The Challenge of Connecting
The Challenge of Connecting
As a teacher and performer, it is my job to create a connection with the people around me. Theoretically it isn’t that hard because we all have things in common. Practically on the other hand, it can be tricky to see what it is that we share in any given moment. It takes practice. Sometimes it is super easy to make that connection; a shared joke over a mutually loved TV show or song, a smile that lets everyone know that it’s time for fun. Other times it’s hard; feelings surface which block the moment (insecurities, entitlement or dominance) and make people want to control the situation. The problem is: we can’t force or control each other into genuine connection.
Over the years I have had the privilege to travel the world. Because I began doing this from a young age, I sometimes forget that other people haven’t had the same wealth of international experiences. So many of my friends and colleagues are also “world travelers” or belong to a crew of Third Culture people; we are the harbingers of cultural awareness and the best bridges in cross cultural conflict resolution. We cross paths outside of the mainstream and negotiate our surroundings within that “traveler’s code” which no one really talks about (That’s culture at work, so obvious no one needs to explain it!).
For example, generosity has a different cultural value and is one of many codes for a world traveler. Cultural awareness can be experienced in even the most common everyday situation. In a mono-cultural situation, like in a line at a bank, everyone’s elbows are claiming space in order to get their business done. Once interculturality enters the same situation, perhaps for a foreigner who is having language difficulties, the code of generosity is likely to go into effect. World travelers might generously spend time assisting that person in a foreign language. There is a certain amount of empathy in understanding how the other person might be in a serious pinch and perhaps how grateful we all might feel in that same position for some help. Generosity makes it easier to connect in a very positive way and this often comes from being able to put oneself in the other people’s shoes.
Because I spend much of my time with others who share my “world traveler code”, I experience an element of surprise accompanied by a kind of jolt that goes through my mind and the nerve endings in my hands when I meet someone who is less culturally sensitive. I am suddenly confronted with a person who has a very different understanding of the world, maybe even different values than I hold. For example, within a single cultural paradigm, it is easy to use privilege as a power struggle in everyday interactions. People who don’t travel are often unaware of how quickly and easily the paradigm of privilege can be turned upside down. Without empathy to remind us how we would feel if we were in the other person’s shoes, it is easy to use privilege to gain a temporary advantage over another person.
I remember having this experience with a man on a train. He was one of three people seated on a five-person bench. I asked if he would be so kind and make room so I could sit down. This able-bodied man challenged me “Why should I?” he retorted as he offered me less room than my stature required. So, I chose to ask again. This man radiated unwillingness to share the privilege of sitting; he enjoyed his momentary power of dominance in which he had envisioned himself. Not only was he lacking generosity in this moment, my adrenaline went up and I had to talk myself into staying in a good mood. Even though I attained my goal to sit down that person wasn’t anyone I could or wanted to connect to.
But connecting is a mandatory aspect of collaboration when it comes to doing great work, so, when it is time to connect, it’s important to know how. Necessary change is not possible amongst a divided people. Although some people thrive and profit from this division, it should not be a goal or even unintended outcome from anyone who wishes to positively impact the world. Feeling safe and secure in your community depends upon being able to look at and speak to each other and connect; I highly recommend it becomes part of our global learning education. You don’t have to connect with everyone- it is not always possible. But there are many people you can connect with. Perhaps practice saying hi to the person next to you on your yoga mat (obviously you both like yoga!). I dare you to ask a neighbor for an egg or a tool. Give an actual thumbs up in real life to share your enthusiasm!
Connection can happen by chance, but it is a social skill which can be honed and is needed to influence the change we want to see in the world. I hope we all can accept this important challenge!