My husband and I were at my cousin's wedding in Texas recently - a place I love to visit. It's usually quite an adventure. But this time, most of my conversations began like this:
"So where you from?"
Alternative responses include, "With all those YANKEES?" and "Huh. Takes a certain kind of person to live there with those people."
I'm sorry, what?
If I'm being honest, we left feeling small, exhausted, and less excited about our next visit.
These days, we all live in our own bubble - be honest, your Facebook feed is red or blue - and we quite like it here, thank you very much. But the reality is, you will, time and again, have to build lasting relationships with people whose entire value system, routine and lives exist under a completely different dome than yours.
That struggle is doubly important and prevalent at work - especially in the connection-driven world of tech. Business is no longer conducted in any singular bubble. And in order to connect, you will occasionally have to step into the murky waters of small talk.
There are two important steps to connecting outside your bubble.
Step One: Know Thy Bubble.
"But I don't live in a bubble, Sarah. I'm a very tolerant, open-minded, worldly person."
I'm sure that's true. We're all very impressed and have had this small trophy made in your honor. But I've got bad news for you:
You chose your bubble when you chose where to live and work. And in the age of remote work and conference calling, it's easy for a bias to creep in about the person on the other end of the call.
It is difficult to know what - in the grand balancing act of quality of life - drove your co-worker or client to live and work where they do. It doesn't mean they are workaholics or "family-first," and it doesn't mean they're lounging in their PJs or mindless rat racers. We make these assumptions first based on the urban/suburban/rural bubble, but the really tricky bubble is the political bubble. You know: Your America vs My 'Murica.
The United States of America is, anthropologically and historically speaking, comprised of 11 different nations (read more in the article, it's fascinating). Each of those nation's values was shaped by the cultures that originally settled that region - and those values still prevail today. And each of them, deep down, believes their America (or 'Murica) is the real America.
We've always been a migrant nation, but nowadays it's easier than ever for minorities to leave one America for another that aligns more closely with their values. When dealing with someone from another American Bubble, it's important to avoid these assumptions:
They chose (or did not choose) their new home based on their values.
My husband and I moved to New York City for work, but we stayed because we love it. The assumption is always that we must hate it (because we're Southern) or that we're now Yankees by defection. Both assumptions are weird and alienating.
They must love/loathe their original hometown.
I've had clients assume I must be grateful to have escaped the small-minded racism of my Southern upbringing (um, ouch). On the flip side, I've had bosses peg me as a Southern girl who will inevitably return home to birth some babies near my folks. Gross.
Engage in conversations about where someone is from - and where they live/work now - by allowing for as much nuance as possible. Before you let your assumptions color your working relationship, start with questions. What are the perks? What's hard about it? How can the differing vantage points from whence you sip your coffee come together to create a better working culture and better serve your customers? Which leads us to...
Step Two: Take Another Bubble for a Spin
Be honest: On your business trips, how often do you immerse yourself in the local scene, and how often do you stick to what you know? The further you walk in your client/co-workers boots, the better you can understand their working needs and expand your own worldview.
That's how I came to love Texas. The more proud of something Texans are - and the more sure they are a Yankee would hate it - the more inclined I am to try it. Though I'm moderately pro-gun control, I've shot AK-47s and Desert Eagles. I've hunted and field dressed three hogs (alright, I didn't fire the shots, but I did hold the heart and guts).
As a result, I've found myself slowly but surely becoming defensive of a way of life that's not my own. When a client bashed all gun owners as backwards hicks, I stood up and offered the rational points of the counter argument - with the caveat that I'm pro gun control. When friends jump to demonize all religious conservatives, I have personal anecdotes locked and loaded that demonstrate how their differing values have something to offer the big picture, something we miss in our bubble. I may not choose to live in the Texas bubble, but I won't let you say the air there is toxic.
The more time you spend as a stranger in a strange land, the more you'll learn to stand firmly in your own beliefs without needing to shut someone else's down or make them wrong. And, ultimately, you'll build a more resilient and diverse network with enough perspectives and ingenuity to tackle any problem.