In my twenties, I bicycle-camped across the United States. People would stop me to talk. The most common chat-starter was the excruciatingly dull, “how many flats have you had?” More than once, a family man in his late forties opened by looking wistfully at the bike and saying, “I wish I had done that when I was 25.”
This was awkward. These guys seemed like they were from another planet, and almost inauthentic: obviously (to me), they could bike across America right now, if they chose. The ride takes two months at an easy pace, and you can train as you go. People in their sixties do it all the time. So were these guys condescending to me? Envious? Or something else?
Now it’s twenty years later, and I’m one of those guys, from that other planet. This makes it easier for me to see that they and I were never so different in the first place. I think maybe they were just bad at small talk, or trapped by habit. Just like me, both then and now.
I would have appreciated those chats more then if I had appreciated our similarities as much as our differences. More generally, I think most interactions are improved and simplified when we presume they occur among a group of “us,” not “us and them.”
When you talk with a person who has no formal education, remember there is no they. They are we. We both love our kids, get old, fear death, enjoy sweets. Our goals and dreams are more similar than may at first appear. If we can’t converse easily, it might not be because we are different, but because we’re hampered by the false presumption that we are different.
When you feel weird talking to a billionaire, again remember. Same goals and dreams, same struggles with motivation, same fears of isolation. It is cynical to presume that the billionaire’s problems have disappeared because they are wealthy. In fact, if you truly believe the most important things in life cannot be bought, then it would be hypocritical for you to not to empathize with someone who is rich and unhappy. Our differences are more superficial than our similarities.
When you talk with someone much older or younger than yourself, remember that they are we. That 80-year-old still fears isolation or not making a difference, still can’t help noticing attractive women or men, still fears making a bad impression, is still uncomfortable with small talk. The mix changes, but the ingredients stay the same.
When the 40-year-old talks with the 20-year-old intern at the office, it can be awkward. The awkwardness might come from both parties forgetting that they are we. Is the 40-year old condescending, or just bad at small talk? It could be either one. Does he really envy the 20-year old’s youth and freedom, or is he just afraid to risk a bad impression by saying something truly revealing and non-obvious? If he is just a fearful conversationalist, then he is just a regular person, no different from many 20-year-olds. He is just forgetting that “they” are “we.” And if the 20-year-old doesn’t see that, then maybe both are forgetting.