Prominently featured on my desktop background is my favorite word, sonder (n.). By some accounts (e.g. Merriam-Webster), sonder is not a word with enough validity to exist in the dictionary, and in this vein, Microsoft Word is boldly underlining it in red as I type this article. Fortunately for me, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows believes that it merits an entry and defines the word as, “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.”

I once read that, subconsciously, you are at the center of every experience that you have ever had. You feel, sense, intuit, and respond to each situation from the only perspective that you can directly experience: your own. Sonder challenges us to take the time and effort required to look at the world from decidedly different points of view: those of all the other people. As with some previous cohorts, my generation has been given high marks for egocentricity. For example, in 2013, The American Freshman Survey, an annual survey of thousands of college freshman conducted by the Cooperate Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at UCLA, found an upward trend in the self-confidence levels of college students since 1966. Over 60 percent of freshman thought they were more intelligent and made better leaders than the average student, while over 70 percent responded that they are more driven then their peers.

Dr. Jean M. Twenge’s research displays similar findings of illusory superiority. She is one of the many researchers that site the spreading “narcissism epidemic”. She uses the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which “measures narcissistic traits among the normal population” that do not necessarily rise to the level of a clinical diagnosis, and she has found dramatic increases in narcissistic traits from previous generations to our generation. She cites early beginnings to the development of these narcissistic traits, including preschool where students sing a song (commonly to the tune of “Frere Jacques”) that repeats the phrase “I am special, I am special. Look at me.” In her research, Twenge and her colleagues found that the confidence students had regarding the writing portion of the SAT was ill-founded. She says, “When matched by year and weighted by sample size, mean self-evaluations of writing ability were actually negatively correlated with mean verbal SAT scores, meaning that students evaluated their writing ability more favorably in years when verbal SAT scores were lower.” Her favorite anecdotal example of the societal shift attached to illusory superiority is that “it is now possible to hire fake paparazzi to follow you around when you go out at night so you can pretend you’re famous.”

The illusory superiority that our generation has cultivated since we were kids has real consequences. It causes us to, as the cliché goes, take care of number one, ourselves. In reality, the only way to achieve the type of lasting peace our generation desperately seeks is through service to and care for those who surround us. Rhetorical changes are a powerful way to move society toward a desired outcome, and as such, publicizing and promoting the word sonder is a non-denigrating way of helping to inoculate my peers and me against unhealthy levels of self-centeredness and towards a way of life that cultivates our capacity for connection. Experiencing sonder may be an elusive ambition for those of us entering adulthood, but perhaps by putting a specific word to the occurrence, we can all intentionally seek a little more sonder in our lives. This type of intentional seeking can come in a variety of forms from deep, focused listening when conversing with friends sharing trials or joys to dropping a note in the mail to someone who is having a rough time. Slowly and with conscious effort, we can move from Generation Me to the Generation of Sonder. 

Contact contributor Lauren Onestak at lauren.onestak@richmond.edu

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