Sarah Elkins

Our Culture, and How It Colors Our Communication

Using Stories to Uncover Our Deeper Connections

ZachCulturePodcast

We know innately that when we find things in common with each other, we forge deeper connections, but how do we do that with intention and true curiosity? And how do we make this the first part of communication, the priority, so our discussions don’t immediately devolve into defensiveness and hostility?

Zach and I believe that if we understand our own perspectives, where they come from, what we’re reading to bring us to certain conclusions, and why we trust the resources we trust, we could make a start toward better understanding and appreciation for others’ perspectives.

One key to starting those conversations is simply finding common ground, and that can be found in culture. During our conversation in this podcast, we discuss a less traditional definition of culture; lifestyle culture. Are you a dog person? A cat person? Are you part of the mountain biking culture? Each of us can live in many different lifestyle cultures, which makes it much easier to find common ground.

Zach Messler knows a lot about communication strategy, and he uses own cultural commonalities to strengthen his work.

Connect with Zach on LinkedIn, and be sure to check out his website to learn more about how he can help you develop your messages, your content, to be clear and compelling!

From Zach’s website:

I help entrepreneurs know what to say and how to say it so they make a bigger impact on the world…and their wallets.

So, yeah. I’m on a mission to help entrepreneurs find relevance…and revenue.

We Can Choose How Our Stories Define Us

She could easily have given up all of her power, her love, her compassion. As a matter of fact, she tried to when she was 25. As she woke in the hospital after a suicide attempt, her dad (she was finally adopted by a loving family), who was not a particularly affectionate person, but who demonstrated love in other ways, was there, patting her hand. The look on his face said it all: He was disappointed, hurt, heartbroken at Ashley's choice to leave him and this world.

Being Born to do Something Doesn't Mean it's Easy

The Story of Your Passion is Also a Story of Overcoming Fear

He was six when he heard Fats Domino's Blueberry Hill*, got those telltale chills up his spine, and knew he was born to play guitar and sing. He was nine when that passion was tested, and it took him five years to recover.

Sometimes our passion for something must be tested so we know, absolutely, that this is exactly what we want. When Duke Robillard stood on a stage to sing for the first time in front of a large audience, the spotlight on him, his nine-year-old confidence and character were simply not prepared for what he saw. His mother told him later - he doesn't remember this at all - that he sang, yes, and was crying at the same time.

I can imagine that little boy in his bowtie and fancy, Sunday shoes standing there, terrified and yet completely committed to doing what he set out to do. It took him a long time to recover from that stage fright. Duke wouldn't sing for an audience again for five years, and even as a professional musician with Roomful of Blues, he fought the urge to walk away from the stage, full of anxiety and fear.

But when you know innately what you were born to do, at no matter what age you figure it out, you're tested over and over again. And every time you stand up to that fear, every time you make the choice to put yourself back on that path, you not only strengthen your commitment to your life's work, you give the gift of what you were born to do to the people around you.

Thank goodness Duke got past that stage fright to create and perform incredible music for the past 50+ years. Here's one of my favorites from Roomful of Blues' first album:

Duke and I met in 1997, though my husband introduced me to his music a couple of years before that. A friend gave us tickets to see him as a wedding gift; it was a small venue in Washington DC. Bob and I were standing right up front near the stage for Duke's set, and I was completely sold on this guy's talent. As we waited for the next act to come on stage, I went to grab us a couple of drinks. On my way back, I saw Duke's bass player, Marty Ballou, standing near the stage and introduced myself. We hit it off; not only was I seriously impressed with the incredible soul with which he played the bass (he made a 3/4 bass look small), he is also a warm, affectionate, and kind person. (He was inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame in 2015.)

The next band got started, and we were getting squished by the audience. We decided to head to the back of the bar, and maybe leave since we had come to see Duke, and not the other guy on the stage. As I led the way through the crowd, I could see Marty waving at me - he was a head taller than anyone else in the room. He gave me a big hug, and I introduced him to Bob. We met Duke a few minutes later, and couldn't believe how down to Earth he was. Marty and I exchanged numbers, and every time the band would be within a couple of hours' drive of Washington DC, Marty would call me and ask how many he should put on the guest list. We followed them around the region for two years, and then moved to Montana. I kept in touch with Marty, and once in a while I'd email Duke just to check in.

To this day I cannot believe our luck in connecting with these musicians. (Duke was inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame in 2014.)

Naturally, we refer to a variety of music throughout our conversation on this podcast. This first reference was part of a story when my sister and I saw him in Baltimore. I introduced the two of them and my sister said: "Huh. You're not ugly at all! Actually, you're very handsome!"

I couldn't breathe for a moment, and knew I had turned beet red. That's when my sister looked at me and realized what she had said. Completely embarrassed and trying to recover, she said: "Sarah made me a mix CD and your song, I May Be Ugly But I Sure Know How to Cook was my favorite song on the mix... so, um, that's why I said that..."

Thank goodness he's such a good sport, charming, and has a sense of humor. We all burst out laughing as he walked away to start his set. Did I mention I just love this guy?

From Duke's recent album, a refreshing collection of swing music with some of my favorite female vocalists, here's Squeeze Me with Madeleine Peyroux:

And just to show off a bit, here's Duke in a jam session with the amazing Stevie Ray Vaughan:

In the podcast, I mention Ed Sheeran's version of the song The Parting Glass, and here's the one I listen to:

And, just for kicks, here's the other version I mention in the podcast, by the Wailin' Jennys:

I hope you enjoy this episode, and that you do some of your own digging into this extraordinary musician's work. Of course, I highly recommend his most recent album, Duke and His Dames of Rhythm.

If this podcast speaks to you, please leave a comment and let's start a conversation about the challenges we face, even when we absolutely have no doubt that we're doing what we were born to do.

*Blueberry Hill was recorded by Glenn Miller's big band. Jack Rabid, an infamous NYC drummer and punk rock DJ, recently told us the story that Fats Domino was inspired by Glenn Miller's version of the tune. It's likely that Glenn Miller was inspired by Gene Autry's version in the movie The Singing Hill. So there you have it - the beat goes on... so to speak. 

Use Humor to Engage and Connect

Storytelling is Best with an Element of Humor

Ron Feingold, like other brilliant and well-know, but not necessarily famous comedians, has worked for nearly 30 years to make people laugh, to entertain them, and to connect with them for the brief time he has on stage for each show.

Every story he shares has some element of humor in it, though sometimes it's subtle. What I love about his style is that he's doing his own thing. He's not trying to be like anyone else. He's also combining comedy with his love for music, something unique and very entertaining.

There are pivotal moments in our lives that we recognize immediately, and that we know within seconds that they have changed us and how we see the world - and ourselves. But most of our pivotal moments aren't that obvious. Most of them are hidden in our brains until an experience that may feel similar happens to wake the memory and bring it to the conscious mind. I love discovering those moments with people, uncovering them and making necessary adjustments in order to take responsibility for our current actions and decisions.

The first pivotal moment Ron shared in this episode was one he didn't necessarily know would change his world, but after processing it for a few weeks and months, he was able to identify it as a turning point.

That first story might just take you back to a similar experience, one where a virtual stranger offered time, patience, kindness and wisdom at exactly the moment you needed those things. I know it brought back a couple of memories for me. Your lesson may be different; my lesson was simply a reminder to be as present and engaged as I can when I see someone who needs that same time, patience, and kindness. A moment of kindness like that can truly be the difference between life and death.

I'll be curious to hear your thoughts about this conversation, please let me know if you have a memory pop into your head that is similar, and maybe the lesson you can take from it now, possibly decades later.


Ron Feingold is a comedian and musician, and always has an entrepreneurial idea in his head. You can find more information about him, and even book him for your next event by visiting his website. My favorite thing he does is "The Power of the Smile", exactly the inspirational performance that any organization will appreciate at a conference or training.

You can also connect with him on LinkedIn, and please take a few minutes to enjoy this:

Desperate for Real Connection

Confirmation? Another suicide in our small town.

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We’re reeling from another teenage suicide in our little town. That’s the second in as many months, and they were friends. I saw a picture of the two high school juniors together, taken just a few days before the first decided to end her life.

Teens have always faced an especially rough emotional time, but what has changed in our communities to explain the huge rise in suicides and clinical depression? It’s not just teenagers, either.

There’s no simple answer; it’s a complex problem, and it will take complex strategies to change this dynamic. But there are reasons for the increase, and there are things we can do, as individuals and as communities, to make a difference every day.

We are forgetting how to connect in person, and we’re not teaching that to our children.

That means that when we are in face-to-face situations, we don’t know how to share important feelings and concerns.

It’s easier to share those concerns online, behind a screen and keyboard, and not have to be accountable for our words.

Sharing things online that you wouldn’t share in person makes it easier for you to pretend like you’ve addressed your loneliness and fears. But you haven’t, if you’re not dealing with them in real life, in person.

Here’s my observation: Though we feel connected to our contacts on social media and through our devices, we are missing key contact points. I have very close connections with people I’ve never met in person, I love them, and I believe in those relationships. We can get a lot out of our virtual connections, and I’m grateful for the incredible encouragement, kindness, and genuine care I’ve received over the years through those online friendships.

There are details, small, subtle details that come with a face-to-face conversation that are impossible to compare to our online discussions. There is a limit to what online relationships can provide in real life. Without a hug, a pat on the back, a handshake, we are missing the humanity in our relationships.

When we are face-to-face with another being, we are not only seeing the fine lines in their faces, their smiles, assessing whether they are being genuine. We are not only sensing their feelings toward us, the eye contact, and the body language.

There are many cues we receive subconsciously when we are face-to-face, including scent, micro-expressions, and more.

We are getting closer, every day, to having AI emulate almost all aspects of our human relationships. So what is the difference between us and machines, if we feel like our online relationships are enough for us?

People are desperate for real connections with real people, and most of us don’t even know it. Some people believe that their online relationships are enough, until they just aren’t. Our online relationships can only go so far, and can only make us feel alive and connected for a brief period of time.

Eventually, loneliness sets in.

As human beings, we are designed to touch, to sense with our fingers and skin. We are designed for real contact through touch of hands, hugs, sight, and scent. Ask anyone who has studied this aspect of our brain activity; read Happy Hour with Einstein by Melissa Hughes for a basic understanding of the impact of touch on our neural pathways.

Or just search online with keywords brain, touch, science.

Where we’re seeing this play out is in our children. Thanks to what they’re seeing on social media feeds, they are experiencing more polarization among us, and less real contact, fewer effective, interactive conversations.

When I was a teenager, I spent hours on the phone with friends, and… boys. We would whisper into our phones until the middle of the night when one parent or another would pick up and say: “GET OFF THE PHONE! IT’S 2AM!” Those were not face-to-face, but they were real connections, hearing a real voice on the other end of the line. Those late-night phone calls have been replaced with late-night texts.

Why is that a bad thing? Because we all know how difficult it can be to read and write tone into a message. We’ve experienced miscommunication face-to-face, imagine how far this can go in text messages!

The Disconnect Between Us and Our Human Nature

If you read articles or books about brain activity, human development, and about human connection, you’ve seen references to Harlow’s Monkeys, a study done on infant monkeys and the strong need they demonstrated for life-like touch as nourishment. It was a horrible experiment, devastating to anyone who has a heart that beats for love of other beings. It was also an important study that acknowledged the need for warm, physical contact among living creatures, particularly infants.

On my previous post, Desperate for Real Connection, my friend Donna-Luisa wrote about her relationship with her teenage children:

As a person who grew up without all the technological interfacing it seemed hard to understand and appreciate how ‘young people’ socialize. I decided to change the view from the outside looking in and step into their ‘imaginary world’ as I called it then. From the inside looking out I saw the changing times and understood my parenting perspective needed to change.

She’s right, communication has changed. I get frustrated when hear generalizations about generations, but there are some stark differences between the digital native generations and those that came before. My son eloquently argued his case that gaming designers are artists. He reminded me that at one time, digital art and digital design weren’t considered art, and that even film making was, at one time, dismissed as an art form.

We need to change how we teach and model our behavior, based on the differences in how our children communicate.

Digital natives communicate differently, and we must respect those differences. Just like every generation before us, each thinks they’re unique, and each older generation makes judgments about the younger ones.

But there are also similarities. The human need for physical touch and experiences in nature have not changed.

I miss talking to him on the phone, but I miss being near him more.

As parents, educators, and humans, tolerate the chipping away at availability of human contact and experiences in the natural world, we risk more than losing people to loneliness, depression and suicide, we risk losing our humanity.

I live in Montana, which is probably one of the best places to live in terms of access to nature. That’s why I’m often surprised to hear about people, particularly children and teens, who don’t walk on the mountain trails so accessible in our town. We have more open space and parks in our little town than we do buildings, and yet, when I asked our teenagers if they think their friends and peers spend enough time outside, they describe many of their friends as “gamers who don’t see sunlight for days at a time.”

Introvert, extrovert, or ambivert, our humanity depends on our relationships with others.

That includes physical proximity and interaction. If we don’t prioritize our relationships through listening, sharing our vulnerability, and yes, hugging, we will find our isolation and loneliness increasing. If you’re wondering about the impact of artificial intelligence on our humanity, that’s where you’ll see it, in increasing loneliness because of our reliance on technology for our human relationships.

Tell me this commercial isn’t frightening:

Verizon 5GB Plan TV Commercial, '5GB for $55'
Chances are people often pay for data they never use. Recognizing how expensive unlimited plans can be, Verizon is…ispot.tv

Not only is it dangerous to walk your dog along a waterway while staring deeply into your phone, your relationship with your dog is pathetic.

If you think I’m over-reacting, watch people walking around town. Go to a playground, the local library, the airport, restaurants, and watch people with their families, children, and colleagues. This is really scary, if you’re paying attention. I once had to yell at a father with his toddler, because he was watching his phone as his toddler nearly walked into a busy street.

Being online all the time poses real, physical risk; it also poses real risk in our relationships with each other. When parents and other adults are deeply engrossed in their digital lives, they are not modeling conversation and face-to-face interaction for children and other people around them.

Where will children and teens learn how to interact with people, if not from their parents and other adults in their lives?

There is hope. In an article by Neil Hughes, I was reminded that there are times that technology can be used to strengthen our face-to-face relationships.

My challenge to our digital native generations: Develop tools to leverage technology to improve our face-to-face, in-person interactions. I’ll bet we can find ways to gamify this. Like Pokemon Go, but with encouragement to actually talk to people and to “look up”.

What can we do about this? How do we change this trajectory? I have a few ideas, and I’d love to hear from you.

First things first, put down the device you’re reading this on, and go talk to your children/friends/partner. Focus on the conversation to listen, not to respond, and make sure you have a plan for more of this kind of interaction every single day.

Time in nature is healing and refreshing. Schedule outdoor adventures.

Next? Find ways to meet up with those people you connect with online. I’m challenging you to reach out of your comfort zone and remember how to connect face-to-face. If you are afraid that your real-life personality and image won’t match up to the expectations of your online friendships, you’re probably talking to the wrong people.

Take the risk, enjoy the benefits of either a true friendship, or the lessons learned from a mismatch.

Believing our online relationships are enough for us is like believing we can gain weight by smelling the desserts in the bakery case.


If you write on topics related to suicide, there are great resources available to make sure you are doing more good than harm. As a relatively uninformed professional on this topic, I use this website, ReportingSuicide.Org as a resource.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - Call 1–800–273–8255
Available 24 hours everyday