Trading places

change your lifeEarlier this week, a woman I admire bravely hugged her 14YO son goodbye as he set off on a European adventure. Underneath a healthy dose of momma-trepidation, she’s thrilled for him to have this experience. We’ve had a few conversations about what he’ll gain from it, and I–for the millionth time–thought, We need more international youth exchange programs.

Then this morning, a colleague forwarded an article about the Christian church struggling to come to terms with racism. (You can read it HERE, if you’re interested.) It’s crazy to me how segregated the vast majority of American churches remain, and I thought, We really need a church exchange program.

Somehow that thought took me back nearly twenty years, when I was a young whippersnapper with all the answers at a global company. Every time someone from a non-US location would visit or one of my American colleagues would grouse about someone from “over there” just not getting it, I’d think, We really need a business exchange program. In fact, I even tried to float it by HR a couple of times.

Then I remembered that a couple of months ago, while I visited the parent company of my current employer, I was confronted by the diversity of the different lines of business housed in each of our subsidiaries. I found myself surprised at how uninformed our parent was about what we do, and vice versa. Again I thought, We really need a company exchange program.

It seems to have become second nature for me to think of a culture swap any time communication or behavioral hurdles arise, and I thank my experience with youth exchange for that. You see, immersing oneself in a different culture–whether it be geographical, religious, commercial, racial, or pretty much anything else–allows you to get a little bit closer to understanding the why in someone else’s actions. It also breaks relationships into individual encounters, rather than sweeping judgments about a broader group. It not only shapes the person going on the exchange, but also the people receiving her on the other end.

If I had to pick a metaphor to describe the effects of exchange, it would look something like this video that went viral yesterday (PLEASE watch it):

As the winning pitcher consoles the friend he just struck out, I’m internally screaming YES! YES! YES! We CAN be friends with someone on a different team.

So get out there and explore someone else’s world. Get to know your neighbors, near and far. Spend time with people who don’t look/think/eat/believe like you. They might be across the ocean or across the street. We don’t always have to agree, but we’ll all be better for it.

P.S. Thanks, Amy, for giving your son this incredible gift.

P.P.S. Here’s a link to another article, shared recently by a friend. Kumbaya, everyone.

Beyond your ZIP code

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.