By Caitlin Kelly
Here’s a recent blog post by American author and business guru Seth Godin:
It might be someone in a different state, religious, atheist, straight, gay, in a developing country, a lawyer, a politician, struggling to pay the bills, ill, recovered, in recovery, a dedicated athlete, a computer programmer, angry at the system, an insider, an inventor, from a very different political stance, a pilot, unemployed, a millionaire, an inventor, a tax cheat, a gun owner, a rabble rowser oran adult without a driver’s license.
Can you see them? Understand them? Ask them about what it’s like to be them? Would you miss them if they were gone?
I grew up in Toronto, a city known for being diverse multi-culturally. I knew few people beyond my own circle but my life since then has exposed me to many more sorts of people.
Moving to the U.S. and living in three other countries — Mexico, France and England — has put me in situations and around others with some very different behaviors and attitudes, toward government’s role in our lives, toward women, toward the importance of work or education or family.
At 25, I spent eight months living in Paris and traveling across Europe on a journalism fellowship with 28 others from 19 countries, from Togo to New Zealand to Ireland to Brazil. It was a fascinating year, fraught with cultural misunderstanding. The four Canadians, one Irishwoman, two Britons, one New Zealander and four Americans all had quite different notions of proper spoken and written English!
The man from Togo — who worked for his government, (i.e. not even a journalist in our North American definition), was deeply offended that we did not always shake his hand hello or spend 10 minutes chatting with him. In his culture, this was very rude. In ours, haste = efficiency. Lessons learned, for both of us.
When I moved to Montreal in the mid-1980s, I found that being Anglophone was enough to make some people hate me. That was weird. Instructive, certainly. At press conferences, everything was done in French and only at the very end were Anglo journo’s allowed to ask our questions in English, (which everyone else spoke.)
I read Seth’s list and thought, yes, I do know people in 21 of his categories — but not a millionaire, inventor or politician.
One of the things I enjoy most about being a journalist is how it forces you into meeting people, on almost every assignment, who are very different from you. For me, that’s included Queen Elizabeth, a female admiral, convicted felons, two Prime Ministers, scientists, computer programmers, Olympic athletes, an Inuit village, an Italian construction worker, a French truck driver and a Dutch politician.
If you’re not insatiably curious about the world, and open to hearing other points of view, journalism is not for you! You can’t just cover your ears and go lalalalalalalalalalalala.
If you’re not working in journalism, travel helps — especially international — if you actually talk to people beyond the hotel staff and cab drivers and make a point of meeting people there beyond your conference or classrooms.
Volunteer work helps.
Jose and I negotiate multiple differences in our marriage: he’s American and I’m Canadian; he grew up the son of a Baptist minister and my family did not attend church; he is Hispanic and I’m a WASP.
It makes for some interesting moments — but we’re also alike, both workaholic career journalists who love to eat and travel and read and listen to music and laugh. So for all our differences, (which I initially thought made us unworkable as a couple), we share essential values.
As technology and growing income inequality help us tribally sub-divide into ever-narrower niches — only consuming media that echoes our political point of view, for example — we often have no idea how others think and feel, or how essential some issues are to them that we find silly or unimportant. It’s too easy to hang out in echo chambers of people who sound and look just like us.
Then what do we do about it?
Godin points out in that blog post that blogging is a great way to “meet” the other, whether that’s someone much richer or poorer materially, someone whose political views are not your own or simply someone for whom $10 is a day’s — or week’s — wage, not the price of a (cheap!) Manhattan cocktail.
When I traveled the U.S. to write my first book, about American women and guns, I ended up being a guest on NRA radio, (asked to explain those lefty-liberals in the Northeast) and on NPR (asked to explain gun-owners to the horrified lefty liberals.)
A funny position for a non-gun-owning Canadian!
I’d rather hear another viewpoint (politely!) and debate it intelligently from data (not red-faced emotion) than live in unopposed, cocooned silence. That’s easy, and has become comfortingly normal for many of us.
How about you?