Labor Day weekend marks the unofficial end of summer and beginning of school for much of the United States, even though it seems these days that school schedules are all over the place. Still, it’s the classic time of year when we are conditioned to buckle down and get back to work now that everyone’s back from vacation and we have a few months before we get thrown into holiday madness.
So of course, I have an assignment for you. It’s one that’s as easy and as enjoyable as you allow it to be, but it does require you to put aside some preconceptions and really be open to learning and trying something you might not be used to doing. Are you ready?
I want you to find something you have in common with somebody you don’t personally know very well.
You can choose a person who is part of your extended friend group you haven’t spent a lot of time with yet, a coworker you’ve only met in passing, a random stranger you meet on a mutual friend’s post, or a complete stranger you have to interact with this weekend perhaps while socially distantly picking up some supplies for your quarantine pod barbecue. Or you can choose a public figure you have no real-world connection with at all.
One catch: it has to be someone you don’t particularly like or get along with already.
Now find out something you didn’t previously know that you had in common with them. Anything at all. Maybe you both have cats. Maybe you both harbor a secret, shameful love of trashy novels. Maybe you both once lived in the same obscure small town in the middle of the nowhere. Maybe you both enjoy trail running on weekends. Maybe you just both love the same cute animal videos.
Because here’s the thing: humans are multifaceted beings. Thinking of someone as part of a monolithic “them” doesn’t respect the fact that we all are composed of varied backgrounds, experiences, likes, and dislikes that often overlap with many of “us.” And as you explore more of those things where you agree with someone you used to not know or even like, you’ll probably find more in common than not. That doesn’t mean you’re going to become best buddies, but I bet you’ll be a bit more friendly in the future.
There’s another reason this kind of exercise is important. It’s possible that the person you just got to know is part of some group that you don’t particularly like or trust. A member of a different political party, maybe. A dog person instead of a cat person. Someone who went to a fancy Ivy League university while you went to community college. Even, perhaps, a member of a race or ethnicity that you simply haven’t been able to spend much time with before. But now you know that at least one person in that group is another human being that you have something in common with, that you can be friendly with. Don’t you think that might be true of others in that group now?
Try it this weekend. Even if you’ve done it before, find someone new to get to know. Then report back and tell me what beautiful things you’ve learned.