How We Talk To Each Other
My father rarely talked about his work. His job was in what was then called employee relations. In an era when unions were much more powerful than they are today, he represented management in labor negotiations. Early in his career he worked for a steel company and later for a large food manufacturing corporation. His companies had plants scattered across the United States and Canada, and he often traveled for work, living in a hotel room until the current dispute or contract negotiation was resolved.
Dad told me one brief anecdote that has stuck with me over the years. Contract negotiations were always difficult and costly, and my father thought the best agreements were forged when both sides walked away from the table believing they’d been cheated. Yet, as difficult as the negotiations were, at the end of the day, labor and management would head to a bar and drink together. They argued viciously during the day, but they went out together each night. He remembered those days with great fondness, and the story has stuck with me because it seems so unimaginable today.
My father’s career spanned the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and the men he worked with—they were all men in those days—had much in common. Dad served on a destroyer in World War II and the Korean War, and many others around the bargaining table, both labor and management, were also veterans. In the days before cable television and the internet, they all watched the same three network channels, and baseball was a reliable topic of conversation. These men had their differences, but they were bound together by other forces. They shared a mutual respect that allowed them to see each other as more than just labor and management.
Today things are very different. Now controversy erupts if New Jersey Governor Chris Christie puts his arm around President Obama. Republican and Democratic politicians rarely eat together, and the internet provides advice about how to talk to your relative who is a Trump voter.
One summer I worked in a factory machine shop, cutting and drilling pieces of steel that were fashioned into bleachers for stadiums and gymnasiums. As a temporary worker, I was not required to join the union, but, because I wanted to be a member, I filled out the paperwork and paid the fee. My father, who by then lived in a different city, joked that I could not park my VW van in his driveway because it bore a sticker for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. In fact, he was always happy to see my car in his driveway.
Political divisions eventually strained my relationship with my father. Dad was a Republican his entire life, and I have always been a Democrat. He served in the Navy, and I made two trips to Washington DC to march against the war in Vietnam. He listened to Rush Limbaugh every day, and I listen to National Public Radio.
For a while, we argued. We tried to convince each other of the wisdom of our positions. We both cared deeply about politics, but eventually we saw that arguing was getting us nowhere. We were different in many ways, but, as we aged together, we shifted our focus to the things we had in common: sports, books, music, and memories of our lives together. At the end, we never talked about politics. We learned to respect each other and to value each other’s company. Now that he is gone, I am very glad we did.
It is easy to be nostalgic about the past. My mental image of labor and management having drinks together looks like an antique Norman Rockwell scene. Of course, we know that many things were much worse back then. The good old days were not good for everyone. But much of the progress we’ve made since my father’s time has come from recognizing the things we have in common and finding a way to respect each other. Advances in LBGT rights have been won, in part, by individual people who had the courage to come out from the shadows and by family members, friends, and coworkers who embraced them. In the end, the things that bound these people together were stronger than their differences.
Today we seem to have less in common than ever before. We talk past each other. We shout. Everyone is angry, and being on the winning team is more important than achieving a common goal. Although we live in the same country, many of us feel like foreigners in relation to our fellow citizens.
In my father’s era, manufacturing was the strength of this nation. He and his labor counterparts had a shared interest in the success of the company. Despite being on different sides of the negotiating table, they both played a role in building a strong middle class and creating our nation’s wealth. Today we are making a transition to a different kind of economy. Disputes about jobs and wealth are at the heart of our political conflict, and any sense of common purpose has all but disappeared.
Unless we find another way to talk to each other, we are unlikely to move in a productive direction. My father and I were family. We could afford to put politics aside, because being father and son was the most important thing. As citizens of a divided nation, we don’t have that luxury. We probably won’t be going out for beers together anytime soon, but I believe progress is still possible. Perhaps not likely, but possible.
To get there we’ll have to sit at the same table, have some difficult conversations, and negotiate in good faith.
Stuart Vyse is a psychological scientist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, which won the William James Book Award of the American Psychological Association, and Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold On To Their Money. His work has appeared in Observer, The Atlantic, The Good Men Project, and Tablet. He writes the “Behavior & Belief” column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine.