In my Red Wheelbarrow Writers guest blog, Resist: Ignorance, I discussed reading books to help deepen my understanding of and empathy for other people. Still working on that list, still glad I’m doing so. But reading a book is not the same as speaking with a person. Along came The Bellingham Herald’s “Outside the Bubble Dinner” sponsored by Whatcom Community Foundation’s Project Neighborly. The idea was to get matched up with a person outside your bubble and share a meal and some conversation. In order to apply for one of the five dinners, I first had to take a Bubble Test (You can too!) so organizers would know where my bubble fell on the spectrum. Then I filled out a short questionnaire.
Over two hundred and fifty people applied and I was one of a hundred chosen. I was excited and nervous. Much like my twelve-year-old self that wanted to be president, a part of me still felt that if everyone would just do as I said, we could live in a more perfect world. But we don’t live in a dictatorship. We live in a democracy where everybody’s voice is supposed to be heard and considered. I didn’t need to spew my opinions; I needed to be a better listener, an empathetic listener.
To prepare, I watched this short Ted Talk on Emotional Correctness and read this short article on Erich Fromm’s Six Rules of Listening: the Art of Unselfish Understanding. I highly recommend you listen to the video and read the article, that you invest twenty minutes in being able to promote civil discourse.
The dinner I attended had thirteen people, all white, disappointing but not surprising, four of them men. My dinner companion was a man in his late thirties. I tried to judge from his appearance what put him out of my bubble—blue collar worker? Politically conservative? Evangelical Christian? But his curly brown hair and long-sleeved plaid shirt told me nothing. The waitress came by to ask about drinks. He said he’d wait on ordering a beer, see if it would be a celebratory one or an I-need-a-beer-to-get-through-this one.
He was a beer drinker! I was already relieved. Beer is a big deal in Bellingham, and before long we discovered we had the same favorite brewery. As we worked our way through the icebreakers, it was clear we had other things in common. Both our families had chosen to move to Bellingham, him three years ago, me nineteen years, for quality of life issues, to work to live, not the other way around. We talked about our worst jobs, our favorite things about Whatcom County, what we were most proud of, among many other topics.
We hadn’t even reached the serious questions and it was obvious we were more alike than different, in fact the biggest difference I could find was that he attended church and I did not. His church welcomes the LGBTQ community; I have a spiritual belief system—felt like a wash to me. All around us conversations were humming along, there were no raised voices, no awkward silences. I told him my bubble number, thirty-one out of a hundred. The lower your number, the thicker the cultural bubble that separates you from the lives of ordinary Americans. He didn’t remember his number exactly only that it was much lower than mine. He thought it was probably due to him attending an Ivy League school.
To help us be better listeners, we were to write down the other person’s responses to questions focused on Whatcom County: Our biggest financial concern, our wishes for jobs and education in the next ten years, and our biggest health and public safety concern. We were also asked for possible solutions to our concerns.
Despite only living here for three years, my dining companion was knowledgeable about local issues, and had attended city and county council meetings. We both found it easier to describe problems and concerns than come up with viable solutions. Job opportunities and affordable housing were high on our wish list. The health of our drinking water source and the opioid epidemic were areas of concern. We agreed that a new jail was needed but drug and mental health treatment should be much more widely available, keeping people out of jail and thus affecting the size of the new jail.
Near the end, we each had a celebratory pint of IPA from our favorite brewery. While the dinner wasn’t a huge step out of either of our bubbles, it had still brought two strangers together who were willing to listen to someone else’s life experience, and hopes and concerns for our small part of the world. Sort of like this recent Heineken commercial which builds on the same concept as my bubble dinner: bring disparate people together and see if they can find common ground, or at least see the humanity in each other. By learning how to listen, I think we can.