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The Meaning of Sonder

Often we get stuck in our own world and think others are experiencing something the same way we are. 

But often, it is not the case at all.

There’s a new-ish word out there that explains it somewhat: ‘Sonder.’ I’m paraphrasing here, but ‘Sonder’ is the realization that others around you are living a life that is as complex and as colorful as yours is, with all kinds of ups and downs, celebrations and disappointments, happy and sad times.

When you reflect on this and start to get it, your view of the world changes. 

You understand that people want to be acknowledged by you and by others. When people are heard, they are at their best – and they feel valued.

A technologist needs to realize that not everyone – not your customers, not your manager, not even your closest friends have the same experience. This concept seems obvious, but it is something I have taken for granted.

Two people can watch a movie, and one can hate it, and the other person can love it. Wasn’t it the same movie? 

We’re all evaluating, judging, and filtering all inputs based on our own experiences, and we filter things we observe through these lenses. 

When we say something to a coworker – and they look at you with a furled eyebrow – you didn’t mean to offend them, but obviously, your words didn’t come across as you intended. 

‘Sonder’ can help us understand others. Everyone’s own ‘movie’ is playing along in their heads. And your words filtered through their experiences. 

How do we solve the problem of our intention not matching how our message was received? First, we listen and observe the reaction to our words. Listening after we speak is vital – most of the time, we let words fly and never check to see how they landed. When we see that the words didn’t land the way we intended, we can apologize. A quick, “I’m sorry, I think that came across wrong” can help immensely. And then, if the timing is right, try again with different word choices. 

Being in tune with those we communicate is difficult – but it is most definitely a learned skill. We can all improve upon it. I have to work at it every day.

But knowing about ‘Sonder’: that every person you’ll ever encounter has a rich “movie” playing along in their world, the better you’ll know to be on the watch – watching out for when your words fall outside what you intended. When you’re in tune with this, people will understand you better.