Do You Focus On The Differences Or The Similarities?
I’ve always said that if I ever had kids, I would want them to spend at least part of their childhood living in a large city such as San Francisco or New York. Why?
A child exposed to many different types of people – different cultures, religions, skin colors and beliefs – will have a greater chance of seeing all people as part of humanity and being equal. That’s not to say that a child growing up in the suburbs or more rural parts of the country will not have be able to do so, but it will require more work to get there than the organic way it can happen in a large city.
Let me share an example. Many years ago I worked at The Conference Board in Manhattan. The office was an easy ten-minute walk from Grand Central Terminal, right in the heart of the city. Every year they observed what was then called “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” and would encourage employees to bring in young girls to expose them to the working world.
I didn’t have a daughter, but I did know a 9-year old girl through my family that I thought would really enjoy coming to work with me. She lived in New Hampshire, and I thought it would be a memorable trip since it would be her first visit to New York City. She was excited to come, and I planned a full day for us – the event at my office, shopping at Macy’s, a trip up to the top of the Empire State Building and dinner at my favorite restaurant in Little Italy.
The big day came and everything was great…at first. She handled the train ride into the city like a pro, joking around with the conductor and looking out the window. She stood on the sidewalk outside of Grand Central and peered up at the skyscrapers with awe. But as we started the walk to my office, she started to change. She held my hand more and more firmly and pressed as close to me as she could. I couldn’t understand what was going on, so I asked her.
She had never seen a black person before and was terrified. Her only exposure to black people at that point had been what she had seen on television (which we all know is not usually a positive portrayal). At that young age, she had a full set of beliefs, perceptions and biases about an entire population that she had never met.
Luckily, the day at The Conference Board got her to think differently. The company’s program for the girls had them go from one functional area to another to learn and do some type of activity related to that type of work. The man who was doing the session in the graphic design department was a big teddy bear of a man with an incredible smile and warm heart. He also happened to be black.
She didn’t want me to leave her there alone with him (and about 15 other girls), so I stayed, all the while feeling horrible because I was positive that my co-worker knew what the issue was.
He took it in stride and did what was probably the best thing he could have done to help her overcome her inherent prejudice – he pulled up a picture of me on his screen and showed her how he could draw a mustache on my face. It only took seconds from there for him and her to become best friends while they debated if they should make my eyes orange, purple or yellow.
The truth is, we tend to focus on the things that separate us and split us apart instead of the things that would connect us and bring us together. Human beings are not that different from one another. Sure, there are some physical differences – even within one race there are physical differences because without them we wouldn’t be able to tell each other apart. And there are the different beliefs and preferences we each have. But in my experience, these differences account for maybe 10% of our total being. We are so much more than just the color of our skin, the religion we practice (or don’t), and the geographical location to which we are born. We are also our hopes and dreams.
I have had the good fortune of being able to travel to many places both within the United States and around the world. Usually I am traveling by myself, which I have found makes me more approachable by people in another country. Those that know me well will tell you that I have no hesitation about striking up a conversation with a total stranger and usually can connect with them…which is why I have had some incredible experiences in my life, from praying and celebrating with an elderly Japanese woman who spoke no English at an off-the-beaten track temple outside of Kyoto; to sharing a meal with the family of my tuk-tuk driver in Cambodia; to preparing a “traditional” American meal for several French families; to participating in a sacred Mayan ceremony in a small village in the Guatemalan highlands.
And do you know what I have found through all of my travels? People are basically the same.
Every single person I have spoken with hopes that their children will have a better life with more opportunities for happiness, security and love than they themselves have had. Some see those opportunities coming from having access to education, others see it coming from living in a location that is safe, while others hope that their daughters will have the opportunity to do things that they themselves could not because of society’s restrictions on women.
Every person I have met wants a life of peace, tranquility and understanding. We all want to be heard and understood. We want to be validated for who we are and what we have experienced and accomplished in our lives. We want to be accepted as we are, with no judgments or preconceived notions about us. We all want to be loved.
Every one wants to have good health – for themselves and their family. In some countries, having access to good healthcare is sporadic and dependent on doctors and dentists vising from more developed countries and doing volunteer service. In other countries the level of healthcare is there but unattainable for some because of the cost. At the end of the day, every one knows that without good health and healthcare, life cannot be joyful.
Every person I’ve met and every culture I’ve been in cherishes times where you sit around a table and share a meal with family and friends. In fact, there is nothing better than a leisurely meal filled with laughter and stories.
We’re at the beginning of summer. For many of us, we will be taking vacations and going on trips to new places both in the United States and around the world that may expose us to people who are different than us. My challenge to you is this:
Can you look beyond the 10% and see the 90% that you have in common with a person that you would normally say is “different” than you? Can you connect with that person – even for just five minutes – at a truly personal level so you start to break down the biases you may have about another?
If you struggle with this, here’s something I do that always seems to open the door to conversation: I look for something about that person that I can honestly compliment or ask about with interest. So for example, I may compliment someone on an article of clothing and ask where they got it or I might compliment something that their child has done or ask for their advice about something. Most people I’ve met like to hear that they look nice or share their expertise or hear that their child has done something well. I guess that’s another way that we are all the same!
Let me know how you do!
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