Years ago I had the privilege to baby-sit for a family with a polish heritage. Overtime, I became one of the family, their African American daughter. For birthdays, we would sing the traditional happy birthday song and then follow-up with the polish version, Sto Lat. I never really knew exactly what I was saying but it was special and festive so I didn’t care. I was apart of the family and I sang Sto Lat!
The department I work in celebrates all the month’s birthdays at once. One month, we gathered as was custom and sang the traditional happy birthday song (with very little enthusiasm). One of the birthday celebrants asked if we knew the polish version. Of course, I belted it out like it was a common thing. My co-workers were astonished and wondered how I knew the polish happy birthday song.
This story reminds me of a few things regarding diversity. The first is that we form all kinds of stereotypes and prejudices based on limited information. I realize that Sto Lat isn’t a popular song, but the level of surprise is what stood out to me. My co-workers had fit me into a box based on past behavior and other factors. No one knew me outside of our extremely limited interactions at work. Why do we do it? It’s just easier. I’m guilty of it, too. It takes effort to push aside our preconceived notions and take in new and often times contradictory information. In order to grow and develop intellectually, we must be willing to revisit how our opinions are formed and challenge them.
The second thing that came to mind is that it never hurts to open your horizons. I become more whole and complete as a person when I keep an open mind. I love learning new things about individuals, cultures, traditions, history, etc. I’m able to relate and interact with a diverse group of people as a result. It pains me to go to an event and see people cluster together in familiar groups. Step out of your comfort zone! Work the room! Meet new people! Learn Sto Lat! What is it going to hurt? It may allow you to make a connection with someone. Another co-worker heard of my attempt to sing Sto Lat and taught me the correct pronunciation and meaning. That was a new connection I may not have made otherwise.
On a final note, I was in Boston waiting for a bus and it started pouring. I ran under a store awning with a homeless man. Other people looked at his appearance and quickly moved on. I started a conversation with him and it turned out to be very educational! He provided me with some keen insight on social issues in Boston. Granted, by the end of the conversation he started talking strange but the rain let up and I was able to end the conversation. But again, you never know what you are going to learn about or from other people. Let’s keep an open mind.