There’s a line I love right at the start of Randy Pausch’s famous last lecture*, when he mentions a piece of advice his father gave him:
When there’s an elephant in the room, introduce them.
I liked the sound of that when I first heard it, and since then I’ve been gradually building up my elephant-introducing skills. I’ve discovered from my experiments that broaching the very subject everyone else is afraid to mention usually works out pretty well.
A few weeks back, I asked a lesbian couple what it was like being female and gay in New Orleans. In Naples last month, I got talking with a Nigerian immigrant and asked if he suffered much discrimination in Italy. I’ve also had numerous conversations with homeless people about life on the streets.
And it’s not just the big elephants that I try to introduce, but the little ones, too. I like to talk about an awkward hug right after it happens. If someone’s wearing strange pants, I’m likely to mention them.
It doesn’t always work out well. Some people would rather just ignore the elephant, and they don’t appreciate a forced introduction. But I find that to be the exception rather than the rule, especially if you make the right approach.
How to introduce an elephant
The introduction must be made in a certain way. You can’t go marching up to a guy in a wheelchair and blurt out, “Oh my God! What happened to your legs!?”
No. Elephants must be introduced gently.
A news reporter once told me how. She often had to get people talking about subjects they didn’t want to talk about. She wouldn’t run up to the congressman and ask him straight up, “How do you feel about your wife leaving you for a pool boy?” Instead, she’d ask something like, “Mr. Congressman, this must be a very difficult time for you, but I was hoping you could help me understand what you’re going through.” Effectively, what she was communicating was this: “Mr. Congressman, I want to know what it’s like to be you, to be in this situation. Let me walk in your shoes for a while, see the world through your eyes. I’d like to understand, to empathize.”
People open up when you introduce an elephant like that. They know you’re not looking to judge or poke fun, but simply to understand.
Thanks to a similar approach, the lesbians told me that it’s not too tough being female and gay in New Orleans; their male counterparts are usually the ones getting hassled. Larry the Nigerian opened up about the prejudice he’s had to endure from his new neighbors, despite his obvious intelligence, honest heart and work ethic. Tim and Denzel, both homeless in NOLA, helped me understand the challenges they face every day, and how they came to be stuck where they are.
I’ve also come to better understand hugging etiquette and strange fashion choices.
I still have a long way to go, lots of elephants to introduce. I’m getting better at recognizing them though. All I do is follow the fear. I ask myself, “What’s taboo here? What am I afraid to ask this person?” And then I do my best to push through the fear and ask it.
In doing so, I’ve discovered what Marc Pachter, the master interviewer, already knew when he asked Agnes DeMille an unthinkable question: “Was it a problem for you in your life, that you were not beautiful?” Pachter asked that question, and the whole audience held their breath, shocked that he would even go there. But DeMille had been waiting her entire life to be asked just that. Everyone she’d ever known had avoided it. And when it was finally asked, she gladly answered.
I believe most people want to be asked these questions, given those opportunities to open up, to bear their souls, to tell someone what it’s like to live in their skin. We all just want to be understood. We all want a chance to tell our side of the story.
The best part is, when you make a habit of introducing elephants, people come to know you as someone who seeks to understand, someone who will listen and not judge, someone who just wants to connect and share a little humanity. There may be some setbacks along the way, as you encounter some souls that aren’t ready to be bore, but such is life. You just move on to the next soul, introduce the next elephant, and learn a little more.
* You can watch the original, 76-minute speech by Randy Pausch on YouTube, or check out the 12-minute reprisal he gave on Oprah.