A while back I read a travel article online that focused on a few of the cultural differences people noticed when they went abroad.
Of course, being an American, I gravitated to the blurbs written by folks who had visited the U.S. from other countries, and the differences they noticed.
A few were humorous, like, “Why do the bathroom stalls in the U.S. have those 1-inch-wide gaps between the walls?” Seriously though, why do they?
One was sweet, with a traveler saying, “The friendliest people I’ve ever met are in the states, everyone [there] smiles to acknowledge you and says hello when you cross their path.”
Yay us! Making positive impressions across the pond!
Then there was one that gave me pause. It was a question from a European that said something to the effect of, “Why do folks in the U.S. focus so much on their jobs? Whenever you meet an American, one of the first things they ask when getting to know you is, ‘what do you do?’ That’s not usually the first or second question in other countries.”
Huh. Well, that’s interesting. Being an American, this seems totally normal to me. We ask this question to get a sense of people, to place them in a setting that gives us a visual of who they are. A career title evokes certain images and perceptions almost immediately. And we like to label people; we like to know where they stand.
Teacher, police officer, doctor, lawyer, farmer. As we read them, we relate them to visuals in our head.
This leads me to two takeaway points:
1. The words we say and hear don’t always mean the same thing to everybody. The visuals in our head are born of our own experiences, both positive and negative. And those are projected onto the person standing in front of us. What follows next in the conversation might possibly be a reaction to a presumption that is utterly incorrect.
Let’s say you are standing with three other people you’ve never met, and you are asked to introduce yourself. “I’m a full-time farmer,” you say. Bridget, to your left, smiles warmly at you. She shops at her local farmers market and adores the two farmers she buys her veggies from. She assumes that you, like them, are an expert on produce, follow organic practices and love to chat with customers.
On the other hand, Tom, to your right, is a vegan. He frowns slightly as he thinks about all the animal rights campaigns he’s joined, and he hopes you're not “one of those farmers” who, in his mind, mistreats and “murders” animals.
Meanwhile Brandon, directly across from you, comes from the farming world, too. In fact, he owns a tractor dealership and he’s now eyeing you up, trying to determine from your clothes, boots and stance exactly what kind of farmer you are and if you can afford to buy one of his new machines.
Just as we try to not judge a book by its cover, try not to present yourself to others as a boring book cover, either. A little clarification and insight can go a long way.
If you’ve ever taken a leadership course, one of the first things they make you do is perfect your “elevator pitch,” so named because it’s the 20-second blurb you’d use to introduce yourself if you only had a moment in an elevator with someone else. You don’t need to be a corporate professional to have perfected an elevator introduction. Every person, short of a hermit — which, I know, seems like a valid option sometimes these days — is going to have to properly introduce themselves to others at some point.
So, let’s try the introduction scenario again. I’ll use myself this time.
“Hi, I’m Shelby. I’m a farmer and career ag professional. On our family farm we have a vineyard and winery, and when I’m not at the farm, I work during the day as director of a regional agricultural nonprofit that assists farmers with their business plans.”
A clearer picture, yes?
That introduction isn’t complete yet because I just did that thing that the man in the article was questioning about us as Americans. I identified myself solely by my career and nothing else.
That’s pretty one-dimensional isn’t it? At the risk of sounding a little cliche, I will trot out the old saying that “people are like onions, they have many layers.” Which brings me to my second point.
2. We are not only farmers. As farmers, our career choice and title are big parts of who we are. But it’s not the only part. And this, my friends, is so very important.
While we can choose for “farmer” to be a big part of our identity, it can’t become our full identity.
You are more than the sum of the acreage you farm, or the equipment you own, or the products you raise. And if you come from a long line of farmers, you are more than just the continuance of a family farming legacy.
You are a fully formed, complex human with an array of life skills, talents, dreams and goals.
And why is this important? Because life is unpredictable. If 2020 taught us anything, it taught us that.
What happens when a farmer loses the farm, or the ability to farm? Well, the statistics tell us what can happen, and most of the time it isn’t pretty. But we can help change that by learning internally and externally to identify ourselves as more than just farmers.
We can learn to explore and delight in our many layers; to nurture all of our skills and goals, not just the ones that are farm related; to strengthen the versatile pieces of the foundations of ourselves so that if one brick is removed, even if it is a big one from a load-bearing portion of our soul, our entire self will not collapse.
We can do that internal work and learn to express it outwardly, too.
So here’s another shot at my introduction.
“Hi, I’m Shelby. I’m a farmer and career ag professional. On our family farm we have a vineyard and winery, and when I’m not at the farm, I work as director of a regional agricultural nonprofit that assists farmers with their business plans. I’m also a writer and I freelance for a few publications. I’m the crazy busy wife to a very patient husband, and I love travel, reading and new adventures. I’m basically fueled by coffee and wine!”
Now, tell me a little about yourself.
Watson-Hampton farms with her family on their fourth-generation family farm in Brandywine, Md.