What grounds us?

I love words. I also love to understand their roots and one of the roots that has given us some of our most important English words is the Latin word humus, meaning earth or ground.

Apparently, this has nothing to do with the Arabic word hummus, the puree made from chickpeas and olive oil, but has everything to do with the English words humanity, humility and humour.

Let’s begin with humour. Our ability to play, to have fun and to laugh is not only something that helps us feel good, it also helps us think good. How? Because when we’re relaxed and feel safe, we become more creative. That’s why we send our children to playschool.

The tragedy of adult learning in the workplace is that too often “training” isn’t fun. It’s too prescriptive and too content heavy. It’s too controlling and then too often it fails.

Humour also helps us to laugh at ourselves and this is part of what we mean by humility. Humility is also critical to learning. If we think we don’t know we’re always right or always have the answer, we are more likely to come up with new and better solutions to the challenges we face.

Humility also means we tend to put others before ourselves. And this is close to what we mean by humanity. If we treat others with humanity; if we love and care for others; this makes us who we are. The Xhosa and Zulu word ubuntu is difficult to translate into English, but it means something like, “I am because we are.”

The problem we have in the workplace is that instead of leaders with humanity, humility and humour, we have too many misleaders who display what psychologists call the Dark Triad of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism. Not only does this mean the people around them suffer, they themselves suffer too. If I treat you badly, I treat myself badly. Again, I am because we are.

So next time you find yourself dipping a carrot into some hummus, remember the Latin word humus and how the carrot is a root that grows in the ground and how our humour, humility and humanity keeps us grounded in the truth of makes us human.

“I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.”
Nelson Mandela