It's obvious that uncomfortable conversations can be hard, and oftentimes painful, no matter if you’re educating someone on the deeper meaning of a word or letting them know if something they’ve said is deeply disrespectful. Even writing about uncomfortable conversations can feel awkward! But no matter how difficult uncomfortable conversations may be to start, or how complicated the topic is, uncomfortable conversations are still incredibly, incredibly necessary.
What would happen if we did not speak up and avoided any and all uncomfortable situations or conversations that came our way? What would our relationships with our friends and family look like? What would people’s marriages be like? Our school? When we avoid a situation, or a conversation, and don’t talk about it, we’re hiding your feelings. Eventually those negative feelings can build and build, negatively impacting not only our health but our relationships as well.
It’s important to have uncomfortable conversations, because through them we can learn. By using uncomfortable conversations, we can educate our audiences about racial and ethnic differences and difficulties. Specifically, the certain way that you do your hair and why you do it, the significance behind it, or why a word they or other people use makes you uncomfortable, and why you’d like them to stop using it. By having uncomfortable conversations, we can learn how to make someone’s life easier, or less tense. A while ago my family was talking about cultural appropriation, and the word “exotic”, a word both my father and I had been called before. My dad, a 40-something half Ecuadorian, half Chinese man, said he didn't mind the word exotic. It didn’t matter to him really, and he’d accept it as a compliment. To him, it was a compliment from friends in a world where he was always different. He always stood out. It meant he was special and good-looking. When it was my turn to talk, I quickly expressed how uncomfortable the word makes me feel. It makes me feel like the cool, new animal in a zoo, or as something other, something not human. Having this conversation, as slightly uncomfortable as it may have been, was important, because it gave us a peek into each other’s lives, and helped us understand one another better. Having uncomfortable conversations can help build relationships.
As important as having the uncomfortable conversations is, it’s equally important who we have them with. Our uncomfortable conversations are some of our most honest conversations. Usually you don't want to have those conversations with any random stranger on the street. It’s best to have these conversations with someone we already have a relationship with whether it’s friends, family, coworkers, or a classmate. You don't have to be the best of friends with them, but knowing them well enough to know that they’ll at least listen to the words you speak is important.
Now sometimes when we have these important conversations, things can go wrong. People can dismiss what we’re saying right after we’ve said them, or they can assume that we’re attacking them and get defensive. This is why tone is incredibly important. If the goal of an uncomfortable conversation is to educate or to learn, be polite and listen to them. We should let them finish their thoughts without interjecting, so that way people can fully express their ideas, and how they feel. Go back to the basics, think of preschool: “listening ears everyone,raise your hands, be polite to our friends, and make sure everyone gets a turn to speak.”
However, there is also a difference between uncomfortable conversations, and down right aggressive or invasive conversations. Knowing the difference between the two is especially important. For example, if you walk up to a random stranger at the bus stop, or a classmate you’ve only talked to twice before and ask them, “What are you?”, that is very different from asking a close friend politely, “Hey, you don't have to answer this if you don't want to, but I was just wondering what ethnicity you are?” Typically, don't ask strangers close personal questions, they don’t owe you an answer, an explanation, or a history lesson. While curiosity of other cultures and ethnicities is encouraged, insensitivity is not. Paying attention to body language can also help us determine whether or not the conversation we’re about to start with someone, or have started with someone, is invasive or not, and whether or not it should continue.
Practice having uncomfortable conversations with those closest to you, so that when the time comes that you need to have an uncomfortable conversation with someone who is not in your inner circle, you know how to go about it.
In the past year, with quarantine, the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests that have followed them, we have generated more conversations than we’ve had in a while. And even though it’s significant that there’s been so many discussions going on, we need to not only make sure that that push for conversation doesn't die down, but not forget why they were started in the first place. So often when huge events, or social issues, come to the forefront of the media, and thus our minds, after a few months the momentum that causes those conversations dies down. But those issues don't die down or disappear, just because a few of us forgot that they existed.
The end goal of these conversations is growth. Whether it’s helping someone else with theirs, or our own personal growth. It’s about teaching, learning, and growing as humans. If we’re avoiding the conversations that help us do those things, the things that help us become and be better humans? What does that say about us?