Opening Your World to the Experience of Difference

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It is understandable that we find comfort in the familiar.  The route we take to work everyday, our daily routines, the people we hang out with, our certainty that we are right on any given topic.  Familiarity allows us to master our surroundings so we can feel safe, confident and competent.  But constant familiarity, doing and thinking the same way, starts to close off our world to new possibilities and new connections.  Like farmland that becomes barren unless crops are rotated, we begin to die off if we do not accept the new and different.  I find this particularly true with respect to the people in our lives.  How many of us have friends who are truly different from us, with respect to culture, race or point of views?  For those of us with a “few” more years, how many of us have welcomed new people into our community of friends?
Why are we so wedded to the familiar?  How do welcome “difference” into our lives?  How does this serve our lives and the lives of others?
This theme has emerged in my work this month.  It’s been about the vast opportunity that lies ahead if we dare to personally engage with people who are different and unfamiliar.
I attended the annual SIETAR conference on “Living and Working in an Intercultural World” a few weeks back. It was clear that the only way towards a healthy global economy is if we can respect the differences in others as a means for fruitful collaboration.  No amount of strategy development, organizational management or negotiations will yield true results if trust has not been built.  In the American culture, we can mistakenly believe that use of legal agreements can be a surrogate for building trust with a cross-cultural partner.  But if our partner from another part of the world does not feel our true respect for them and their culture, all the legal agreements and meetings will yield very little meaningful and productive results.  But a cup of tea in which no business is discussed, or receiving someone’s business card with two hands as an indication of reverence can make all the difference.  But doing that requires us to be in a place of discomfort until our observations can decode and understand what is meaningfully important to another.  Are we willing to be so vulnerable without “the show of command and confidence” so that we can stand in unison with another?  Are we willing to ask about the preference of another so they can feel valued and hence, show up fully with trust and a readiness to collaborate?
A similar theme showed up with many cross-cultural coaching clients who are highly educated professionals working in the US.  Immigrating ten, fifteen, twenty years ago to study in our universities, most are officially Americans.  Their children self-identify as Americans.  They work with great commitment and diligence.  Yet almost every one of them feels their European-American colleagues and managers have no interest in personally relating to them.  When I asked why they think that was so, the common answer was, “they just see me as someone different and we talk only about work-related issues”.  For all the years they’ve been in this country, these professionals still do not feel fully accepted as they are.  They struggle to understand what they need to do to be able to engage with “the Americans”, although most are American citizens.  Their pain of social isolation is so clear.  And so the thought came to me why those of us in the mainstream don’t reach out more?  Couldn’t we ask someone “different” out for lunch?  Couldn’t we ask about the culture of someone whose culture is different from ours?  Couldn’t we take the chance to be vulnerable and curious about the colleague with whom we’ve worked for years but have never really asked about their life outside of work?  If they have hobbies?  What their culture honors and celebrates?  Do they have holidays similar to our Christmas, Halloween and Independence Day?  Couldn’t we just ask?
In not asking, in not connecting with these fully real but different human beings, not only have we abandoned a fellow human on the journey of life, we have, very practically speaking, allowed talent to be undertapped and underengaged.   As a corporate leader or university administrator, one must ask, “what is the price of not engaging the whole person”?  What is the price of cross-cultural employees perceiving themselves as being valued only on the basis of their technical work?  Granted, there are organizations out there working on cross-cultural awareness and collaboration.  But the work to be done is not only “out there” as in China, but right here, in the US.
So, as you return to your work or school and see a colleague of another culture, whom you’ve known for years but don’t really know, perhaps you can ask them out for lunch?  And start your conversation with, “I’ve known you all these years but I don’t feel like I know you outside of the work you do.  Tell me something I don’t know about you.” Wouldn’t it be fascinating to see what develops?