Maria Shriver names 'root of our problem of divisiveness' in the United States (Exclusive)


Maria Shriver sees a growing -- and concerning -- trend emerging in our country.

As the United States continues to become more divisive, as disagreements across party and socioeconomic and racial and gender lines continue to proliferate, Shriver has noticed that we've simply forgotten how to talk things through with one another.

The former First Lady of California, 63, is of the opinion that if we could manage to regain that ability to discuss the more difficult topics with one another, if we could look up from our smartphones and relearn the art of conversation, then we would be much better off as a society.

"People feel disconnected, and they don’t want to go home and [they] skip gatherings because they’re afraid they’ll be asked the wrong thing," Shriver told AOL's Gibson Johns during a dinner she hosted with Ancestry in an effort to encourage people to engage in meaningful conversations. "I think that’s really a lot of what’s at the root of our problem of divisiveness [in this country] is that people don’t know how to talk."

Whether it's through hosting events like the dinner with Ancestry, spreading messages of good in her Sunday Paper newsletter or encouraging her children to bring their friends over for Sunday dinners or for holidays, Shriver knows that every little bit helps and that being hospitable is contagious.

For our full interview with Maria Shriver, keep reading below.

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You're hosting a dinner tonight for Ancestry. What's the basis for the get-together?

It's about meaningful conversations and how necessary they are, and how people have lost the art of conversation and the ability to ignite conversations and listen. That’s why I was so excited about tonight, because I’ve been talking about living a meaningful life and meaningful conversations for a long time in the Sunday Paper and my book ["I've Been Thinking"]. Their survey shows that people feel disconnected, and they don’t want to go home and [they] skip gatherings because they’re afraid they’ll be asked the wrong thing, and I think that’s really a lot of what’s at the root of our problem of divisiveness [in this country] is that people don’t know how to talk.

How do you personally combat that feeling of disconnect with others that's become so pervasive as we've all become so connected electronically?

I work it. I work it all the time. I have a weekly Sunday family gathering, so my kids all bring friends to the table and I have people put down their phones. I try to have dinners with people almost nightly, and I try to do walk and talks with people to check in with them and connect with them. I make it a big priority in my life to do that, whether it’s talking on the phone or in person or walking with somebody or eating with somebody, because that’s where I feel grounded.

It really is just about bonding and talking over a shared experience.

I was talking to somebody today, and I asked them how they were really doing, and all of a sudden -- BOOM! -- the floodgates came down. I find that feeling of connection to be what I need, so I find t to be important and it requires people to put down electronics in order to look people in the eye and find out who they are and remember their name. In a way, it feels old-fashioned, but it’s human.

It almost sounds elementary, but we do almost need that reminder sometimes.

Yes. We do, because everybody is in here [mimes looking at phone]. I got on the elevator at my hotel tonight and nobody even looked up. Nobody looked up!

And I feel as though a lot of that disconnection is commonly attributed to a generational divide, which is probably somewhat accurate, but to me more of it lies in the general affect that smartphone addiction has had on people of all ages. What are your thoughts on that?

Yes, I think it's technology in general. People of an older age certainly feel isolated and report huge numbers of loneliness. We’ve lost communal gathering places, too: The Lions Club, the library, places where people would go to see each other. Now the only place that people feel like they’re known is the coffee shop, which is why you see so many people hanging out there -- it’s a place where they feel known. Maybe they don’t speak, but there’s a longing in our country to belong and feel connected and seen and engaged. As this survey says, people want more meaningful conversations, so I think the desire is there tremendously. We’re divided, but the opportunity [for improvement] exists.

What do you think the importance of understanding who you are, where you come from and who your family is in cultivating that connection?

That’s always important -- to understand where you came from -- but so many people feel alienated from their families, so I’m a big believer in [the idea that] you can pick your family or build a new family. Their initiative is giving people pointers around ways of connecting: Build a family tree, tell a family story, invite somebody in. These are all things that build upon the concept of family. Tracing your family’s roots is one thing they do really well, but I would expand on that and say that people should know who you’re going somewhere with.

And the definition of family is certainly subjective for certain people.

That’s at the root of so many of our issues, too, is this question of what is the American family? What does it look like? Who’s in it? Who’s out of it? How do you get in it or create your own or belong? Expanding on that desire of belonging is what’s interesting to me.

These feel like especially important questions to be asking around the holidays, too, when "family time" is so valued.

Oh, my god. People get depressed. I always ask people, "Do you have a place to go for Thanksgiving? Do you want to come to my house?"

Is that always your mentality around the holidays?

Anybody’s welcome. I always reach out to people who I know are alone or might be single to try to include them. I say to my kids all the time, "If you have any friends that don’t have family here, please invite them or anybody that’s alone, please invite them." It’s fun, and people really appreciate it. You have the tradition, but then it ebbs and flows.

What's one holiday tradition that you love?

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, because it doesn’t involve material things; it involves food and family and cooking and football and sports. When my parents were alive, I always went back to Washington, and every year I kind of have a little twinge about that and I think about it. But my brother who lives in Wyoming now is coming and I try to recreate that as best as possible.

How do you encourage your kids to seek connection out?

I encourage them to invite people or come home for Sunday dinner and bring a friend and to know that’s a tradition where they can have a free meal every Sunday, and they can come home and part of our mission statement is to be inclusive and have this growing, evolving sense of family. I try to talk about them about that, and every Thanksgiving we go and serve food at the church. That’s a tradition, and also talking is a big part of our celebration. As is listening.

You've created such a special community through your Sunday Paper, and it must feel pretty special seeing people doing good out of something that you started.

I sit there and I’m just blown away when I hear certain stories about what people are doing. It humbles me. It’s so inspiring, because then I think to myself if I would do the same. There are all kinds of people all over the country who are doing life-altering work under the radar for no credit, no money, no nothing. And you just sit there and hear that and are wowed.

What role does faith play in the meaningful work that you do?

A big role. I’m a practicing Catholic, but I’m also a rebellious Catholic, too. I was raised by two people who really believed that they were here in their own secular way to do God’s work, and that was really indoctrinated in me. For me, I question why are we here? If we’re not here to make the world better, then what’s the point? That’s just been the motivation for me. I’ve always believed in a force larger than myself that’s helped me. It’s given me reason, hope, inspiration. It helps me get out of bed, and I wonder sometimes that if you don’t believe in something bigger, where is your North Star? I don’t know. I know there are people who don’t believe at all, but I find that it makes my life more grounded and gives me a direction to believe that the unifying thing is love.

This interview has been edited and condensed.