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            I’m a heterosexual white guy, but my spiritual adviser of 20 years and our best neighbors are gay, work and church friends are African American and African, one of my closest colleagues is Asian, two of my favorite teachers are lesbian, and one is a Latina activist.  I’ve read extensively about intercultural communication and completed diversity training and an 32- hour intercultural competence workshop.  Nevertheless, when a woman cut in front of us in the line at the ice cream shop last night, the first thing I noticed about her was that she was black.

            An African American friend who earns his living as a diversity trainer admitted that he’d done the same thing when he got crowded out of the front of the cab line at the airport.

            As he put it, “Our gut is ethnocentric.”

            Psychologists who study person perception claim that when we notice an unfamiliar person, a common first phase is “snap judgment,” which comes before we make attributions, assign traits, or predict future behavior. [‎]  Malcolm Gladwell famously explored this phenomenon in his book, Blink‎  A recent Caltech study analyzed the neuroscience of snap judgments during speed dating and verified that they clearly affect how we respond to the person we’ve evaluated.

            Snap judgments are reactions rather than responses.  They’re knee-jerk perceptions anchored in the most primitive, least mindful and reflective parts of us.  And like it or not, many of us were raised in environments that were at least subtly racist, sexist, ageist, and/or classist.  In many cases, our parents and other influencers were well-meaning and probably even God-fearing.   Many were also uninformed or culturally limited through no fault of their own. So we were inculcated with influences that it is notoriously hard to erase. 

Reflect, Be Curious, Ask Questions         

Fortunately, unless you’re happy with a life based on stereotypes, you can guide yourself out of this pattern.  Three keys are mindful reflection, curiosity, and genuine questions.

Psychology Today describes mindfulness as “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.” 

For most of us, this cognitive move requires a pause.  So in situations where your gut response is ethnocentric, a helpful first step can be to consciously take a breath.  And then another one.  Then add reflection. 

Reflection means awareness of awareness, thinking about your thinking.  So when you’re mindfully reflective, you notice your snap judgments without evaluating them and move immediately to the much more fruitful and humane stance of curiosity. 

  • "Hunh!  The first thing I noticed about her was that she's black.   I wonder what's going on with me?  I wonder what's going on with her?"      

This move to curiosity can be even more helpful with consequential rather than trivial situations—at work, in a community meeting, when dealing with a person for the first time.  

  • "It looks like she's a lot more upset than she's communicating directly.  I wonder what's up culturally with that?"   
  • "I think a person should say what they mean.  He keeps talking in stories.  What cultural differences are operating here?"    
  • "That kind of direct eye contact feels disrespectful to me, or even intimidating  I wonder if it's different for him?"     

In some situations, your interventions can stop here.  Mindful reflection plus curiosity can help you take some important steps toward training yourself out of ethnocentrism and toward a place where you can affirm and adapt to cultural patterns that are obviously different from yours.

            In other situations, you might want to go the next mile, into a curiosity-inspired intercultural conversation.  “Can we talk about what just happened?” can be a good opener.  Be ready for the response, “What do you mean ‘what just happened’?”  And be ready for it to be said with some defensiveness.

            A helpful next step is to describe, with I-statements and dispassionate language, what you just noticed.  It’s crucial here to stick with descriptions, and not to add evaluations based on assumptions.  “You asked me a question, and during the time it took me to respond, you looked away.”  This is a description, and it’ll work much better than, “Why aren’t you looking at me?” or, worse, “Don’t you ever pay attention when people are talking to you?”

            The goal of the conversation that follows should be to collaborate with your conversation partner about what makes you culturally curious about the situation.  Your personal goal has to be to learn something about your own culture and theirs—not to blame or even to “teach.” 

            These kinds of conversations can sometimes be difficult.  But the three steps will actually work, when you learn to move through them with authenticity and grace. 

            “You’ve got to be kidding!” is often the response to this advice.  “People don’t actually want to talk about race, gender, age, or sexual orientation.  Sure, these cultural differences exist, but that doesn’t mean that people want to discuss them!”

            But this isn’t true.  In 2003 Winnie Cheng published a description of the “complex, interactive, and collaborative” ways Hong Kong Chinese discuss cultural issues with their native English friends and colleagues.  The current Cultural Detective blog describes in detail catalysts for intercultural conversations. []  The Center for Intercultural Conversations creates safe and informal environments where people can discuss cultural differences that often create barriers. 

          Closer to home, students of color at my university are urging the faculty and administration to provide more opportunities for cultural conversations and LGBT students recently produced a city-wide conference that created safe spaces for people of all sexual orientations to share their stories and learn from each other.

            Intercultural barriers can be reduced in caring, respectful conversations.  Most of us are disadvantaged by the fact that our gut is ethnocentric.  But once you learn that this is true and what to do about it, difficult situations can improve.  Just remember:

  • ·      Mindful reflectiveness
  • ·      Curiosity
  • ·      Listening-based conversation




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