Scenery, Machinery, People — Rethinking our view of humans


Alicja Iwanska is about to blow your mind?

note — unless you are Polish you probably just pronounced this name wrong in your head.  No judgment here. 

Iwanska was a 20th century anthropologist who made one of the most simply profound and profoundly simple observations about humans that I have ever come across.

It’s so simple, in fact, that it can be summed up in a three word poem that you can hear once and never forget.

It’s so profound that once you know it, it will periodically sneak up behind you and smack you in the back of the head for the rest of your life.

Here it is.

“Scenery.  Machinery.  People.”

Mind not blown yet?  Stay with me.

While Ms. Iwanska was out people watching (as anthropologists do) she observed that the people she was watching broke their entire world into these three groupings.  She happened to be watching farmers in the Northwestern United States at the time but I would dare say she could have landed on the same conclusions just about anywhere in the world.


SCENERY, she noticed, encompassed everything off in the distance worth looking at and talking about.  Mountains.  Clouds.  Trees.  Fascinating things.  Confusing things.  Strange things.  It might be fun to explore and makes for great conversation but doesn’t take priority in the day to day.


MACHINERY then, was everything that helped the farmer accomplish his goals and get his work done.  Tractors.  Horses.  Pitchforks.  Manure spreaders.  It existed for the sole purpose of accommodating the farmer.  Machine maintenance is hard work but worth it because the farmer’s life is better when the machines work well.  When machinery is no longer helpful it gets chucked onto the scrap pile.


PEOPLE were people.  Family.  Friends.  Neighbors.  Other farmers.  Complex relationships that involve a give and take.  Emotions are invested in all directions and the benefits along with the challenges are mutual (although not necessarily balanced).  People are also high maintenance but less likely to be chucked onto the scrap pile because they hold intrinsic value beyond what they offer to the farmer . . . and they keep climbing off of the scrap pile.

I know what you’re thinking.  “Interesting . . . but not mind-blowing.”

Hang on.  She’s about to light the fuse.

In her research she noted that there was a strange inconsistency in the farmers perspective.

Not only was this three category system the framework for how they divided the “stuff” from the people . . . it was the framework for how they divided PEOPLE FROM PEOPLE.

(this is about to get really relevant if you’re living cross culturally)

The Native Americans off in the distance, with their strange clothes and confusing rituals were definitely worth talking about and absolutely fascinating to watch . . . but not so significant day to day.

They were scenery.


The hired help — the farm hands — the transient laborers were good to have around, especially if you got a strong one at a low wage.  They were incredibly helpful . . . until they weren’t.

They were machinery.


The prime spot was reserved exclusively for those worth a relationship.  Family, friends, neighbors and other farmers.  Despite the fact that they were not the only humans in the picture they had a category all their own.

They were the only people.


Pause for a moment to let that sink in.

Scenery, Machinery, People is the perfect pedestal to preach from isn’t it?  

  • If those stupid farmers weren’t so narrow-minded . . .
  • If the haters and the bigots would just figure it out . . .
  • If the ugly expats who come in here and act like they own the place . . . could just stop treating REAL, LIVE PEOPLE like they were some kind of tourist attraction or personal servant the planet would be a better place to live.

Am I right?


Of course I am.


The one thing that I have found to be most true about Ms. Iwanska’s discoveries is that they serve much more powerfully as a personal compass than a public high horse.

At any given time I can hold these three simple words up against my view of the humans in my life and instantly know how far off course I have gotten . . . again.

Are those scenery people?

Or machinery people?

Or people people?

To be clear.

I love scenery — I’m a culture geek who is perpetually fascinated by people.

I need machinery — I’m a bumbling foreigner who requires help constantly from people.

I don’t have the time or space to develop a mutually beneficial/challenging, give and take relationship with 7 billion people.


  • I know full well whether I’m treating people like people or not.
  • I know when I’m gawking and wishing I could take a picture.
  • I know when I am fascinated and not the least bit concerned.
  • I know when I’m talking like I’m an expert because they are too far away to expose my ignorance.
  • I know when I am asking for help and I don’t even care what their name is.
  • I know when I value someone by what they can do for me.
  • I know when I am intentionally pursuing deeper relationships and when I’m just not.
  • I know when I am relationally lazy.
  • I know when I’m arrogant.
  • I know when I’m assuming.
  • I know when I’m ugly.
  • And I know when I would chuck someone on the scrap pile if they were no longer useful.

Not literally.  I don’t even have a scrap pile.

Even though all of these things are crystal clear when I take the time to get painfully honest with myself, I periodically need to be smacked in the back of the head.

These beautifully simple, deeply profound, unintentionally poetic three words have been instrumental in helping me course correct.

“Scenery.  Machinery.  People.”

Thanks Alicja (however you pronounce your name).

Mind blown.

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Jerry Jones

Jerry lives in China with his beautiful blended family. He is a trainer, a speaker, an adventurer, a culture vulture and an avid people watcher. He writes about all of that at

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