Navigating life when the predominant culture demands your unending anger on social media, urges your most ferocious vitriolic diatribes when someone disagrees with your opinion, and expects your most impassioned rage at any inconvenience is soul-sucking and gravely disheartening.
If your daily work environment was this demoralizing, you’d hardly be blamed (at least by people other than your boss) for seeking a way out. But there is no alternative to this life, and adapting to what has devolved into an altogether untenable society has become a necessity.
We tend to make “others” of those with rival political views, declaring mortal enemies of those on either side of an issue who barely understand the talking points they’re haphazardly regurgitating. It can be a full-time job in itself managing coworkers who are ideologically opposed to your political views; it seems downright impossible to make things work when a potential romantic partner doesn’t share the same political fervor on your (obviously-correct) side.
Like a school teacher assigning homework over summer, it’s in our nature to unfairly assign expectations of others. And when strangers — as those who have never met you are often wont to do — fail to meet our preconceived notions, resentment ensues.
It’s precisely these unwarranted expectations and the resentment we harbor that contribute to hostility statewide and, likely, wherever else you may be reading this. We can attribute ever-growing distrust, hatred, and fear to one significant person, event, or generic time period, but those factors are fleeting.
It is far too easy and comfortable to designate a scapegoat than to challenge our expectations of one another. There will always be influential figures with whom we disagree altogether; there will continue to be events that disappoint, demoralize, and distract us. Regrettably, we generally have little control over those things, and that can be distressing.
The antidote, I propose, is releasing expectations at the individual level and expanding our ideas of what a person is capable of even when they disagree with us on certain issues. Even if that means challenging deep-seated cultural notions we’ve been clinging to because one experience or one news report confirmed our biases.
While one insightful story does not instantaneously form a panacea for societal ills, it can serve as a starting point around which bonding can occur. Similarly, when introducing a new partner to my family, I’ve found it most helpful to be the recipient of playful banter that bonds both unfamiliar sides; it’s a lot easier to form friendships around a mutual catalyst — me — than it is to explore the nuances of why one economic policy outperforms another.
It might seem intimidating to dismiss the comforting — albeit toxic — strategies we use to cope and confirm our fears. A manager of a diverse staff won’t become the beacon of cultural competence all in one day. The coaching landscape of our powerhouse high school and collegiate athletics won’t suddenly become a perfect cultural melting pot overnight. And that’s OK.
Start with a conversation. It’s understandable to stumble on your words and correct yourself, because harmful expectations are so deeply ingrained in our society. Ask a coworker who looks nothing like you, from a background entirely different from your own, what song they’d listen to if they had to have just one tune on repeat the rest of their life. What’s the most overrated restaurant two cities over, or the best spot in town to get a morning coffee?
I suspect we’ll find that, despite our religious, political, or childhood differences, we’re so much more similar in the day-to-day things that make life enjoyable than our Facebook bloviating leads us to believe.
Jamie Evan Bichelman is a director of communications at a California-based nonprofit and has been a lifelong disability rights advocate with an academic focus on workplace psychology. He lives in North Park.