The Upside of Awkward Neighborhood Meetings
How Uncomfortable Interactions Are Good for Us and Society
For a long time SE Uplift has led with the position that civic engagement and meeting your neighbors are not only important, they’re also fun. It is time we admit this isn’t the full story. The truth is that while there are many enjoyable aspects of neighborhood association participation, it’s not all rainbows, unicorns and block parties. Neighborhood association meetings, for instance, are almost always at least moderately awkward. The truth is also that this awkwardness, rather than being a negative, is actually essential.
What are we talking about when we talk awkward? The awkwardness of neighborhood association meetings can range from benign to deeply unsettling. For a lot of people, the prospect of showing your face in a new group of people who presumably already know one another is enough to make you want to stay at home. For those who do show up, knowing when to speak up during a discussion on the topic du jour presents challenges: what will people think? Will someone challenge my point of view? What if someone says something I disagree with – should I speak up? And what about those times when the topic starts off as something that might seem benign, like transportation planning, or off-leash hours at the dog park, and turns into a wide-ranging conversation about race, religion or gentrification?
Creating an environment that encourages citizens to subject themselves to uncomfortable and occasionally tense moments is not a flaw in our public involvement system. Quite the opposite. These moments are the direct result of bringing together people with a range of different opinions, values, experiences and perspectives. The presence of this diversity of viewpoints inherently results in disagreement, and this coming-together of those viewpoints is essential for the growth of the individual and the success of our society.
This is not to say that participants and regular meeting-goers shouldn’t take steps to alleviate some of the tensions that arise by having strong meeting facilitation, ground rules, etc. However, a certain amount of awkwardness is unavoidable, potentially beneficial, and precisely why we think more people should participate.
(1) Not all awkward / uncomfortable moments in neighborhood associations are the result of diverse opinions and disagreement. Sometimes people just lack social skills! That doesn’t mean these interactions lack benefits- See # 2 & 3 under ‘How Uncomfortable Interactions Are Good For Us.’
(2) Disagreement does not mean name-calling, bullying, etc. Disagreement can be passionate without being disrespectful.
(3) Neighborhood associations that don’t have some disagreement when taking positions, likely aren’t representative of their whole neighborhood.
HOW FACING AWKWARDNESS IS GOOD FOR SOCIETY
In a pluralistic society, most public issues involve multiple legitimate and competing interests and needs. Where there are multiple viewpoints, there are disagreements. When we try to squash disagreement, we squash democracy itself. When we try to avoid disagreement and uncomfortable interactions, we avoid our role as active citizens.
Arriving at decisions on issues that have no immediate clear right or wrong answers requires more than just the consideration of relevant facts; it requires the weighing of alternatives from multiple perspectives and a understanding of the full consequences of those alternatives. In order to arrive at the point of weighing multiple alternatives and consequences, we need forums that allow many perspectives to be voiced and understood.
There is nothing wrong with seeking out like-mind individuals, following-along online, spending time with friends and family who support us, or seeking and supporting our “tribe.” However, when we do this exclusively, we miss out on the essence of what democracy is. Moreover, we miss out on the benefits of interacting with people who are different from us.
HOW UNCOMFORTABLE INTERACTIONS ARE GOOD FOR US
Though it might be awkward, uncomfortable, and challenging, spending time with people who are different from us helps us to expand in the following crucial ways.
1. Uncomfortable Interactions Challenge Our Perceptions of Others
Interacting with people who are different from us can be uncomfortable. If we are willing to embrace the discomfort, to withstand its momentary squirmyness, these interactions can help us make better decisions, challenge our biases, and broaden our understanding of the world.
When we encounter people we don’t normally deal with, we have the opportunity to expand our understanding of the world beyond what media tells us. We find out that many people share our values (safety, connectedness, self-determination) even if those values are expressed differently. We are able to replace stereotypes with more accurate and kind views of people with different backgrounds or opposing views.
2. Uncomfortable Interactions Challenge Our Perceptions of Ourselves
Being around those who think differently from us helps us to understand ourselves better. We become more aware of how our personal experiences have shaped how we see the world, which which keeps us from the trap of believing that there is only one ‘right’ way to see things – our way.
Furthermore, it is in these uncomfortable moments that we are able to take true stock of who we are and where we want to be. It is easy to be open-minded when everyone agrees with you and to be patient when things are moving efficiently. The real test of these traits comes at those times when we are challenged. Can you make space and find common ground on opinions that differ sharply from your own? Can you keep from becoming frustrated at the time it takes to build shared understanding when the person you’re talking with doesn’t share your family or culture’s belief systems? The next time you want to defend your position, consider whether you might take a breath and get curious about what was just said. You might learn more than expected.
3. Uncomfortable Interactions Make Life Interesting
Think how dull life would be if everyone always agreed with us. Not only would conversations fizzle out quickly, but acquiring new knowledge and insights would certainly be more difficult. In fact, research has consistently shown that we learn more from people who are different from us than we do from people who are similar to us. We need challenge in our lives to keep us sharp and stimulated.
The next time you are at a neighborhood association meeting and find yourself shifting in your chair, glancing around the room uncomfortably, remember that making decisions in the context of diversity is often a challenging and awkward experience, but that is what civic engagement is. If you are able to embrace your discomfort, you’ll grow and Portland will benefit!
By: Kelly Fedderson
Community Resource Program Manager, SE Uplift
503-232-0010 x 312