idealists with low social skills


Don’t say

What you sound like to everybody else

Do say

I’m vegan.

I hate 99,9% of humanity

I’m not into labels, but yea, I guess I don’t eat a lot of dairy. Ever.

I go dumpster diving.

I’m disgusting and you better not smell me.

Here is an invitation to dinner! … No, you don’t have to bring anything, I’ll cook and it will be completely for free.

I think we all need to stop consuming. Zero growth is a good idea.

I don’t care about the lives of people who have fewer degrees than me.

I think we should all work way less. Technical innovation should have made it possible for us to work 20 hours per week years ago. At least that’s what Keynes thought, right?

I’m not on facebook.

I look down on everybody else.

(You’re not even reading this, right?)

Globalisation is the worst that has ever happened to humanity. Everybody in the First World should feel ashamed of himself or herself.

I have never used a paper cup or bought a pair of sneakers, because they were cool. Also, unicorns exist and Elvis lives.

Thanks to globalisation, we don’t have to donate our money to inefficient and corrupt aid agencies anymore. We can just spend it on the prettiest fair trade products and everybody wins!

I would never do/eat/watch/think that.

I would never do/eat/watch/think that in front of other people and I’m just saying that to let you know that I look down on you for doing/eating/watching/thinking that.

Don’t say anything. Just fill your facebook with pictures showing the fun things you do/eat/watch/think instead of that.

I’m an idealist and think that diplomacy is so fake.

I’m an annoying hypocrite who got mobbed in high school and made being hated his/her thing.


I’m trying to be a good person. That involves not being judgemental.


I versus System

The deeper I get involved with that happy little topic of international development, the stronger becomes my urge to yell out at people: “STOP DONATING YOUR MONEY INSTEAD OF SPENDING IT RESPONSIBLY!” at the supermarket while throwing things from their shopping trolley at them. Chocolate! BAM! Coffee! POOF! Cashew Nuts! RATTLE! Cotton swabs! (That wouldn’t make a sound).

Don’t get me wrong:  I worked for an incredibly sensible project in South-western Madagascar long enough to know that humanitarian aid does help. It was beautiful to see how much German Euros and a few tons of second hand medical equipment could do in the hands of one brilliant, hard working and selfless Malagasy doctor. Donating money to these kinds of projects should make you feel good about yourself, because every cent you give is preventing unnecessary pain and death. That is something to feel warm and cosy about. But only until you leave your comfort zone to face this twisted, mean world for real. No, not our world, obviously. Our world is a happy shiny place. The Third one is the twisted and mean one. And that is partly due to the shininess of our world. But that’s not really all that obvious, right? So, it’s really the hypocrisy of the system that makes me want to yell and throw things (not individual well-meaning people).

Let me elaborate: Globalisation is everywhere. For evidence, look out the window or into your fridge. Big fat companies took over the responsibility for the architecture of our towns a long time ago. Also, for the content of our media, the way we dress, what we eat and actually even the way we speak and form opinions. However, comparing the effect globalisation has on our daily life to its effect on the Third World[1], evokes much more than the common, fairly romantic fear of loosing cultural diversity. It evokes a bad conscience. To date globalisation has done nothing but creating larger inequalities to the disadvantage of the poorest of the poor, even if you admit the benefits of aid and development cooperation into the equation. This is, because as long as a certain threshold of development is not met to successfully compete globally, a country’s population will only lose in the process of globalisation. Lose its natural resources, lose price stability, lose its most talented thinkers through a phenomenon called “brain drain”, in short: lose its prospects. People in regions with low economic potential, traditional legal systems and no access to tertiary education are not prepared for capitalism. They need to be protected from the global competition. Otherwise, they’ll be eaten alive.

Western societies have a responsibility towards these people, since their consumption patterns drive the global economy. So what to do, what to do? IT’S NOT ROCKET SCIENCE. Responsible consumerism is the way to go, guys. It’s most effective, since it seizes the problem at the source instead of dealing with its consequences; while development cooperation, including aid, may help people manage the burden that globalisation placed on their backs, only your daily spending will force Big Business to eventually align with the demand and stop screwing with the lives of defenceless people. Reliable certificates and labels on products do make it a lot easier to tell a good banana from a baaaad banana, so governments have to make their contribution, too, obviously. But hey! We do have a right to vote, right? So we can influence that, too! Whoop whoop! In the end, there is a silver lining on the horizon of our freshly globalised world: we as consumers and voters get the chance to influence more directly than ever, if globalisation is going to continue messing with the most vulnerable; or if it becomes a chance for making this world a happier, shinier place for everybody.

[1] The term „Third World“ is really inappropriate when used in the context of globalisation. Here, it refers to unindustrialized, economically weak countries, but the implication of a separation of specific countries from global proceedings is not intended (Because that separation doesn’t exist. That’s kind of the point.)