• Thomas Milus, PhD

Can We Talk?

Prior to eight months ago, most of us had daily lives that involved other people. We didn't always recognize it, but it was there. People you passed on the street or in the store, people in line with you at the coffee shop or the bank, there was (is) a separation. Although those who wear masks lose the capacity to communicate part of their humanity, they do communicate a shared belief and value: a threat exists and potential safety. Those not wearing masks on the other hand seem to send a message that they don't believe there is any risk, or that they don't care. In either case, they signal that they do not share the same beliefs and values.

Nearly every business has markers reminding us and designating how far we should be from one another. Tables in restaurants are reduced to 25% of their pre-Covid numbers. Many places have large plexiglass shields between the customers and store employees at the checkout counters. Healthcare workers often wear masks in addition to some type of plastic face shield.

Everywhere we look, or go, we are reminded that it is potentially dangerous to be together. Every person is potentially a carrier of a potentially deadly virus. Except, the "potentially" part is not always remembered. And yet, we are a social species. We need each other. We need to be together. We need to "see" each other; our faces, our smiles and other signs communicating that we acknowledge one another beyond eye contact above a mask.

If Robert Putnam's observations of history, and the current day, we as a nation have been moving into the "all about me" mode for a few decades. The last thing we need is more emphasis on the individual rather than us as a nation. We seem to have a growing inability to tolerate dissenting opinions. It is as if disagreement means argument; argument means that someone wins, and someone loses.

Our individual differences hold the key to the diversity necessary for a viable, self-sustaining social system. Our ability to sit together with the tension generated by our differing opinions is a key to success. We need more dialogue, where we listen to one another without judgment and without any expectation that either of us will convince the other that one is "right" and one is "wrong." We may leave the dialogue unconvinced that we should change our positions, but we will not be the same people we were prior to the dialogue. We can develop a robust appreciation for the other's opinion even though we don't agree. What a concept!!

Willingness to engage in dialogue implies respect for the other. We have not seen many, or any, examples of this in our government or other agencies for many years. There has been a steady decline in respect for dissenting opinions. We might want to consider changing that if we want to see a change in how things are going. The lack of dialogue is much like wearing a mask. Just as a mask obscures our facial communications with others and social distancing separates is, so does a lack of dialogue obscure and separate us about our perspectives on the world.