Whenever I facilitate a conversation about inclusion, I usually begin with this image. If you pictured an “Indian” or an “Eskimo,” you are not alone. This is a frequent response I’d receive in these discussions. One could argue the facial profile seen here does resemble Native American features, but most of us, in North America, quickly conclude the “Eskimo” as our answer because we were taught that Eskimos wear parkas with fur lining. If you glance again at the image above, you will notice, we never do see a face, therefore we cannot conclude anything about who is wearing the parka.
Why do we make these quick judgments? I believe there is a direct link to our life experiences. When I’ve asked a multi-cultural group of people the question about what they see, it is interesting to learn that many people from other parts of the world do not see the Eskimo at all. It is not something in their frame of reference. Where we are from forms our values, beliefs, and perspectives.
In and out of the workplace, we see people gravitate towards other people that have similar values, beliefs, and perspectives. When I’ve asked people about why they think that is, they tell me its because they feel safe and comfortable, and overall, it’s easier to navigate with like-minded people. In reality it is also because we are as a human species lazy-brained, and we are programmed to do things that require less work.
It is when our values, beliefs, and assumptions clash where things have the potential to go awry, and often times they do at work. There are countless examples from which to choose, but one incident does stand out. In this case, a younger Caucasian female from Carroll County interacts with an older Black female co-worker from another country where it is culturally normal to speak with a louder tone and animated body gestures. The American in this story concluded that she was being yelled at and walked away from the interaction with a bad feeling. A week later, a second encounter occurred, and the American co-worker was accidentally grazed by the co-worker’s knapsack. Let’s say the reaction she had to that incident was not great. She chose to see negative intentions of her co-worker, who had no idea she had said or done anything wrong. The Caucasian employee had only one interpretation of both encounters. A likely contributor to this interpretation is limited exposure to people that are different than her, amongst other closely held values, beliefs, and perspectives. Her co-worker’s intentions were never a consideration. I do not mean to imply that these misunderstandings, miscommunications, and/or misperceptions are only one-way – they happen between all races and cultures, between generations, sexual orientations, gender identity/expressions, etc.
It is when we do not appreciate others’ perspectives and look through only our own lens when we close off our thought patterns. You don’t have to look too far to see this trend happening around us outside of the workplace. One might argue that turning the word “woke” into something bad, banning of teaching “critical race theory” in schools, banning of books, “don’t say gay” legislation are all feeding closely held values, beliefs, and perspectives of like-minded people, with a blatant disregard for any opposing viewpoints.
So, what do we do about it? After all, it is human nature to form quick conclusions about what we think we see, or what we think we heard. One technique is to deliberately take a moment to respond before reacting. What if that Caucasian employee from Carroll County had taken a second or two to process the initial interaction with her co-worker? Maybe the pandemonium that ensured after the second encounter could have been avoided? Another piece of advice is to check your privilege and perspective. We all come into this world with innate characteristics that either give us an advantage or disadvantage in life. By coming to terms and understanding this, along with the humility to realize not everyone has had the same life experience really does force you to take a pause.
Lastly, it is always helpful to keep top of mind the notion of positive intent. It is highly unlikely the people around us, in or out of work, are deliberately ill-intended. Going back to the question I posed at the very top of this article, think about situations in your life where you drew only one conclusion. Had you had the wisdom to step back to seek an alternative perspective, would you draw a different conclusion?
- Richard Finger has worked in Human Resources for over 20 years and has worked with small, private organizations, global corporations, and most currently, a healthcare organization. Richard has worked abroad a number of years in England as well as The Netherlands, where he acquired a great appreciation for cultural awareness. He currently holds three Human Resource Certifications (SHRM-SCP, SPHR, SPHRi), and is also teaching the SHRM-CP/SHRM-SCP preparation course at Howard County Community College. Richard earned his Bachelor Degree in Psychology at University of Central Florida, and Master Degree in Human Resources Management & Labor Relations at New York Institute of Technology. Richard has been writing for Baltimore Outloud for a number of years, contributing articles about his Human Resources experiences, as well as moonlighting as the author of Finger's Food restaurant reviews. Richard has enjoyed writing for the paper, and looks forward to many more opportunities to do so.