When you’re writing a story, there’s a pretty decent chance you’ll be dealing with issues and peoples… two categories that – let’s face it – we all have opinions about.
Right or left. Black or white. Male or female. Country or city. Right or wrong, we all have perspectives we operate our lives under. And sometimes those perspectives put us in direct conflict with others.
But just because we disagree with someone else doesn’t mean we need to be afraid of them or treat them rudely – not in reality and not in our fiction (or non-fiction) writing either.
I know I’ve written about this topic before, but I got a great reminder of it when I read Leil Lowndes’ How to Talk to Anyone. By today’s fast-moving standards, it’s an old book since it was published in 2003, years before the first smartphone ever came out, back when the dinosaurs were still using flip models.
But I think it’s still a really relevant read overall.
While Lowndes tells tons of stories in it, one of the ones that stood out most to me was that of Samuel I. Hayakawa, who fashioned quite the resume for himself as a college president, U.S. senator and scholar of linguistics.
Hayakawa also happened to be Japanese. And living in America. During World War II.
That didn’t always make for the most comfortable of circumstances, including one day at a train station in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in early 1943. Considering that the Japanese’s attack on Pearl Harbor wasn’t even two years old at that point, the war was still going on and there were rumors of Axis spies everywhere, Hayakawa had to have expected people to look twice at him. Which, sure enough, they did.
And the experience was made that much more frustrating after the train was delayed.
When the adults in one particular family unit made it especially obvious they were concerned about his presence, casting glances his way and whispering to themselves, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
Hayakawa struck up a conversation with them about simple stuff. He made a mild complaint about how long their train was taking on such a chilly evening, and offered a show of sympathy about how having a child must make dealing with travel inconsistencies even more difficult.
With each new comment on his part and response on theirs, the husband and wife visibly relaxed until the man felt comfortable enough to say, “I hope you don’t mind my bringing it up, but you’re Japanese, aren’t you? Do you think the Japs have any chance of winning this war?”
And once again, instead of taking offense like he could have, Hayakawa simply replied with something reassuring about America’s technological advantages. That made enough of a connection with this couple that they next inquired about his family. Moreover, they were genuinely concerned to find out that his father, mother and two little sisters lived in Japan, and that he had no way of communicating with them until after the war.
In the space of maybe 10 minutes, they turned from antagonists to friends. What a testimony to the power of respecting other people’s perspectives!
Yes, the husband and wife weren’t being polite in the beginning. Quite simply, they should have behaved better than they did. And yet Hayakawa still took the time to show consideration for where they were coming from.
Who knows? Maybe they had family members or friends who died at Pearl Harbor. Or maybe they were just inundated with news about the war and its tragic effects, and were concerned for their safety and the safety of their child.
Whatever their perspective, they clearly weren’t heartless monsters since they ended up sharing a heartfelt conversation with Hayakawa after he so tactfully disabused them of their prejudice.
As creative writers, we have the opportunity to do something very similar in our stories, forging bridges instead of fostering grudges. We can keep our own beliefs while still showing graciousness to those who disagree, proving them wrong not by telling them how rude and rotten they are but by challenging their misconceptions – essentially giving them a new narrative to shape their viewpoints.
Unless you’re writing about politicians. Then it’s perfectly okay to acknowledge that the vast majority of them are pompous jerks.