Kerrying On

The Importance of Being Frank

On September 8, 1958 (the first day I attended junior high school) I met Frank Mustappa. I didn’t know it at the time, but Frank would change my life. Despite the fact that he was a twelve-year-old boy, Frank was surprisingly mature. While the rest of us boys competed to see who could make the most explosive armpit noise, Frank practiced a more sophisticated and subtle brand of humor.

For instance, when the weather turned unseasonably warm one day, Frank played hooky and went swimming. The next morning, he brashly forged his own excuse letter, strutted into the principal’s office, and handed the bogus note to “The Man” himself. It read: “Dear Mr. Howard, please excuse Frank from school yesterday. It was a beautiful day, the bay was calling, and Frank went swimming.” The letter was signed, “My Mom.” The principal (as Frank had calculated) laughed at Frank’s moxie and sent him to class without so much as a minute’s detention—winning Frank the admiration of the entire student body.

Frank could afford to cut classes because he was smart as a whip. And while it’s true that he excelled in all subjects, English was his specialty. Frank’s weekly essays put the papers the rest of us nitwits wrote to shame. The truth is our writing was so pathetic that Mr. Lampley (our English teacher) would read aloud segments from our essays, hang his head in disgust, moan forlornly, catatonically rock back and forth, and then spout rude witticisms such as, “I’d say your work is moronic, but that would be an insult to morons everywhere.” He wasn’t particularly original, but you could tell he was sincere.

Eventually, Mr. Lampley would take a break from intellectually browbeating twelve-year-olds and turn his attention to his one ray of hope—Frank. “Listen up,” Lampley would gush as he clung to Frank’s latest essay—caressing it as if it were a priceless manuscript. “Mr. Mustappa uses the word ‘nuance’ in this piece. Pay close attention.” Then he’d read aloud an exquisite passage from Frank’s paper and I’d think to myself, “Frank didn’t write that. Some famous old coot wrote that. Surely no kid from the seedy side of Bellingham composed such an essay.”

In addition to writing beyond his years, Frank read and memorized a colossal amount of poetry. He exploited this hobby by working an occasional stanza or phrase into the class discussion or onto the football field (where Frank ruled as a first-rate linebacker). Unfortunately, it wasn’t long until Mr. Lampley tired of Frank’s poetic preening. Teaching a precocious twelve-year-old who enjoys strutting his intellectual prowess can stick in your craw—and Lampley’s craw grew precariously full. Tension built between the two until one fateful day.

“Today,” Lampley bellowed, “we’re going to read and discuss Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, ‘The Raven’.”

“I know that one,” Frank blandly stated.

Lampley took the bait. “Oh really? You KNOW that one—meaning you could recite it from memory?”

“I suppose so,” Frank responded with feigned indifference.

“Well class,” Lampley continued, “Please open your anthology to Mr. Poe’s masterpiece beginning on page 278. That is, everyone except for you, Mr. Mustappa. You can leave your book closed. I’ll start the poem, and then, from memory and memory alone, you’ll finish it.”

“Whatever,” Frank responded.

“Once upon a midnight dreary,” Lampley attacked.

“While I pondered, weak and weary,” Frank countered.

“Over many quaint . . . ” Lampley inserted.

“ . . . and curious volume of forgotten lore,” Frank regained control.

From that point on, Frank recited every word of the remaining 106 lines—pausing at every comma, and punching every key phrase. By the end of his exhilarating recitation, the other students were chanting, “Frank! Frank! Frank!” It had been a stunning victory for junior-high school students everywhere. So crushing was Lampley’s defeat, he would challenge Frank . . . nevermore.

Several months passed without a further public display of genius from Frank until one evening when he joined Jim, Tom, and me as we walked home from a night of shooting pool. Jim quickly tired of the uphill walk and asked Frank to recite something. Frank smiled broadly, took a deep breath, and launched into a Robert Service poem:

“A bunch of the boys were whooping it up
In the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box
Was hitting a jag-time tune . . . ”

I’ll never forget the feeling of the gentle breeze nudging us up Garden Street that evening. We listened to Frank recite all 116 lines of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”—a work so filled with blaring music, beautiful women, and blazing guns, and so fitting to the taste of a teenage boy, I was in awe.

Listening to a friend recite poetry, as if doing so were a normal human activity, changed my world view. I had long decided that doing well in school was “uncool.” Reciting poetry wasn’t just uncool, it was for sissies and nerds. Definitely not something for the likes of the crowd I hung with. And yet, there was Frank, who did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. That included writing essays and reciting poetry with such utter confidence and eye-popping panache that he unwittingly performed a miracle. Frank made writing essays and reciting poems—and by extension, all things intellectual—absolutely wonderful. Frank made learning cool.

The actions of positive peer-models probably do as much or more to encourage youngsters to break from their immature ways than any adult preaching from a podium or educator pontificating in a classroom. Young people who unceremoniously forge a path that leads to a love of learning—while standing up to the corrosive ridicule of their peers—deserve special praise. Frank deserves special praise.

That’s not to say that at some point in our lives we haven’t recognized the impact gifted teachers and other adult role models have had on us—and rightfully so. We’ve probably even thanked these mentors for their inspiration—and rightfully so. But today I’m honoring a rarely identified source of inspiration—a peer. A hard-working, confident teenager whose example changed my life.

Thank you, Frank. You may recall the events I’ve just recounted. I suspect you do. But there’s no way you could know how much you helped me break from the forces that clawed at my heels and kept me from performing to my potential. You introduced me to the joy of learning and for that I shall be grateful . . . evermore.

If you enjoyed this story, you’ll love Kerry’s new book, The Gray Fedora—a collection of stories from Kerrying On. The book is now available for pre-order on Amazon.com.

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Be Both Assertive and Diplomatic

Dear David,

I am a young executive who has managed to climb the corporate ladder at a rapid pace. My current boss of seven years has been part of my success as he closely mentored me and exposed me to the right individuals—allowing them to see my work and leadership. With my recent promotion, he is expecting me to be more assertive with colleagues and even customers.

My dilemma is that I tend to have a diplomatic rather than assertive approach, and believe this leadership style has contributed to my success. My boss is more aggressive, outspoken, and even intimidating. In previous conversations, he has made it very clear that I need to speak up and assert myself. How do I balance assertiveness with diplomacy?

Mr. Nice Guy

Dear Mr. Nice Guy,

I like your question, because I’ve had to answer it myself. I want to be successful, but not if it means being a bully. I want to be nice, but not if it means being taken advantage of. Fortunately, these are Fool’s Choices—false dichotomies that only appear to be trade-offs. In reality, you can be successful without being a bully, and you can be nice without opening yourself up to exploitation. It’s a question of skills.

The What: Your manager thinks you are compromising the organization’s interests in order to maintain positive relationships. This is a common trap you can avoid. The key is to know what you want out of an agreement. Below are a few tips:

1. Focus on interests, rather than positions. Hold firm to your core interests, while being flexible about how these Interests are achieved. Remember, it’s about achieving your interests, not about winning an argument.

2. Involve your manager in determining core interests. The two of you need to agree on what you want to achieve.

3. When determining interests, encourage your manager to take a broad and long-term perspective. Don’t get caught up in silo warfare. Instead, ask what’s best for the enterprise.

4. Know your BATNA—your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. Have a clear Plan-B that you will follow if you can’t achieve your interests. The more confidence you have in your BATNA, the more comfortable you will be walking away from an unacceptable agreement.

5. Challenge others to look beyond their position. Help them identify their interests and broader purpose. In addition, inquire about their fears or their worst-case scenarios. Focus on creative ways to achieve their interests as well as yours, while insuring against their fears.

The How: Find ways to be both tenacious and sensitive. Be clear and specific without becoming disrespectful or abusive. Below are a few tips:

1. Be assertive and outspoken when describing your interests. Not mean, but passionate, specific, and resolute. Make sure people know you are committed to your interests. This doesn’t make you a bully, unless you shut down their ability to respond.

2. Encourage others to be equally assertive and outspoken in describing their interests. Don’t allow your strong opinions to prevent them from sharing their perspectives. Their silence might produce short-term compliance, but create long-term problems. We suggest the following guideline: “The only limit to how strongly you can express your opinion is your willingness to be equally vigorous in encouraging others to challenge it.”

3. Be clear about your BATNA. Show that you are ready to walk away from unacceptable agreements. This puts pressure on others, without making it personal.

4. Be Factual. Don’t exaggerate, spin the facts, or speak beyond the facts. Explain the source and relevance of the facts you employ. The facts establish common ground and are the foundation of your credibility.

5. Recognize when others are moving to silence or violence. When others are withdrawing or becoming overly aggressive, stop what you are doing, and step out of the content. Take the time to determine why they are feeling under attack. Have they lost sight of your common purpose? Do they feel disrespected?

6. Restore safety, but don’t compromise your interests. The mistake would be to restore peace by giving in. The better solution is to restore safety by reaffirming your common goals and your respect for them. Once they realize you are a friend, not a foe, they will be ready to return to dialogue. Then, when you return to the content, you do so without having compromised your interests.

I hope these ideas help you be both sensitive and tenacious. I’d love to hear how others manage this dance between passionate, outspoken commitment and reasoned, diplomatic dialogue.

Best of Luck,

Crucial Conversations QA

Five Secrets for Mastering Conflict

Dear Joseph,

I find that I struggle with successful interpersonal relationships at work. I continually run into conflict with my teammates as well as my boss, and they don’t end well. I’m starting to feel like a total communications failure. Can you help me understand better ways to rebuild trust and connection with my team?

Deflated Team Member

Dear Deflated,

Thank you for asking such an insightful question. I’ve invited my good friend Dr. Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, to help me respond to this question. Between the two of us, we’ve spent fifty years studying what makes people successful at work. A persistent finding in both of our research is that your ability to handle moments of conflict has a massive impact on your success. How you handle conflict determines the amount of trust, respect, and connection you have with your colleagues.

Conflict typically boils down to crucial conversations—moments when the stakes are high, emotions run strong, and opinions differ. And you cannot master crucial conversations without a high degree of emotional intelligence (EQ).

With a mastery of conflict being so critical to your success, it’s no wonder that, among the million-plus people that Travis and his team at TalentSmart have tested, more than 90 percent of top performers have high EQs. So how can you use emotional intelligence to master crucial conversations? There are five common mistakes you must avoid, and five alternative strategies you can follow that will take you down the right path.

Mistake #1: Being Brutally Honest

You’ve suffered in silence long enough. Your colleague continues to park so close to your car that you have to enter through the passenger door. You’ve asked her before to stop. After a dozen more violations of your request, you decide you’ve suffered long enough. Clearly, she needs to know what you think of her intentional disrespect. So you let her have it. You get right in her face and tell her what an inconsiderate jerk she is.

How to beat this? Honesty without brutality. From a young age, we’re taught to believe that we have to choose between telling the truth and keeping a friend—that the only options are brutality or harmony. With emotional intelligence, you can speak the truth without burning a bridge. Have you ever noticed how some conversations—even ones about very risky subjects—go very well? And others, even ones about trivial things, can degenerate into combat? The antidote to conflict is not diluting your message. It’s creating safety. Many people think the content of the conversation is what makes people defensive, so they assume it’s best to just go for it and be brutally honest. It isn’t. People don’t get defensive because of the content—they get defensive because of the intent they perceive behind it. It isn’t the truth that hurts, it’s the malice used to deliver the truth.

Mistake #2: Robotically Sharing Your Feelings

Some well-intentioned “communication” professionals suggest that when it’s time to speak up, the diplomatic way to do so is to start by sharing your feelings. For example, you tell your parking-impaired colleague, “I feel rage and disgust.” Somehow that’s supposed to help. It doesn’t. People don’t work this way. Robotically sharing your feelings only alienates, annoys, and confuses them.

How to beat this? Start with the facts. Our brains often serve us poorly during crucial conversations. In order to maximize cognitive efficiency, our minds store feelings and conclusions, but not the facts that created them. That’s why, when you give your colleague negative feedback and he asks for an example, you often hem and haw. You truly can’t remember. So you repeat your feelings or conclusions, but offer few helpful facts. Gathering the facts beforehand is the homework required to master crucial conversations. Before opening your mouth, think through the basic information that helped you think or feel the way you do—and prepare to share it first.

Mistake #3: Defending Your Position

When someone takes an opposing view on a topic you care deeply about, the natural human response is “defense.” Our brains are hard-wired to assess for threats, but when we let feelings of being threatened hijack our behavior, things never end well. In a crucial conversation, getting defensive is a surefire path to failure.

How to beat this? Get curious. A great way to inoculate yourself against defensiveness is to develop a healthy doubt about your own certainty. Then, enter the conversation with intense curiosity about the other person’s world. Give yourself a detective’s task of discovering why a reasonable, rational, and decent person would think the way he or she does. As former Secretary of State Dean Rusk said, “The best way to persuade others is with your ears, by listening.” When others feel deeply understood, they become far more open to hearing you.

Mistake #4: Blaming Others for Your Situation

Your boss tells you she’ll go to bat for you for a promotion. You hear later that she advocated for your colleague instead. You feel betrayed and angry. Certainly, your boss is the one responsible for your pain—right? Truth is, she’s not the only one.

How to beat this? Challenge your perspective. When we feel threatened, we amplify our negative emotions by blaming other people for our problems. You cannot master conflict until you recognize the role you’ve played in creating your circumstances. Your boss may have passed you over, but she did so for a reason. Half your pain is the result of her betrayal; the other half is due to your disappointment over not performing well enough to win the promotion.

Mistake #5: Worrying About the Risks of Speaking Up

It’s easy for crucial conversations to fill you with dread. Under the influence of such stress, your negative self-talk takes over and you obsess over all the bad things that might happen if you speak up. You conjure images of conflict, retribution, isolation, and pain until you retreat into silence.

How to beat this? Determine the risks of not speaking up. The fastest way to motivate yourself to step up to difficult conversations is to simply articulate the costs of not speaking up. VitalSmarts research shows that those who consistently speak up aren’t necessarily more courageous; they’re simply more accurate. First, they scrupulously review what is likely to happen if they fail to speak up. Second, they ponder what might happen if they speak up and things go well. And finally (the order is important), they consider what may happen if the conversation goes poorly. Once they have an accurate understanding of the possibilities, saying something is their typical choice.

Bringing It All Together

The only way to win an argument is to never have one in the first place. Successful people know this—they don’t avoid conflict. They know that they can do something productive with it before things get out of hand. Apply these strategies the next time you’re facing a challenging situation and you’ll be amazed by the results.

Good Luck,
Joseph and Travis

BS Guys

The Four Ways You’re Being Manipulated (and How to Stop It)

You and I are shockingly easy to manipulate. Decades of social science experiments show that we can be induced to donate or steal, stand for justice or proliferate racism, vote or stay home, torture or pity.

It’s time we stopped reading social science for fascinating facts about humans in general, and started using it to navigate our own lives. It’s time we acknowledge how little control we have over our own behavior—and start taking control of the things that control us. Only then will we be the real agents of our own behavior. Only then will we be able to live up to the morals, goals, and aspirations we most cherish.

A great place to start taking control of the things that control you is to become an Influence Spotter. As you move about in public, engage with media and interact with others, pick one influence tactic at a time and spend a week learning to spot examples of it. Our research shows that you are least subject to manipulation when you are most conscious of its attempt. For example, if you know someone is raising her voice in order to intimidate you, you may feel a bit less intimidated.

Here are four great “spotting” exercises to begin with. They come to us from Stanford Psychologist Albert Bandura. In Bandura’s forthcoming book, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves, he describes four common ways people like you and me are manipulated into supporting and doing despicable things. To help bring them to life—see if you can spot them in our most recent Behavioral Science Guys experiment.

1. Minimizing the behavior. This is often accomplished by using sanitizing euphemisms to describe what we’re doing that sanitize it. There’s a reason CIA officials insist on referring to waterboarding as “enhanced interrogation” rather than “torture.” In our experiment we test whether having a confederate urge teens to “sweeten their score” causes more to compromise their morals than if we call it “lying.”

2. Minimizing consequences. In our experiment, the confederate helps subjects minimize the consequences of their choices with advantageous comparisons—for example, “It’s not like we’re killing someone here!” For years tobacco companies attempted to salve consciences by refuting connections between smoking and cancer. The murkier they made the connection, the less repugnant their product appeared. We sometimes minimize consequences in our own minds when we make choices inconsistent with our values—for example, “One ice cream cone won’t cause a heart attack!”

3. Dehumanize victims. Recently, the world was in an uproar about the apparent North-Korean-backed cyber-attack on Sony Studios. The alleged goal was to stop the release of “The Interview”—a comedy depicting an assassination of Kim Jong Un. Absent from all of this moral outrage is appropriate disgust at a comedic representation of the assassination of a sitting head-of-state. Why no outcry? Because we see Kim Jong Un as a ruthless buffoon. He is a caricature not a human—so we give ourselves permission to act toward him in ways we would not toward say, President Obama. Imagine our reaction if another country produced a television sitcom celebrating the kidnap and torture of our sitting head of state. Manipulating the representation of victims is one of the most common tactics practiced on you.

Sometimes it’s used in reverse. For example, a study showed that voters are 90 percent more likely to favor protecting a species called the furry-nosed otter than the same creature if called the sharp-clawed otter. Change Sheep-eating Eagle to American Eagle and we are 75 percent more likely to take it under our wing. In our experiment, some teen subjects were told they were competing against a team called “The Rats” while others were told it was simply “Team B.” On hearing their name, one boy wryly commented, “That’s an unfortunate name.” Notice also that as we debate the use of various coercive methods in the US, we refer to those whom we practice them on as “enemy combatants.” An unfortunate name if you want people to consider your humanity.

4. Finally, the granddaddy of all manipulations: moral justification. We are in peril of disconnecting from our conscience when we begin to justify our means with noble-sounding ends. In our experiment, some subjects were offered the chance to donate their winnings to a children’s charity (we did, in fact, make the donation). They were told that the fictitious other team was keeping their winnings for themselves. As subject kids cheated it was common to hear, “It’s for the children!” Dr. Bandura pointed out a painful hypocrisy in our own experiment: “You are justifying lying to kids in order to pursue knowledge—how do you feel about that?”

When we loaded our subjects (if you just noted that “subject” is a dehumanizing word you’re already influence spotting!) with all four manipulation tactics they made more than three times as many dishonest choices. Think about it! These aren’t bad kids—these are normal kids being subjected to powerful influence tactics. Their choices were far less about them than about the things controlling them. Which is why you and I need to learn to take control of the things that control us.

Now, let me hasten to add that I am not taking a position here on decisions like the manufacture of cigarettes, the use of water boarding, or deception in social science experiments. I have my own feelings on those topics and I suspect you do as well. What I am suggesting is that as you and I sort out our opinions, there are things we and others do that cloud and confuse the moral calculation. If you want to stay connected to your conscience, the best course is to learn to spot these manipulations—both self-imposed and external—and reframe the choice in an honest way.

“I am breaking my commitment to myself by ordering a Mucho Grande Mocha Latte. Do I want to do that?”

At times, the answer may be yes. But at least it will then be a thoughtful yes.

Join me in creating a better and more conscious world by becoming an Influence Spotter.

Good Luck,

From the Road

Look, Mom! I’m training in short bursts!

Years ago I joined an organization and discovered a character who worked there. He was an interesting blend of wisdom, mischief, creativity, and crazy. You know that type. I’d find him engaged in some strange activity, or distilling some semi-absurd piece of advice, and think, “What in the world??!!?!” I’d walk away and invariably the idea or activity would start to unfold in my mind; and what seemed like utter nonsense started to bloom into genius. So here’s one of his “crazy” ideas.

One day I walked into his office for some reason, and he immediately started in with an idea he was toying with. “People who train in short bursts are vastly more effective at creating behavior change.” I thought to myself, “Did he just say training in short bursts? What in the world?” I listened politely as he went on to describe that breaking training into small chunks and delivering it over a spaced period of time allows participants to assimilate the learning points and have them incorporate the new ideas into their everyday routine. All the while I was generating reasons why the idea was more crazy than practical. And can you blame me? Even the term “short bursts” was a little on the “far out there” side (ok, maybe a lot on the “far out there” side). Some of my other colleagues confirmed my original thoughts when they came up with the slightly mocking slogan, “Look Mom! I’m training in short bursts!”

Fast forward some years. I was working on particularly difficult training rollout design. We were trying to transform training’s image from learning event to learning experience. We need to make sure that leaders, especially the mid-level group, were having more regular learning experiences. I was wrestling with how to do this when it hit me, “We need to take this program and spread it out over a longer period of time. We need to ‘train in short bursts!’” The idea had come full circle. We did it, and it worked.

Since that time, a lot of research has emerged confirming the results we experienced in that organizational initiative. Anders Ericsson, for one, in his research, demonstrates the benefit of breaking ideas and concepts into small pieces (I wonder if he researched in short bursts?).

It’s a funny thing to consider how what once was a crazy, outlandish, radical idea is now one of the best-proven ways to go about training. So now I say to you, “Go forth and train in short bursts!”

Trainer QA

How do I bridge the generational gap at work?

We work in a three-generational workplace. Each generation is different and we often struggle to dialogue well across generations. What tips do you have to bridge this gap in our crucial conversations?

First let me compliment you in attempting to proactively seek ways to bridge this “generational gap.” Many people have just assumed that the gap is too great or too much trouble. So thanks for taking the time to make this inquiry!

You might be interested to learn that VitalSmarts conducted a study early last year called: The Great Generational Divide. This study showed that unaddressed resentment between Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials saps productivity by as much as 12 percent. You can see the results of the study here: 

Let me make a couple of observations and suggestions to add to these very helpful insights on attempting to engage in dialogue across this generational divide.

It has been said that conflict is inevitable, but resentment is optional. We often encounter conflict because our background, our education and experiences differ so greatly. But how we choose to handle these conflicts can either lead to talking it out or acting it out.

Start With Heart

The greatest skills and strategies designed to bridge these generational gaps will fail if our heart, or motive is not continually focused on the larger picture of finding a way to connect with the other person. This is an exercise in emotional maturity. In the midst of high stakes, opposing opinions, and strong emotions, can we find a way to change the motives of avoiding or attacking to those of listening and learning? Can we come to these generational encounters with a heart of genuine curiosity to learn about others, to lean into their reality and seek first to understand their world?

Once you’ve paid attention to your heart and adjusted your motive, the following skills from this research study will serve you well:

1. Make it safe. Begin by clarifying your respect as well as your intent to achieve a mutual goal.
2. Start with the facts. Describe your concerns facts first. Don’t lead with your judgments about others’ age or conclusions as to why they behaved the way they did. Start by describing in non-judgmental and objective terms the actual behaviors that create problems.
3. Don’t pile on. If your colleague becomes defensive, pause for a moment and check in. Reassure him or her of your positive intentions and allow him or her to express concerns.
4. Invite dialogue. After sharing your concerns, encourage your colleague to share his or her perspective. Inviting dialogue will result in greater openness.

Kerrying On

French-fried Memories

When I entered the eighth grade in 1959, I was given the option to study either Latin or French. I chose French because from what I understood, the French weren’t dead yet. Miss Limply, the school’s French teacher, launched the first day of class by showing a cartoon of the Three Little Pigs. From the confusing muddle of sounds blaring from the projector, I learned only one word—loup—or wolf. It made me laugh because it was pronounced loo, and in England that’s a toilet. Perhaps French was going to be fun.

Sadly, the second day of class brought no new amusing words. Instead, it involved a lot of verb and gender hoo-hah that seemed far too complicated to learn. Especially when my preferred mode of learning was passing notes to the girl who sat next to me. Perhaps I should drop the class before it was too late? The only other elective offered during that time slot was metal shop—which a friend told me consisted largely of burning things in a forge. Let’s see, which would I prefer? Conjugating French verbs or melting American lunch boxes?

After two weeks of falling hopelessly behind in French, I said goodbye to Miss Limply, crossed the great cultural divide that separated the language learning center from the metal shop, and began the task of making a cup out of a soup can. To this day, the only thing I recall from my brief brush with French is that “loup” means wolf, and I’ve not once had an occasion to use that tidbit.

That’s not entirely true. I did try to sneak “loup” into the conversation one afternoon when I was having lunch with a group of European executives in Munich. We were chatting about American authors and I was keeping up nicely until the conversation turned to European authors of whom I knew nothing. It was embarrassing to see how much these Europeans knew about American culture and how little I knew about anything European.

To joke my way out of my egregiously parochial view, I decided to say that I didn’t know much about European authors because I had been raised by wolves. Ha, ha! Get it? Raised by wolves! This entire conversation was taking place in English but, for reasons I’ll never know, I decided that this was the perfect time to impress my European colleagues by using my one French word, loup. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure what the plural was for loup so I said: “I was raised by loupies.” My European colleagues thought I said lupus and stared at me with an odd mix of confusion and pity. It was really quite awkward.

I had forgotten about these language misfires until the day of my fifty-year high-school reunion when I ran into an old friend, Bernadine Westin. She introduced me to her husband as “her French connection.” At first, I had no idea what she was talking about. Bernadine reminded me that during those two weeks I had studied French back in 1959, Miss Limply had passed out the names and addresses of eighth-grade students in France who were eager to be our pen pals. Every month we were supposed to write our pal a chatty letter in French and he or she would write us back in English.

This sounded like a lot of work to me so I gladly gave the name and address of my proposed pen pal to Bernadine. She desperately wanted to correspond with someone in Europe, but hadn’t signed up for a language class. Now, some fifty-five years later, Bernadine was thanking me for graciously giving up my chance to make a European connection.

Bernadine went on to explain that since 1959, she had faithfully written her French pen pal every month. To this day, the two continue to write each other, occasionally travel together, and (in her own words) embody the meaning of “BFFs.” According to Bernadine, all this had transpired, thanks to me! Me, a selfless classmate who had abandoned any hope of a rewarding international experience by giving her my pen pal, without asking for anything in return. I took the praise like a man. That is, I took full credit for something I didn’t actually do.

The effort Bernadine put in to being a successful pen pal was truly remarkable. She had to learn French, travel to the post office, buy stamps, mail the letters, and did I mention learn French? But then again, her dedication had earned her something the rest of us never gained—a precious friend from a whole new culture—and an enriching world view.

And then it hit me. Everyone should have their own life-long pen-pal! Only without so much work. With the aid of today’s technology, you could just push a button and voilà! There on the screen would appear a live person from France, or China, or Uzbekistan!

I’m imagining software that could immediately translate whatever you say, with no confusion or awkward waiting. It would also match your lips to the words your smart device conjures so it would look and feel like an actual conversation. It would be an actual conversation. As an aside, my colleagues tell me that Google Translate and other language recognition software may not be far off in creating something like this.

Having meaningful contact with pals from afar would go a long way toward engendering cross-cultural awareness. At a time when many of today’s youth (and adults) are capturing every little thing they do in “selfies,” and when narcissism scores are (you guessed it) on the rise, what would it be like if today’s youngsters were in frequent contact and deep conversation with e-pals around the world?

Fortunately, lots of young people are doing just that. They have international e-friends, and many are entering language-immersion schools starting as early as the first grade. But what if we turned the best-and-brightest of Silicon Valley to designing the technology required to produce the software I’ve proposed? Once created, we could give a device to every grade-school child in the world—along with an e-pal address of a person they’d be assigned to chat with (e-face to e-face) a couple of times a week.

Imagine a world where we’ve all been transformed into a Bernadine. With constant contact from friends abroad, we would gain a deep appreciation for cultural differences along with a true empathy for others’ challenges. Plus we’d know enough about world events and people that we would never again have to say that we had been raised by loupies.

Best of all, if negotiations were to break down at, say, a world peace conference and leaders started to consider using forceful methods, they’d fondly remember their e-pal. And so would millions of other people who would have been chatting with their foreign buddies about sports, music, fake vomit, and annoying relatives twice a week since the first grade. Having enjoyed thousands of casual yet curiously bonding conversations with friends from afar, nobody would think of using force (and certainly not violence) as a tool for dealing with “foreigners.”

So what do you think of my proposal Miss Limply? Mucho clever, right? Mucho clever.