Guest Post by Dan Oestreich
Many years ago I listened to the late Santiago Rodriguez, then Director of Multicultural Programs at Apple Computer. He was discussing trends at the time in training programs to broaden diversity awareness in organizations. He recounted how many organizations had developed sessions to elaborate the primary characteristics of various races and cultures. The goal was to help people be sensitive to differences in everything from language to dress to social norms and behavior. This led to a lot of note taking – what are the characteristics of Asian-Americans? What about Hispanics? What should you know about people from Africa or India? What’s the right handshake? How should you handle eye contact? It was clear, Santiago concluded with some exasperation, that such an approach was doomed to failure. How could you ever know the characteristics of every culture, and how could you know how it applied to your specific relationships? It seemed little more than well-intended stereotyping.
The real challenge, he said, was teaching people the skills of getting to know each other across their differences, to be truly curious, open learners about one another. Instead of people wondering, “What do I know about this or that culture?” the emphasis should be on teaching people to ask questions with an open, inviting tone. “Suppose, for example, you notice someone new at work and have struck up a conversation or two on topics of mutual interest. With some rapport and the right context, you might ask, ‘I notice you have a slight accent. Where are you from?’”
“Now, what other questions might you gently ask?” he inquired of us. And then, “Do you know how to really get to know someone very different than yourself, without it sounding invasive or judging? If you do,” he continued, “then you won’t need to remember all those potentially discriminatory characteristics. You’ll learn by connecting to a real person instead of hypothesizing and trying to remember a lot of things that may not apply at all.”
As I read the net these days, tapping into the various discussions of generations, from Pluralists and Millennials to Baby Boomers, I am reminded of Santiago’s advice, inviting differences to spur curiosity and connection rather than stereotyping. Certainly, we have grown in our awareness since I heard him speak in the 1980’s. We wouldn’t say today, “Well, here’s a list of the five most salient features of Puerto Rican employees — so now you know how to be sensitive to them.” Yet on the net, it’s easy to find such reductive and restrictive language about other generations, most notably these days, regarding so-called Millennial colleagues. And worse, the goal doesn’t even seem to be sensitivity, but more what to look out for since these reductive characteristics are often negative.
There’s a certain irony about the American workplace that despite ongoing complaints about low-trust “us vs. them” relationships at work — between departments or between layers of an organization – between bosses and employees — we’re more than happy to indulge in a little intergenerational bullying and bashing that has exactly the same effect: a reduction in trust and the loss of workplace community.
What’s underneath these propensities to disconnect and disengage from one another is fear, of course. Fear and competition, and maybe the need to be better than someone else. We belong to, in fact, an individualistic, privilege- and status-oriented culture, one on the shadow side that can thrive at times on categorization and superiority to others. Too often we treat differences as threats, and no matter what the difference — race, gender, culture, age – the criticism amounts to the same thing: the bolstering of a “me” or an “us” through generalities and dismissal of others whose worlds we do not know or understand.
The opposite of this sort of stereotyping-as-security-blanket is the beautiful work of community building, the act of reaching out to others across the differences we see, hear, or feel. The opposite, in terms of age differences, is respecting the fact that generations are part of a natural cycle, one that will be present always, one to be honored and explored as a source of profound learning, one that represents precious social fabric. There will always be children, young adults, middle-aged adults, and elders in human society, waves of the ocean that stretches around the world, no two waves “breaking” in exactly the same way.
That process of reaching out across the divides is frequently called “inclusion,” but that word too often suffers from abstraction. Let me instead simply reiterate the questions Santiago inspired thirty years ago. Do you know how to get to know someone different than yourself? Do you actually have the skill to do that? Do you have the courage and the will to welcome another into yourself who is not exactly like you?
These are good questions, questions that have layers and can mature through time as our understanding grows and we cross our own generational boundaries. They are questions that can last a lifetime.
Image by Dan Oestreich, Oestreich Associates, rights reserved.
Dan Oestreich is a leadership and culture change consultant located near Seattle. For over twenty years he has offered coaching, training and facilitation services that facilitate the growth of leaders and build high-trust, high performance organizations. To find out more about Dan, you can access his website and blog. You can also email him.