Cavorting on Common Ground
George Lancaster describes how he and his friend Bill built a committed and lasting friendship — despite their religious and political differences.
Bill and I shouldn’t be close friends. Not if you look at us through the lens of current, observed patterns of discourse: argumentative, divisive, shouting over each other, even physically violent.
You see, he and I believe fundamentally differently in a few key areas.
He owns guns; I don’t (and can’t understand the rationality of owning them). I’m an atheist; he’s a regular Sunday mass-attending Catholic. He votes Republican; I’m a Democrat, and a rather liberal one at that.
Then there’s the cultural factor: He’s a Midwesterner and I’m a Southerner.
But man, do we have a joyous time during our once-a-month chats!
Part of it is a shared sense of humor. Another is a shared sense of values in terms of family — both of us were/are involved in our kids’ lives and have been with our loving, original partners for decades. One more is our shared interest and appreciation for other cultures, both in our own countries and abroad.
But the foundation rests on our shared experience of working together in Japan. Me, the consultant, assisting American companies sell products there. He, my client. During the many long and intense sales trips there together over a period of three years, we developed mutual respect for each other’s integrity, professionalism, honesty and sheer determination.
And selling into Japan requires determination! Bill sold industrial wire shelving, primarily used in restaurants, all over the world, but the toughest market for him was Japan, where brand loyalty is an almost impenetrable barrier. This is because the quality of after-sales service is paramount, above price and features, and how do you prove that at the start?
We’re still the same in our views on religion and politics, but it doesn’t matter. We both respect the fact that differing opinions exist: They can be believed as valid/invalid by him or me, and that’s okay. We don’t make value judgments, assigning “good” or “bad” to any. And most important of all, we’re not interested in changing each other’s minds.
Over our working relationship, I helped him smooth things over with an existing distributor and found him new retail sales outlets. But it was tough going. I remember sitting in meetings with the Japanese distributor, he hauling out damaged shelves, never more than three, from the hundreds just arrived by 40-foot container, and questioning Bill’s company’s capability. A mere two or three out of the entire shipment! To Bill, it was acceptable quality control. To the distributor, it meant a potential lost account from the customer they were sent to.
But Bill didn’t go nuts and voice frustration and anger. I was impressed with his patience, equanimity and humor — and his willingness to meet a high service level required nowhere else on earth.
And this spoke to a character not completely defined by religious beliefs or political views.
Though we discussed neither politics nor religion at the time, we knew where each other stood, determined primarily from asides and quips he made. I knew he was conservative, and he knew I was liberal by my reaction, which was usually a blank stare and stone-cold silence. All along there was the consultant-client dynamic; his financial support meant more to me than my offense at his opinions on non-business matters.
Here’s where it gets interesting. In the late ’90s, my wife and I folded up our trade consultancy firm when a client hired me full time to grow their international sales. Bill and I lost touch, our work together not translating into a continuing friendship. Then, in early 2021, out of the blue, more than 20 years later, without any contact in the interim, he messages me via LinkedIn.
“Hey George,” he writes, “You want to reconnect? Over monthly Signal chats?”
So begins our unlikely, and unexpectedly delightful, dialog. We’re still the same in our views on religion and politics, but it doesn’t matter. We both respect the fact that differing opinions exist: They can be believed as valid/invalid by him or me, and that’s okay. We don’t make value judgments, assigning “good” or “bad” to any.
Is what I’ve described universally applicable? Only if both sides are committed to the same goal. It’s worth giving a try. Pick someone you know who you believe possesses different core beliefs. You have nothing to lose.
And most important of all, we’re not interested in changing each other’s minds. As Bill says, “We humans are all complex individuals, much fuller in life than just our religious habits or voting record. How one of us comes to believe certain things is the culmination of a lifetime of influences, unique to each of us. Judging and proselytizing is counterproductive. Damaging.
“And,” he adds, “that fullness of self means that all of us have more in common than not.”
By focusing on our commonality — being parents and husbands, our struggles with technology (and frustrations with social media), enduring age-related ailments (he’s in his 70s now, I’m in my 60s), world events that similarly impact us, recent overseas trips, and everything else about being our particular selves — we bond. And in that bonding, our differing opinions on some issues have no ill effect.
In our early conversations, we heavily reminisced. For example, remembering the time Bill’s clueless, boorish, obese boss joined us on a trip. On a customer visit, his butt gets stuck in the chair, so at meeting’s end it rose with him when he got to his feet. And while waiting for a train he asked a young woman standing behind a counter of a platform kiosk, in English, “Do you want to f%#&?” He thought it just innocent fun, not realizing all Japanese young people understand the word. In English. Bill felt the same way as I did about him, and the two-plus-decades-old memories are yet fresh enough for us to both laugh out loud.
But now we speak mostly of our present lives. And in so doing, we are building a renewed and treasured friendship, producing a more rewarding relationship than where it paused all those years ago.
Is what I’ve described universally applicable? Only if both sides are committed to the same goal.
It’s worth giving a try. Pick someone you know who you believe possesses different core beliefs.
You have nothing to lose.
And everything to gain.