The first time someone told me I was introducing myself incorrectly was several years ago. Coworkers and I spent a learning day with Elder Casey Eagle Speaker, and we didn’t get far into the morning before our first lesson. As we attempted to introduce ourselves, he interrupted us. Eventually, he said something to the effect of, “I didn’t ask what your job title is. I didn’t ask what you do at work. I asked who are you?”
So, we tried introductions again. We shared where we come from, who our family is, what we like to do in our spare time.
While the lesson has stuck with me through the last decade, I don’t always practice it. Often, I give in to convention and introduce myself via my job. Certainly, I have occasionally confused my job and my identity, as I shared back in January. But I mostly do the job-related intro because it’s easier, and it’s what people seem to expect/want.
So, it was a refreshing reminder last week when I attended an 800-person conference and the organizers started the event by placing people in small groups with specific instructions. First, each person was to write down a list of how they identify themselves. I included labels like:
- Albertan, Canadian, settler
- daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece, cousin, friend
- traveller, runner, reader, writer
- communicator, social worker, funder
- connector, lover of lists, worrier
The hosts gave us enough time to make our lists that I also found myself thinking about the kinds of words I’d like to use one day: wife, mother, leader, dancer-who-doesn’t-care-how-she-looks.
I also thought about titles I’d claim if there was a place to put a footnote or some clarifying statements: words like Christian, or Calgarian.
And then there are the titles I rarely or never have to say, because so many people accept these descriptors as a given: woman, White, straight.
And finally, there are words I’ll probably never use (but have made peace with): singer, carpenter, map reader, athlete.
After we each wrote our words, we were guided to share 3-5 of our descriptors with others in our group. Choosing which words to share stressed me out far more than I’d expect. But it helped a few minutes later when we were invited to ask each person in our groups a question about their chosen words. In doing so, I met people from across Canada, and learned about their grandkids, their children with disabilities, their hobbies, their quirks, and – yes – even their jobs.
Interestingly, however, this attitude didn’t seem to stick for the next three days of the conference. Instead, every time I entered a room or shared a new table with other participants, they quickly looked at my nametag. They saw my name, and the name of my employer. Inevitably, someone would make a crack about the corporate foundation where I work. But as long as I restrained myself from being defensive, I almost always ended up having a good conversation with these people – the kind of conversation where you both feel you’ve learned something and found common ground.
This routine isn’t new to me, but it always interests me. I know we find it easier to make sense of people if we can sort them into pre-determined categories. And as I mentioned in an earlier blog post, there are even some evolutionary advantages there. But I suspect there’s more to be gained in the long run if we rely on curiosity instead (likely also a trait developed during evolution), and then shut up long enough to listen.
At that point, we might find out who people around us really are.