Make It Personal

On a puddle-jumper flight from Allentown to Philadelphia one day, I sat next to a large, Black man. Because of our size, we practically overlapped each other. The cramped quarters forced us into conversation. In the seat pocket, I had a copy of a political satire book with a cover image of President Barack Obama. This sparked a conversation about politics. (I didn’t tell him that I had written the book.)

During our chat, I learned that he’s a truck driver. It quickly became clear that he had no firm political beliefs, as such, but that he was a registered Democrat.

This part deserves its own chapter. Politically-engaged folks often assume that someone who is registered in the other party must naturally embrace the party platform. My experience shows quite the opposite. Most of the people I meet don’t know what their party stands for on the major issues, or at the very least, don’t care. That’s because they didn’t join due to ideology. (In fairness to the party members, the party leaders rarely uphold their organization’s nominal principles anyway.)

Some voters inherited their party from their parents. Some signed up because their friends did. Others found party membership to be almost a condition of employment. Still others agree with the party on a particular issue, but don’t agree with, or care about, the party’s other principles.

My point is that you shouldn’t treat a party member the way you might approach the party chairman, or the latest political standard-bearer. Odds are, the person is not as far from you as party affiliation might indicate.

Moving on: My seat-mate wondered about my own political affiliation, and what it meant to me. I could have given him a three-point lecture on the righteousness of my party, but instead, recalling that he’s a trucker, I asked a question.

ME: Do you just drive the truck, or do you have to unload it?

TRUCKER: I unload it too.

ME: Is that a one-man job?

TRUCKER: Usually two.

ME: Have you ever unloaded a truck – really busted your tail – but the other guy loafed, smoked a cigarette, goofed off?

TRUCKER: Yeah. [shakes his head] All the time.

ME: How do you feel about that?

TRUCKER: It’s not fair. I’m doing all of the work, and he still gets paid the same as me.

ME: [smiles] I can’t be sure, but you might be a Republican.

The ensuing, very brief, conversation touched on the ideas of individual responsibility, merit-based reward, and the virtue of letting people keep what they earn without having to carry someone else who’s not willing to work. I didn’t speak in the abstract, but connected these ideas with the work world he knows so well.

After the flight, as we said goodbye in the terminal, he shook my hand and said, “So, I’m a Republican, huh?”

And off he went.

You might disagree with my characterization of the Republican party and its ideals (and I’d be the first to agree that the party — any party — rarely walks the talk), but that’s not the point. The point is that I made the issue personal, and spoke in everyday, non-philosophical language. I connected my ideas with his daily life.  

Even though we had just a few minutes, we made a quick friendship, talked about important ideas with respect, and perhaps sparked a reconsideration of a long-held affiliations. He also got to experience a real Conservative, not a caricature. At the very least, I made a fleeting friend, and enjoyed the flight. He apparently did as well.

To make it personal is to speak in common language about ideas that matter. It also implies empathy with the person’s experience. Once I knew he was a truck driver, I wondered what that life was like. I asked. I didn’t assume what he believes, I let him tell me. By asking open-ended questions, you not only learn and connect personally, but you show respect.

The way to squander such an opportunity, is to assume you already know what someone thinks, or to tell them how they should feel.

What if, when I asked the trucker how he felt about his goof-off colleague, he had answered differently.

TRUCKER: I don’t mind when the other guy goofs off. Maybe he has emotional issues that keep him from working. I’m glad to carry both my share, and his share, of the load. I don’t want to be intolerant. Perhaps lazy is just who he is, and he has every right to live that way. Besides, lifting all of those extra boxes is good exercise for me.

The conversation would have gone in a distinctly different direction. But I’ve found that people only say things like that when they’re speaking in the abstract. When you make it personal, they understand, and generally talk common sense.

When it comes to compassion, a lot people love humanity — it’s people they can’t tolerate.

Make it personal, and you make it real.