Snap decisions and public transportation

Quick, you’ve just jumped on the subway and you have to grab a seat before the forward motion lurches you into the nearest pole. Without even consciously thinking about it, you’ll make calculations about each of your potential seat mates, and you’ll plop down in what feels like the safest spot.

“Safe” in terms of social cues, avoiding potentially awkward or threatening interactions… “safe” in terms of however you’ve been conditioned to think about various people based on the external visual clues as to their identity.

Last week we hosted a dinner party and salon where we talked about prejudice and preconceived notions while trying foods that people often think they hate. The conversation was rich. We did an exercise where several of us at a time held signs that had an identity on them (for example: “white man with Gucci loafers and expensive briefcase,” “interracial couple,” “loudly talking young man,” “slow-moving elderly Asian woman”). Those people stood holding their identities, and the rest of us moved around them, choosing to come close or stay far away.

The idea was to take a look at our own often unconscious reactions to people and to ponder why we might be making the social calculations we are making as we go through our days.

I’ve used this exercise with consulting clients, and it’s a very illuminating one. My original inspiration for it is a list in the back of a book, Touch, by Rudy Rasmus, which is the story of a Houston church that effectively brings together people from multiple walks of life each week and, in the process, does a lot for that city and its needs.

So here’s a suggestion: check out the book or contemplate your own daily pathways and what sorts of folks you do and don’t avoid — with an eye towards widening that circle of acceptance.

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