I grew up in a town of about 600 people in the woods of Northern Minnesota. In many ways, life there was compact. My K-12 years were all spent in the same school building, with more-or-less the same classmates. My first date took place at the single-screen movie theatre in town, and my second first date did, too. By the time I left for college only one person had ever cut my hair.
This may sound like a socially stunted childhood, something akin to being stuck in an elevator for 18 years. It had its drawbacks, sure, but as I’ve aged, worked, and travelled widely, I’ve come to realize that my remote upbringing gave me two surprising advantages.
The first is an ability to see people multidimensionally by default. Contrary to the stereotype of small towns producing small minds, my experience broadened my perspective on how complex humanity really is. Too often, our view of others is set by just one or two data points: What do they do? Where do they live? Where did they go to school? How did they vote? Implicit in these types of questions is another: Why should I be interested in this person? Of what value are they to me?
In a super-small community, one doesn’t have the luxury of relationships based solely on utility nor even get a chance to judge on first impressions alone. Everyone’s story is part of the public domain, and rare is the plotline without a twist. You know the doctor is also a single mother to five adopted kids. You know your principal used to be married to your biology teacher. You know the funeral home director is an accomplished accordionist, and that two friends in the local trailer park hold a monthly Foreign Film Night. You know the dentist loves basset hounds, the bank teller loves ‘90s R&B, and the priest loves a nip of Crown Royal every now and again. You know who is in love, who’s lost a child, who’s been to war. In short, you come to appreciate and expect that people are always more than their title, address, resume, or political party might lead you to assume.
The second unexpected advantage I enjoy is an ability to make conversation. Note the active verb: to make. There was often more time to talk than stuff that needed talking about in my hometown and so we became skilled at shooting the breeze. Small towns are also chock full of folks your mother might describe with, “Oh, you’d recognize their face.” Around every corner lurks someone you either genuinely know, half-know, or who might know you. Not saying hello would be rude and yet you’ll spend the entire day in aisle two of the grocery store if you have a full interaction with each familiar face. And so we learn to navigate our shared space via small talk, nimbly moving from person to person on pleasantries, weather reports, benign gossip, and questions we already know the answers to.
Such blabber might strike a more urbane ear as phony or tedious, but it’s a powerful tool, second only to alcohol as social lubricant. The ability to make conversation, to conjure it out of thin air, is incredibly useful for surmounting social challenges with complete strangers and close friends alike. Throughout my life, the art of chit-chat has helped me find (and keep) relationships and jobs, to access information, build coalitions, understand different perspectives, and garner invitations that would have otherwise been withheld. Easy conversation opens up possibilities for connection and paves the way for harder conversation down the road. In short, it initiates and builds trust.
So what does this have to do with the American Dialogue Project? Well, I think ADP offers similar advantages. Many Americans–myself included–lead busy lives, inhabit segregated communities, and increasingly find our social fix via earbuds and screens. Natural opportunities to see each other multidimensionally are fewer. Conversational muscles are atrophying. We’re falling out of touch and failing to connect because, unlike in a small town decades ago, our social environments no longer require or facilitate it.
Many Americans are feeling a real sense of urgency to connect with “the other side” since the 2016 election and rightly so. Some might ask of ADP, Why isn’t this more political?! Why aren’t participants directed to talk explicitly about contested issues? There’s no prohibition against politics at ADP and many of our calls do eventually turn to such matters. But ADP offers a structured dialogue with a trained facilitator so that everyone can ease into conversation safely, to practice rebuilding those muscles that may have weakened over time. Diving headlong into debate with strangers may be a satisfying way to scratch a political itch, but being in real dialogue with others is a need that exists no matter who is in office.
ADP is here to help remind us that it feels good and does good to hear and be heard. It’s a place where everyone is encouraged and supported to be complex and in conversation. Whether that conversation stays at the level of chit-chat or delves deeper into what matters most is up to each participant. Regardless, the small town kid in me knows that the more we talk with each other, the better we get at it and the better we get at it, the more we get from it. Might be awkward in the immediate, but eventually, it will feel like home.
– Mary Conger