cultivating meaningful conversation pt. 1


This post is Part 1 of a series that I have planned for The Culture Columns. If you read anything on here, I implore you to read this series. 

We live in a scary world. It seems that almost every day, we wake up to news of another bombing in the Middle East, another mass shooting here in the US, another terrorist attack in Europe. Another day; another tragedy. I remember an early morning in June, a few days after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. I was driving my normal commute to work and listening to NPR; listening to an interview by a victim’s mother, listening to the audio from a 911 call made during the attack; and suddenly I couldn’t take it anymore. With tears blurring my vision, I turned off NPR and switched to a popular music station. It was too much. I went to work and refused to engage in conversation about the attacks; it was too painful to think about the heinous act of violence. I felt burdened and heavy with the hate of the world, but unable to effect any kind of change. Then I realized, I had been going about it completely wrong. Instead of shutting down, I needed to discuss these acts with my friends, family, and peers. The first step to changing the way people think about things and to changing attitudes of hate is to not be silent in the face of sorrow. Conversation is the first step to effecting change.

However, I am convinced that people are afraid of tackling the big issues of race relations, religion, gender equality, government, and politics. Of my many friends and acquaintances, I know maybe 4 or 5 people who will engage in these difficult and often emotional conversations. Why this discomfort? So I decided to talk to a handful of my friends and family and I noticed a common theme. People are afraid to discuss these things because they feel that they don’t know enough about the subject at hand, they are afraid of people getting defensive and upset, and they want a safe and comfortable setting to talk. Here are some direct quotes. Maybe you’ll recognize some of your own thoughts.

A, age 22

“I enjoy talking about these things [race] in the right setting. It can make me totally uncomfortable but it is important to talk about especially like racial reconciliation since America has a long way to go with that. As a white person it took me a while to even realize that racial disparities and stuff like that even exist anymore because they definitely do. And the reason we don’t have to talk about it as white people is because we aren’t confronted with it on a daily basis like people of color are. The more I’ve learned about it and the more I’ve listened to people of color the more I realize it’s important to talk about and important to listen. People are afraid to talk about these controversial subjects and therefore no-one grows in their view.”

H, age 24

“The only thing is that if I don’t know much about it. That’s the only thing that would make me uncomfortable about those kinds of topics. It really just depends on the setting and the timing. There’s a time and place for everything.”

M, age 46

“If the person is easily offended and likes to stir up a lot of conflict than yeah I don’t like that [discussing controversial subjects]. I would want to voice my opinion especially if I feel like the other side needs to be represented or brought up. It depends what the subject is. If it’s a race subject I think it’s important for people to talk about those things, and for people to voice their opinions and work through those things. Politics not so much because you’re not going to change someone else’s mind by bringing up the other side. People are convinced that their political views are correct and so you can very very rarely change someone’s mind. Religion or politics. It’s both the exact same thing. People feel like they’re so right and no one’s going to change that.”

A, age 15

“I have very strong opinions, but I just feel like I don’t have enough information to back up my opinions so I don’t even bother discussing things.”

C, age 25

“It really depends on the setting. I can’t talk about politics at work. Period. If it’s a private setting, talking about politics it can make me uncomfortable but that’s mostly because I feel like most people are very passionate and get very defensive and so it’s hard to explain a different viewpoint if you do have a different view point. But I do enjoy those conversations if I feel like it’s a safer setting, because even if they are on the defense and won’t listen to you; if you listen to them I think that you can learn a lot even just about the way people think and maybe even say  ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought of that new perspective.’ “

These answers were so relevant to what I had experienced and I was definitely hearing some common themes. But then I talked to one last person who said something very different. My question to all of the participants had been, “Do you feel uncomfortable or are you afraid of discussing the uncomfortable topics such as race, politics, gender, etc?” Here is how she replied:

H, age 20

“No, because I feel like they’re important topics and the more it is discussed the better the issue is going to become. So no. I’m excited to talk about these things with people. Some people are more comfortable with small talk.”

Small talk. That was a new one. And one that particularly resonated with me. It is so easy to get into the habit of talking about the same things, the same people, and the same gossip. After talking to people, it was easier to understand why talking about controversial subjects can be so challenging. But there was another underlying theme. Everyone I talked to wanted to discuss the hard issues. They all stressed the importance of creating a dialogue. So I encourage my readers this week, to start a conversation with a friend this week. Bring up something that’s been bothering you about our society; something you’d like to see change. If you are kind and open-minded you may be pleasantly surprised at the depth of conversation that will be created. Remember, the first step to effecting positive change is to create meaningful conversation.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, coming next week.



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