Questions Can Help Diffuse Our Sense of “Otherness”
Was thinking the other day how interesting it is that, no matter who we are, we tend to surround ourselves with other people like us. We group ourselves by all manner of descriptors, but when it comes right down to it, our human nature makes us most comfortable with people who are similar to us.
We self select myriad ways: Intellect. Politics. Income. Gender. Sexual orientation. Religious affiliation. Celebrity status. Urban or rural settings.
We – or others – give ourselves names: Rednecks. Goths. Mensans. Recovering. Soccer moms. Birthmothers.
We hang out with others in our chosen professions: Doctors. Lawyers. Realtors. Accountants. Writers. Cops. Stay-at-home moms.
All this division definitely serves a purpose. Those who are like us understand us. They share our issues and challenges, and often, they are the first ones with whom we want to celebrate our successes.
The problem arises, however, when we become so insulated within our self-identified groups or roles that we forget how to interact with those who belong to other groups, people outside of our close-knit circles. Sometimes, that otherness leads to an irrational fear. In their paper, “Scary Cities: Urban Geographies of Fear, Difference and Belonging,” Marcia R. Simon and Stephanie Simon write: “Looking at aspects such as gendered, aged and sexualized geographies of fear, urban researchers have noted that fear of the city is often related to discourses surrounding those who are seen as different in social contexts (Madge 1997; Pain 2001; Shirlow and Pain 2003; Valentine 1992).”
Problems arise when we start becoming fearful of the other. We become distrustful. We worry about protecting what’s ours – afraid that “they” may come and try to take it from us. We become incapable of level-headed dialogue, devolving instead into name-calling and ugly epithets. We have no room to entertain the other’s opinion, justified in our certainty that because they’re who they are, they’re just plain wrong.
What if we could change that thinking? What if, for one minute, we were to stop viewing the others as other, and began looking, instead, for our common ground, our similarities?
“I have absolutely nothing in common with that person,” we may want to dig in and hold tightly to our otherness. But that’s not true, is it? There are lots of things virtually all of us have in common:
- We breathe air, involuntarily.
- We eat food and drink water.
- We were born and have or had parents.
- We walk and talk and sit and speak.
- We laugh when we’re happy and cry when we’re sad.
- Our bodies are made up of chromosomes and DNA.
- Our hearts pump blood through every complex cell.
And once we get past those general similarities, we can certainly find others: We have jobs. We love our families. We want to be happy.
Once we can start to find ways to connect, the otherness begins to break down. Yes – that person from another country with odd customs and funny clothing is still different, but we learn to focus less on our differences and more on our similarities.
Asking questions is a great way to facilitate the dialogue that can uncover our similarities, but it only works if we are willing to stop making assumptions and go into “investigative reporter” mode. Next time you find yourself feeling irritated, getting defensive, or even sensing a threat from someone who is other, see if you can diffuse the anxiety by finding common ground. We can only gain by remembering that funamentally, we’re way more similar than we are different.
Please mark your calendar for tomorrow, November 16, when Therese Skelly and I will be hosting In All Honesty – a teleconference with two experts speaking on the topics of question-asking and journaling as powerful tools for self-development. Don’t worry if you can’t make the scheduled call time – we will make a recording available to all who register.