What began as an everyday greeting at a workout Sunday soon resulted in one of those consciousness-raising moments. Ironic, really; Peak Fitness is where one normally focuses on the body, not the mind. Yet in a way, apropos.
Because a very buff, intelligent friend — old enough to have carefully examined such things — shined new light on a habit I didn’t know that I, and most others, have: Focusing on others’ outer selves. Generally, what’s less important.
“In our culture, what do we say when we first meet people?” he asked. “In America it’s ‘what do you do?’” Or in my case, thanks to the name, it’s “where are you from?”
The answers are less relevant than we think.
“Don’t box me in like that,” said this highly successful, self-made businessman. “My job, my businesses, are not who I am. I am much more than that. We should ask instead, ‘who are you?” and let me tell you what defines me.’”
He’s right. We’re talking about identity, and who should define it. By opening with such specifics when first meeting someone, perhaps we do subconsciously create that “box” he’s referring to. With our choices of identifying questions we effectively decide what most defines another person, what’s most important in understanding who they are. So later that’s what we tend to remember first about them, beginning with observations of physical or geographic characteristics — gender, age, ethnicity, residence, supplemented by the typical “what do you do” and “where do you live.”
Then, subconsciously or consciously, we mentally attach characteristics (including attitudes or beliefs) we presume are associated with those.
Perhaps to my friend, his status as husband, father, and grandfather is more important to him. His philosophy, religion, or subculture. His and his wife’s philanthropy and compassion. Perhaps even his taste in books or music. Aren’t these things more important to many, if not most of us? Do they not more significantly define self-image?
I am a reader. A writer. A spiritual hybrid and philosophical explorer. A lifelong learner.
Shouldn’t each of us determine his own identify? You know you best; shouldn’t you decide what your identity is — what most defines who you are? And wouldn’t hearing that tell us a lot more about others? If so, we need new opening questions, and carefully considered answers, for that get-to-know-you conversation.
Which begs the question, who are you?
Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who thanks D.S. for his thought-provoking question. Inspiring ideas always welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.