Most people are creatures of habit with short memories. It’s fun to say we like new things and fresh experiences, but how many times in the last month have we done something adventurous or, more accurately, out of our comfort zones? Many of us have forgotten what it’s like to be the “new guy” or the “new gal.”

I like knowing what to expect. It’s why I eat at a consistent rotation of restaurants. I’ve attended the same church for nine years. I have my list of favorite coffee shops. I even like to watch my favorite shows over and over again (seasons 1-4 of The West Wing never get old). No one would label me as adventurous.

The Challenge of Trying New Things

This past month, I decided to put myself out there a little more. I felt like it had been awhile since I had been the new person somewhere. In my heart, I know it’s good to try new things. I don’t grow when I’m comfortable. So, I signed up for some cooking classes because it’s something completely different than what I do for a living. I checked out a few different churches outside of my tradition. And, I visited a new city. I know none of this will make the National Geographic Channel, but for me, it’s a big deal because I love routine.

trying new thingsBeing the new guy was eye-opening… and stressful. I learned most people try to be friendly to newcomers, but not all succeed. It’s not that they have bad intentions. They’re just not being thoughtful or mindful that there might be a new person who was feeling out of place.

For example, in the cooking class I attended there was a fellow student who was a regular. She went to classes three to four times a week, while this was my first time. During one part of the class, she chastised me for doing something the wrong way. It wasn’t the correction that made me feel stupid (it was a class after all and I was there to learn). However, the way she communicated made me feel incredibly dumb in front of everyone else. She used big language in front of everyone else and gave me a roll of the eyes that said without words, “Why didn’t you know this already?” I didn’t want to mess up for the rest of the night… heck, I didn’t want to be noticed the rest of the night.

Or there was the time I went to a new church. Now, full disclosure: I work for a church. So, I know the church world… or at least I thought. I went to a church outside of my normal tradition, which meant there were different unspoken rules that everyone else seemed to know but were new to me. This was particularly evident during communion (the part where you drink wine or juice and eat a small wafer or piece of bread to remember Christ’s death and resurrection). Instead of remaining seated like I am used to, they filed you up to the front, row by row, and then a person in a white robe comes around with a cup. I was stressed. Was I supposed to say something? Did I drink from the cup? What if I was “that guy” who spilled? When the time came, I did what I think most of us do when we’re in a new spot – we fake it till we make it. I dutifully followed my row and then did what I saw other people do in front of me. But, I was stressed throughout the whole process.

Sound Familiar?

Many of you don’t need to hear my examples. You’re living as a new person somewhere right now. Maybe you just moved and didn’t know anyone. Perhaps you started a new job or are just getting started at a different school. Maybe you are in the racial, cultural, or religious minority where you live, which means feeling like the “new person” is an everyday experience. You always feel out of place.

Being new helps us see differently.

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While it’s not fun to be new, I think it’s important for us to experience it on a regular basis, particularly if we’ve been settled somewhere for a long time. Being new helps us see differently. If we’re in the business of connecting with people, being new helps us know how to critique ourselves and correct the right things so we can be better at making people feel comfortable as quickly as possible.

Common Obstacles To Inclusion

Many things we do inadvertently make it hard for new people to feel welcome. This became more obvious to me when I was in a new environment. Here are a few of the barriers I noticed.

Insider Language

Each environment has its own terms. In the cooking classes, it involved a bunch of French words. Unless someone defined it for me, I felt lost. Some people went out of the way to explain what certain phrases meant; others didn’t. I know in the church world it is easy for me to throw out words that make others feel lost. Since most of us fake it till we make it, we rarely ask because we don’t want to look out of place. It is incumbent upon insiders to translate confusing terms and not make assumptions about who is in the room.

Inside Jokes

The way we joke communicates a lot to the people around us. People can tell really fast if they are outside the clique if they don’t get a punch line, or if they are offended by a punchline — especially when politics, race, or religion are involved.

Grumps and Grinches

Body language is just as important (if not more important) than verbal language. When I’m new somewhere, it’s easy to feel unwanted, even if that’s not the intention of the people who are there. I don’t just base this on the staff – I base this on everyone, which may not be fair because I don’t know their story, how long they’ve been part of a place, or how their day has gone. A little warmth goes a long way. Coldness (and especially cold people) stands out big time.

Signage

Being new helps you see a room with fresh eyes. I’ve walked into my work lobby thousands of times, which means I know where the restroom is found, where the coffee is poured, and where I need to go to sit. But a new person knows none of those things. They depend on signs. Some places make it easy to know where to go; other places make you look like a wandering tourist.

Diversity

We know when we’re out of place, especially if we’re the only person of our ethnicity, age, or gender. Some places I visited were diverse and others weren’t. The more diverse spaces helped me feel like it was okay for me to be there.

If you are expecting new people to join you somewhere, you need to know what it feels like to be the new person. I encourage you to make it a routine to get out of your routine. It’ll help you see more clearly ways you are unintentionally making it more difficult for people to connect. It’ll increase your empathy and openness. And, it’ll ultimately make this world a warmer place.

Photo by Karolina Szczur on Unsplash
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Trying new things can be unsettling. But as Eric Torrence explains, it's necessary to broaden our minds and make us welcoming and empathetic people.

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