When was the last time you talked to someone completely different from you? It’s all too easy to find that our social – and our professional – circles are quite limited: friends who live near us – they are similar to us; friends from school or university – similar to us; friends we’ve made at work – similar. In a roomful of people, there will inevitably be a few to whom we naturally gravitate, even if we couldn’t say exactly why, and it is likely the reason for our attraction to them will be some sort of similarity.
Of course we have daily dealings with all kinds of people from outside our social groups. We may well have colleagues, neighbours or employees who are radically different and we can be forced into relationships we would never have chosen for ourselves but which have been imposed by family, geography or career. Sometimes those outlier relationships work really well and at other times we just have to manage them as well as we can.
I wonder, however, whether we ought to make more effort to get outside of our social comfort zone. When we occupy a monoculture we are looking at the world through a prism that ignores the majority. We all of us fit into pretty narrow silos and most of us will never experience what life is like outside of them but we could all do more to really try and understand how things go on the other side of the fence. Whether it’s a question of gender, race, class, politics or income, our backgrounds ensure a degree of unconscious bias which not only shuts us off from broader society but also shuts us off from broad thinking.
It’s all very well being ‘aware’ of issues, of following woke practices but that is not the same as actually living a different life. If you’ve never had to choose between paying the rent or eating, if you’ve never been spat at because of the colour of your skin or the clothes you wear, then it’s impossible to claim that you comprehend the experiences of people who have. Having said that, I would struggle to name a person I know who has not had some sort of battle to fight, be it poverty, disability, bereavement, prejudice or any one of a hundred other trials. None of us gets through life unscathed and we need to remember that when we see a homeless person begging or an ex offender applying for a job.
I would like to challenge everyone who has read this far to have a proper conversation – by which I mean mainly listening – with someone as different to them as they can find. What I hope people will come away with is not just a better understanding of how other people live but also a better understanding of our attitudes and prejudices.
None of us can claim to comprehend other people’s experiences wholly but if we step outside our comfort zone, we can at least claim to have a little bit of humanity.