(this originally appeared on Medium)
I’m 21 years old, on my semester abroad, and slowly making my way up the steps toward Sacré-Cœur on my first night in Paris. It’s dusky. The lights are starting to turn on throughout Paris and, from the height, the sight is literal magic. I decide to lean in fully to the tourist experience and order a crêpe aux fraises.
“Wait, does she know that you can get chocolate?!”
I hear someone frantically trying to get my attention.
“Wait, you can get chocolate! Don’t you like chocolate?”
That interaction set the foundation for one of my longest standing, closest friendships. Her attempt to save me from myself continue to echo to this day, her advice usually framed as a cautionary tale or an admonishment steeped in facts mixed with values. We share a lot of the same values. It’s part of what keeps us in sync even when we aren’t able to see each other often as moms to young girls during a pandemic.
As we continue to move through the COVID-19 pandemic, that feeling of being in sync with my circle is becoming more and more important. From March 2020 — and I might even say from the election of 2016 — people have been visibly living their values. Whether it’s through mask compliance, Black, Blue or All Lives Matter posts, red hats, or meme-sharing, it’s never been easier to know where the majority of my friends, family, and acquaintances stand on a plethora of issues. Sure, there was always the uncle you knew to be diametrically opposed to your politics present at every family gathering. But with social media extending relationships beyond their normal cooling point (think old coworkers who you’ve followed on social media, or hometown classmates), there’s a lot of potential for peripheral judgement.
But here we are, a year out from the initial stay at home orders. Now, with restrictions lifting and vaccination card selfies proliferating, the invitations are starting to creep in. Weddings, bocce bar league, going out to dinner in notoriously mask-free establishments.
What if we’ve seen parts of these people that make us not want to continue the relationship or connection? How do you continue to connect with people who don’t share your values on things that feel very fundamental?
Values Drive Every Interaction
There’s a very real ecosystem of values that goes into how we relate to others. It informs more than just our friendships, but how we shop, where we spend our money, and more. Value sharing, it turns out, is big business.
“Values and are molded from factors such as religious beliefs, family and friends, life experiences, mindset, education, and socialisation,” according to researcher Abel Gaia. “It is exactly because of the differences in the factors that mold values that there exist differences in values.”
It’s understandable that these factors shape our values and, accordingly, our values shift as we grow, accumulating more experiences and higher capacity for critical thinking. We’re able to devise a value system that is authentic and representative of our experiences and observations.
These are usually founded in skills we hone and which are reinforced by repeated experiences. Simply put, by understanding how your values were formed, you can learn how other people formed their values. Alice Boyes, PhD, shares a very real example:
“If you grow up very privileged, then empathy might not have been a skill you particularly needed, therefore that skill might be underdeveloped for you. We often value what we’re better at, and devalue what we’re worse at.”
Or valuing chocolate more than strawberries.
But these days are about more than just a flavor preference. It’s about attitudes toward systemic issues and someone’s (in)tolerance for the repercussions of those issues and how to address them. It’s about the amount of care we take for others and for ourselves amidst a pandemic. It’s about a society that has, for too long, framed reality as something “up for debate” in ways that are destructive and hugely detrimental to public health, social initiatives, and countless other modern issues.
So back to my initial question: how to handle interactions with those with whom we seemingly don’t share much of anything except an incidental connection?
Post COVID-19 Interaction Building
It’s important to remember that we don’t want everyone to share the same values. Debate can be healthy, and believe it or not, no single person has the perfect outlook and perfect values from which all others should be derived.
As I see it, we have three approaches:
Unfriend, unfollow, whatever term applies. Even though it can be good to keep *the right* kind of varying viewpoints in your feed, if you don’t receive any positive feedback from a contact, it’s detrimental to your own mental health. Reducing cognitive dissonance in your social media — or better yet, reducing time spend on social media — can be a benefit.
Take the time you need to respond or choose your level of interaction. For example, is there a wedding invitation that you are unsure about accepting? Send a card. Include an appropriate level of explanation, if you feel it’s required. But remember that you never — and least of all, now — need to include an explanation for why you feel a certain way.
Save this for those most close or unavoidable to you. Even if the thought of a dissenting discussion fills you with anxiety, or angry blindness, or just reduces you to tears, engaging with alternate viewpoints is one of the most effective and poignant ways to find common ground.
If it helps to do a little pre-work to get your thoughts in order, try an exercise in which you trace your own values. Ask yourself how your own experiences, strengths, weaknesses, etc influence why you feel the way you feel. Once you’re able to make those connections, see if you can extend that level of understanding to other parties. Not only does it provide an innate empathy for the other person, it also allows you to speak to their experience and draw connections that might strengthen your own position more firmly.
To paraphrase the amazing Amanda Gorman, it’s important to try even as we tire. Living in a echo chamber has no benefit to building a better society. And just like crepes… Life is more rich when we have more to draw from.