A colleague of mine asked me to fill in for him next week representing our company at the annual International Youth Exchange Expo. Given my long, storied history with youth exchange I agreed, even though it meant giving up a much of a precious Saturday. It could be fun, I thought, but probably fairly painless, regardless. I didn’t give it much thought beyond that.

Yesterday, one of the local promoters called me, ostensibly to make sure I have everything I need, but really to find out who I am and what I’m all about. It took about three-and-a-half seconds of conversation to plunge me headlong back into my deep-but-long-neglected passion for youth exchange. What I’m sure this man intended to be a five-minute conversation turned into a verbal exchange that lasted almost twenty. I guess I got a bit fired up.

By the time I hung up the phone, I was ready to send my kids, your kids, the neighbor kids, and random kids off the street somewhere–anywhere–to get a taste of the world that exists beyond their ZIP code. NOTHING has helped me more in the area of seeing things from another’s perspective and proactively seeking effective ways to communicate more than my exchange experiences. Being a stranger in a strange land will do that to a person.

Anyone can do this at any time. Put yourself in a place where you’re not comfortable. Get off the beaten path. Put away your guide book. Be the odd (wo)man out. It doesn’t matter whether you’re ten miles from home or ten thousand. When you find yourself in a place where you don’t share the local culture and can’t rely on collective inferences, you have to really listen to what other people are saying, become more alert to nuance, pick up the local accent, and reexamine your old standbys. And before you tell me you can’t/won’t/don’t want to travel somewhere exotic, I want to make it clear that all of this applies on the south side of town just as much as it applies south of the border.

So while you’re considering sending your kids on an exchange or hosting one yourself (hint, hint), think about how you can get out of your own comfort zone locally to reap the same benefits. Think, if you will, beyond your own ZIP code.

Oops, I’m getting fired up again.

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