Brendan Abrams is a liberal arts and engineering studies junior and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed in this column do not reflect the viewpoints or editorial coverage of Mustang News.
I don’t want to get hung up on the lack of cultural diversity at Cal Poly — let’s be honest, I’m not doing much to help increase it — but there is something to be said about having diversity in one’s own social circle.
Most people are aware of how exposure to only a narrow set of beliefs is problematic when many different types of people exist in the world. Whether it’s believing that everyone will understand Java jokes that you tell System.out.print (“to the world”), or seeing only one side of an issue on social media, it’s easy to assume that most other viewpoints match your own.
It would be awesome if there was a way to remedy this somehow. What if there was a service that forced diverse views into people’s lives just long enough to expose everyone to a cultural variety of thought?
That service exists, it’s called Airbnb.
Don’t mistake this for free advertising for the monolithic residence-sharing site. Airbnb has its share of drawbacks when it comes to the health of local real estate markets.
However, one thing the site does well is connect disparate types of people through the promise of cheap travel and quick cash.
It was quick cash that my roommates and I were after when we decided to begin hosting through Airbnb to cover our utility bills. We quickly learned that we would also get a cultural awakening when people from around the globe began sending in requests to stay with us.
Before our first guests arrived, we had a multitude of questions. Would they be friendly? Would they steal from us or leave the place a mess? WHERE IS THE TV REMOTE?
Airbnb only provides a blurry picture and a brief description of the people it expects users to let live with them overnight, so our assumptions ran wild. We expected stiff, awkward conversations with random humans.
Boy (and girl), were we mistaken.
We forgot one ultimate assumption: our guests would be people, just like us. Sometimes that’s all that’s necessary to form meaningful connections. Imagine our delight when two of our first guests were a young German couple so friendly that we all went out to dinner and spent hours talking late into the night.
This was during the 2016 presidential race when my general opinion of the quality of American people was on the downward slope, so I was further surprised when the Germans mentioned that everyone was so friendly in this country. They could barely walk down the street of a small West Coast town without being
bludgeoned with friendly smiles and polite greetings.
“In Germany, nobody says ‘hi’ to strangers,” they said.
Good job, America. I needed a small shift in perspective. Diversifying isn’t about getting a bunch of different people to come together; it’s about making individual connections with individual people. Simple exposure to ideas is nowhere near as effective as intimate understanding.
There was a lot more understanding to come. As foreign guest after foreign guest passed through our home, we got all sorts of viewpoints on life and politics.
“People just have to relax and play golf. Could you pass me another Corona?” a middle-aged German psychologist and mother on a golf vacation said.
“Brexit is like our version of Trump,” a single British biologist who just felt like traveling said.
“Everything seems fine here. From the news we thought it would be much worse,” a young French woman, here for the Pacific Ocean and Vegas, said.
“Everyone we meet says they didn’t vote for Trump. So how did he get elected? Everyone blames someone else,” a Belgian couple on holiday (because Belgian employers give vacation time) said.
“Your bread is weird. Our bread is not so fluffy,” more Germans said.
Sure, Airbnb guests might not provide the most representative sample of viewpoints, but there was something going on. All the strangers made as many assumptions about us as we made about them, yet we were immediately drawn into deep conversation in almost every case. There was no shortage of mutual understanding and respect despite our widely varied backgrounds.
If we, a couple of college students, can get along so easily such random people, who in some cases struggled to speak our language, why is common ground so hard to find between our political factions, or even between representatives in government and their constituents?
It comes down to a lack of personal contact. Politicians rarely live among the people they govern in a physical, financial or ideological sense, leading to the mess of special interests, corruption and disconnectedness we’ve known for much of our country’s history.
It would be great to “drain the swamp,” but obviously the alligator we hired to do it won’t be much help.
Let’s add another criterion to the politician’s list: must live for several days in a house with a representative sample of his/her/zir constituents.