Differences – when we think back to that grade school playground, we can all remember the pain of being different. Whether you didn’t have the latest”cool” outfit, or you were too fat, too skinny, wore braces or glasses – there was always some “name” thrust upon you…and it was never flattering.
We grow up with the notion that different equals “wrong” or “not worthy”. If we perceive people are not like us, or not as_____ (fill in the blank), we will often dismiss them because of the filters through which we see others and judge them. For instance, when I was younger I became impatient with people who wouldn’t quickly respond to a question I asked. I judged them to be less confident, intelligent. Only with age, experience and a focus on helping people communicate more effectively have I come to embrace and value those who prefer to THINK before they speak.
How many times have you bypassed or ignored someone because they didn’t meet your first impression of standards for attractiveness? Have you ever stopped to think what was under the book’s cover?
I have been pleasantly surprised by the chances I’ve taken to say hello or strike up a conversation with someone I randomly encountered. In college, I opened a door for a non-verbal quadraplegic man one snowy day. For whatever reason, he was one I reached out to – beyond his very obvious difference. By his own description, his arms flailed about randomly, he drooled and made indistinguishable noises that substituted for speech. In one of my favorite speeches he gave, he simply said: “I’m not very appetizing to eat with.” If you took the time to converse with him, you also had to have patience. In the 70’s, technology wasn’t what it is today and he communicated by dragging a pointer (which was attached to his head) around a plexiglass covered keyboard, spelling to you. At first glance, he wasn’t what most would deem “attractive”.
In class, we became study buddies and created an interesting experiment around non-verbal communication. For a week, we met and wandered the campus, observing people’s reaction to him – did they see him as a person, or did they only see the wheelchair. He came up with outrageous ideas (this is where his sense of humor kicked in) and we implemented them. One day, he donned a “Super Gimp” t-shirt. I was SURE someone would make a comment about it. No one did. Few even acknowledged him. All they saw was a wheelchair and someone who didn’t look like, walk and talk like them.
Their loss. My gain. I found an incredibly intelligent, warm, FUNNY person beyond the physical challenges and the wheelchair. A new, interesting friend. Lucky me.
For now, take a moment to hear what Oscar Winner Dustin Hoffman had to say about recreating himself as a woman in the 80’s classic, “Tootsie”. Take the opportunity in the next week to say hello to some people you don’t know, and see how many interesting people you discover!