Written by Martha Geier, an AmeriCorps VISTA serving at The Food Literacy Project
One of the wonderful things about being a VISTA is the diversity of people we encounter during our service – our cohort, work colleagues, clients of and volunteers for our organizations, presenters at our meetings and people at our events. These might be brief moments or longer-term relationships. But that diversity can, of course, present challenges.
Our conversation at a recent VISTA meeting about interacting with other cultures and other generations stayed with me long after the meeting ended. A question about challenges with people from other generations led to generational labels – millennials, baby boomers, Gen X, etc. – with some general characteristics assigned to each group. I have always been disturbed by such labeling. For example, millennials are “lazy, entitled, self-obsessed narcissists.” Really?! No! I have met people of all ages who could be described that way while the millennials I know are bright, hardworking, collegial, creative, and committed to making the world a better place.
We are all just people. It is easier to connect with some than others, but it is usually possible to find a common ground with almost anyone. I’m a bit of an introvert. I’ve learned the best way to get to know people, no matter how alike or not they seem, is to express interest in who they are. You can find lists of getting acquainted questions on the internet to help you, but think about how you go about making new friends to add to your social circle. Many of the same questions and interests apply to any age and culture. Where are they from? If not lifelong residents, what brought them to Louisville? What work do they do? What kinds of music do they like? Favorite tv programs, favorite books, best adventure, travel, etc.? Follow up with questions asking for more detail. You know how to do it! Once you have established a connection, it will be more likely that differences in values/opinions are more acceptable and may even eventually lead to a “help me understand…” conversation. The main thing is that people love to tell their stories, and stories are what help us relate to one another. We all like to be listened to, but how often does that happen? Ask people for their stories and listen without interjecting an experience you may have had that was similar. Instead make sincere, interested, non-judgmental comments about theirs. It will enrich their life – and yours!