People You Wouldn't Otherwise Know

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In high school, three occasions made me realize that my classmates in the gifted-and-talented program didn’t represent the population at large:

  1. I refused to dissect a cat in biology, punting me to regular-level science for the year.

  2. Gym schedules determined health class makeup.

  3. Kids not in athletics got stuck in gym.

Since then, few activities have caused me to engage with people I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. For the most part, we select where we go and what we do. True general public situations—post offices, drivers’ licensing bureaus, and public transit—don’t promote social connection.

What a shame.

As I’ve written, diversity helps us increase our empathy. Without perspective, we raise the risk that misunderstanding engenders prejudices and biases that cause hurt and impede progress.

Studies from the University of California at Berkeley and another by The Chronicle of Philanthropy found that lower- and middle-class people give higher percentages of their incomes to charitable causes than wealthy folks and that lower-income people show more altruism. Why? Researchers hypothesize that the wealthy—especially people who live in upper-income enclaves—empathize less with the needy because they have limited contact with them.

Narrow understanding of different humans caused by distance and disconnection not only reduces altruism—it keeps us from entire worlds of perspectives, knowledge, and experiences. Other people might have discovered novel solutions to tough problems, found new approaches to everyday challenges, and developed insights and philosophies that could ease collective strain. Without connection and sustained interaction, we’ll never know.

Given the vast benefits in doing so, how can we better open our worlds? Where do we find or craft situations that connect us with people completely unlike us?