America, We Need to Talk

Haven’t we all had enough of talking about our differences?
 Every American has a history: this is mine. My grandfather had to change his name to be more "American," but he always remai
Every American has a history: this is mine. My grandfather had to change his name to be more "American," but he always remained uniquely his own self.

As the CEO of an organization with 7,000 customers and offices around the world, I try to avoid talking about politics at work altogether. It’s dangerous. It alienates people, and despite the fact that I have strong political opinions in my private life, I don’t let those opinions influence how I run my company or manage my employees. But I have to say something now.

Over the past several days, I’ve heard from people inside and outside my organization talking about how scared they are. How confused they are. How angry or vindicated they are. I’ve seen people protesting the results of November 8 by wearing labels that define who they are. People are yelling. They are screaming at one another and marching in the streets, unfriending and unfollowing people with opposing political views on social media. I have spent the past 18 months watching America tear itself into tiny shreds and factions: Conservative, Libertarian, Liberal, Socialist, LGBTQ, woman, man, black, white, Latino, Asian, Muslim, Christian – frankly, the divisions among Americans seem endless.

Haven’t we all had enough of talking about our differences?

It’s the focus on being different that drives us apart. And before you say “that’s easy for you as a successful, white, male CEO,” keep in mind that my grandparents immigrated to this country from Greece and came through Ellis Island speaking no English. My grandparents had to scrape their way through incredible adversity simply to provide for their families and suppress their “Greekness” to fit into the fabric of American culture. I grew up going to Greek school, to a Greek church, speaking Greek to my grandparents, and eating Greek food. I know what it’s like to feel somewhat different.

What the results of this election have shown us is that there are a large number of people in this country who weren’t happy with the way the country was being run, who felt marginalized or unheard in some way. And right now, more than half of America isn’t pleased with how the election turned out. Even if you support Trump, you may be wary that there are no checks and balances with a Republican-controlled legislature. Or maybe you’re a loyal Republican who voted for Trump but were truly tortured by some of the things he’s said or done. A lot of Americans are confused, scared, and nervous right now. And it’s forced us to start talking about things that worry us. That isn’t a bad thing.

Here’s what is bad. We’re talking about all the right things – race, gender identity, rights – in all the wrong ways – yelling, shouting, shutting people out. We’re focusing entirely on otherness and not on sameness. What we should be talking about is what unites us: that we are all Americans – whether we were born here or not. We all have families, loved ones, friends, and neighbors for whom we care deeply. We all have rights. And most importantly, no matter what, we are all united in the fact that we have a passion about the rights of others. We all want our families to be safe, and healthy, and empowered. It’s our passion for human rights that makes us such a wonderful, strong community – even when those rights seem ideologically opposed. Whether it’s passion for the right to bear arms, the right to affordable healthcare, the right to marry someone of the same sex, or even the rights of animals or the protection of the environment – that deep and genuine passion is what makes us a powerful force for good in the global community. It’s the beacon that attracted my grandparents to America and led them to Ellis Island.

This election represents a turning point for the American experience as we know it. We can, ten years from now, view what happened on Tuesday as laying the groundwork for a new era of open communication and reconciliation of ideological differences, but we have to do the hard work to get there and make that viewpoint a reality.

What does that mean? It means:

  • Take ownership and eschew the notion that it’s the government’s responsibility to end our ills as a society: racism, sexism, homophobia, greed. The world is full of examples of unelected leaders having profound impact, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Mahatma Gandhi to Malala Yousafzai. We can solve our problems. Start leading, both by example and by taking action.

  • Engage in real discourse. Hiding behind Twitter or posting angry missives on Facebook may feel cathartic, but it’s just deepening the wedge that separates us from each other. Go meet people face to face and have real, thoughtful conversations about real issues. It’s far more uncomfortable, but also far more effective.

  • Ask questions and give people the benefit of the doubt. Most people aren’t fundamentally monstrous. Everyone loves their families. Everyone is fearful of their rights being extinguished. Regardless of where you fall on the sociopolitical spectrum, try to have empathy for what motivates another human being. Instead of looking for confirmation that people are ignorant of your perspective, ask yourself, “How can I help people understand why this is so important?” And if you’re not sure why someone feels the way they do, ask them.

  • Stop using labels as a crutch. While it’s true that our president-elect himself used labels in a divisive way during his campaign, it doesn’t mean we should too. We all control and answer for our own behavior. Drop the labels because they just reinforce our differences. I don’t think about myself as simply a Greek-American. There’s far more to my story than the set labels that describe me. And there’s more to you too.

  • Hold the people in your life accountable for behavior that you’d like to see them change. If your boss is making discriminatory comments at work, you need to address them with him or her. You’re taking a risk for sure. Although it’s illegal, they could retaliate against you, which would be painful. But that’s what being courageous is – risking yourself for the benefit of others. You can’t say that you morally oppose racism and then let your boss get away with telling racist jokes.

  • Business leaders: apply your leverage. Do you conduct business with people or organizations that behave in ways that are counter to what you believe is right? If so, put them on notice that you’re going to take your business elsewhere unless they change their ways. Sometimes all people need to do the right thing is a wake-up call.

  • Run for office. If you’re sick about the dearth of true leadership in government, you need to do something about it – even just volunteering on a campaign can have enormous impact. A byproduct of this election is that we learned that the candidate who best understands and engages the electorate will win, regardless of the opposition’s funding or political connections.

  • Give back. If you’re passionate about a cause, you have a civic duty to invest your time, talent, and treasure into a nonprofit striving to advance it.

A lot of things in America are uncertain right now and a lot of things aren’t right. A lot of people feel deeply unsettled by the realization that perhaps they don’t understand their fellow Americans the way they thought they did. We have an opportunity to fix that regardless of who’s in the Oval Office. We have the power, as Americans and global citizens, to talk to each other openly, with empathy, with a clear mind, and with a respect for moving forward and working together. Let’s not squander it.

Art Papas is the founder and CEO of Bullhorn, a company that provides CRM and productivity solutions for relationship-driven businesses.