Ever get #fomo? It’s what makes us all human!

At the dining hall where I volunteer, staff have been conducting their annual survey. It’s a chance for them to understand the demographic of the guests, the circumstances under which they find themselves needing a free hot meal, and to observe any longer-term trends. Staff run it as randomly as possible, selecting every 5th guest in line and seating them in a sectioned-off area.

What surprised me was the reaction of guests not chosen for the survey. Every so often, the volunteers would be stopped and asked, “What’s going on over there? Can I take part?” or from those in the know, “You can tell them I’ll take part”.

Isn’t it ironic, I thought to myself, that the same people who try so hard to remain invisible also experience that ubiquitous emotion known to millennials everywhere as #fomo (fear of missing out — I know… I had to look it up the first time too)? They didn’t want to miss out, and it didn’t seem to be because of the goody bags that people were getting as a thank you for taking part. Those were difficult to spot from far (though word might have spread quickly on the street). It was because something was going on that they were not a part of.

This got me thinking. We spend most of our time identifying people by external characteristics like race, sex, income, occupation. But by doing so, we neatly categorize people into groups — black or white, housed or homeless, high-wage or low-wage worker, old or young — which creates automatic barriers and divisions.

But rarely do we talk about the human qualities that unite us. The internal characteristics. The happiness, sadness, fear, courage, anxiety and of course fomo that we all experience. The things that motivate us. The things that de-motivate us. The fact that we want to be part of the group or community that we live in. No man is an island after all.

If we did talk about those uniting qualities, we’d probably make better policy. In the UK, for example, HMRC, the revenue and customs agency, wanted to increase the number of taxpayers who paid their tax bill on time. They experimented with a bunch of different letters and the one that triggered the largest increase in on-time payments said something along the lines of, “Did you know that the majority of taxpayers in your area paid their tax bill on time”? That’s it. By appealing to the reader’s sense of being part of their community, of needing to conform to what others around them were doing, of human emotions like obligation and guilt, it was enough to change their behavior.

Now what if we applied that to social policy? I can think of a few examples. How about “the majority of businesses in your district pay a living wage” or “the majority of young people in your neighborhood don’t do drugs”? And what if we started by applying it to how we talk about people living in circumstances that we want to help change. The homeless person on the street that you walk straight past experiences the same ups and downs, highs and lows, as you do. The low wage worker that serves you in a restaurant has the same worries about putting food on the table and helping their kids finish their homework. The disabled veteran looking for a job also wants to be a productive member of society.

If we’re going to affect change, we need to start with what unites us, not what pushes us apart.

Originally published at tellingtimes.me on August 19, 2015.

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