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The Choice is Yours

purple's picture


Napping, listlessly staring out the window, and making polite conversation is standard fare for long bus rides. With that expectation in mind, the bus ride was not the place I expected to find my best friend. I suppose it is inaccurate to classify this particular incident as a completely unexpected encounter, as it rather is more like we were placed in a preconceived contact zone. Our encounter was hardly random as we were both there for a summer program, taking the bus with the other fifty-something participants. The parameters of the contact zone had been set before we  had even arrived, by the facilitators who selected the applications and created the program. It was a community of people all in the same place, for similar reasons. The program in itself was practically structured to be a contact zone. Targeted to high school students belonging to the religious sect I belong to, its goal was to connect a group of teenagers from around the world, who shared a specific commonality. Despite this, we each came from diverse backgrounds, and were shaped by different life experiences. The group of us were an ideal breeding ground for a contact zone. It was the truest contact zone I have ever been in and Mary Louise Pratt’s recollection a contact zone in which “no one felt excluded and no one was safe” (39) is an extremely accurate definition of my experience. Pratt’s point about safety in the contact zone is valid because a contact zone does not implicate a safe environment to speak. However, even in an environment where everyone is open to listening to your ideas, and stories, it does not mean it is easy to share these things. To create a successful contact zone, we did activities that encouraged us to share a moment or story from our lives. In one such situation, we drew roadmaps of our lives, noting the highest and lowest points, and then went around in a circle sharing them. To tell a situation so deeply personal to a group of people you hardly know is terrifying, especially when you do not believe anyone would understand or be able to connect with your experience. As more stories were revealed, the level of safety increased. While many could not sympathize, just knowing that others had been through equally as stressful ordeals created a sense of mutual comfort. A contact zone is more than just about creating a space where individuals are open and engaged. It also requires everyone to be secure in their own personal contact zone. Each person must be strong enough to vocalize their thoughts and ideas, even if they do not feel completely safe or comfortable. The need to create more widespread contact zones in replacement of what Pratt describes as “homogeneous communities” is a critical idea. The issue is that in order to establish contact zones, each member must be aware and capable of accessing their personal contact zone. Without each participant’s active involvement, a contact zone will self-destruct. 

When thinking back to my example of contact in, which I met a person on a bus ride, it is easy to say that we were clearly pushed into a common contact zone that aided us in quickly connecting. While I cannot recall any of the conversation, I know we must have discussed a lot for our friendship to have progressed so rapidly. It was the combination of feeling included in the established contact zone, and being secure in our personal contact zones that we were able to be so candid with each other. In this instance, sharing an established contact zone simplified the process, however, this is easily transferable to a situation with two people who did meet by chance. The first step is to find comfort in your individual contact zone. The second step is to expand and share that contact zone. Pratt voiced the idea of a need to re-evaluate our teaching systems and create more contact zones in our educational practices, but I think we should also create them in a more simplified and less structured environment. Every time we meet a person or engage in a conversation we have to choose whether or not to turn that moment into a contact zone. If each person sitting next to a stranger on a bus stepped away from casual conversation and made a conscious decision to attempt to discover more, we might learn so much about each other. As we begin to find comfort in knowing more about others and their connections to us, we might become increasingly interested in continuing the trend. As we become used to entertaining the ideas, cultures, and values of others, it will provide us the resources to build contact zones in more areas of life. These contact zones are so important because they will provide us with knowledge and help us promote tolerance and understanding.