Last week, after finishing a presentation at the National HIV Prevention Conference, I took a cross-country flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles (via Houston). After boarding the plane, I found my seat next to a middle-aged woman. To be courteous, I introduced myself to her. In a distinct Southern drawl, she told me her name was Laura and that she was flying home to Houston to spend Christmas with her family.
I nodded and began to arrange my carry-on items. I started a mental review of what had transpired at the conference: who I’d met, whether my presentation was successful, and what I had to do when I arrived home.
"Do you live in Houston?” Laura asked.
“No,” I said, welcoming the break in silence to learn about her life. I explained that I was returning from a meeting and was anxious to get home after a busy schedule of traveling the past few weeks.
“I understand,” she said. “I’m looking forward to the holidays to relax with my family. I planned to use this flight to do some Christmas shopping. Have you finished your Christmas shopping?”
“Well, I’m Jewish. We celebrate Hanukkah,” I said. “So luckily, I’m already done with most of my shopping.”
“Oh,” she said. She opened her laptop, paused, and said, “That’s great. I know someone who’s Jewish.”
I laughed. “On behalf of our people, I hope he or she didn’t disappoint you,” I joked.
Despite our apparent differences, we wound up talking throughout the flight—about her transition from an accountant to an event planner, my work as a behavioral scientist, and about life in Los Angeles vs. Houston. I realized that by the end of the two-hour flight we knew a lot about each other’s lives and beliefs. “You have to see the rodeo in the spring,” she said as we touched down in Houston. Before heading out, she handed me a piece of paper with her email address and phone number. “Come visit during March. My husband and I would love to show you a real Texas rodeo,” she said, with a wink and genuine warmth.
On the second leg of my trip, I thought a lot about Laura. Before meeting her, I would have thought we’d have little to talk about, no common ground. Her views and daily life were way out of alignment with my own, yet getting to know her turned out to be one of the highlights of my short trip.
Research has shown that we prefer to associate with people who think like we do. This tendency, known as confirmation bias, is the behavior of seeking or interpreting ideas in a way that favors personal beliefs. Finding ways to understand confirmation bias is a major feature of the work of Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind. Dr. Haidt focuses on the world of politics, but his underlying theme is that relationships shouldn’t simply be about trying to sway or inform people. Rather, every relationship offers the opportunity to learn a new perspective—something I always try to keep in mind.
Being open to a conversation with a stranger on a plane (or on your local street corner) won’t cure the world’s ills, but it’s a start at uniting people from different backgrounds and cultures, and it might lead to a new friendship—or even the opportunity to attend a rodeo.