Early in my career I was summoned to the office of the chief executive for the organization I then served. I had been in his office many times. Though I was a young administrator, he included me in many meetings and often sought my advice. I liked being close to the big fish in that small pond. Looking back, I offered some energy and enthusiasm for my role and already had formed opinions about the future of the entire organization and how things should be accomplished. Perhaps I had a few good ideas. I suppose I was a typically ambitious and yet immature leader, with influence that far exceeded my wisdom at the time.
This meeting, however, was different. It was very brief and to the point. He confronted me with a situation involving an international student on campus with whom I had interacted. At that time, I had responsibility for international students and in the course of enforcing the “rules” I deeply offended the student to the point that he approached the senior executive. Asked if I had interacted with the student in the manner alleged, I immediately confessed. He then looked squarely at me and said, “If you do that again, I will fire you.” It was one of the most important experiences of my professional career.
After apologizing to the student and rectifying the situation to the best of my ability, I spent considerable time trying to define the problem. Was I not clear in my communication? Were the policies and procedures to blame? Was I the victim of someone who simply did not want to comply with the regulations? In time the answer became clear to me – I was the problem.
I was raised during a time period and in a cultural context in which perspectives on human difference and diversity were at best confused. At its worst, it was sheer bias and prejudice. Born in 1960, my worldview was shaped by a setting in which society was in transition from heavy structural racism and personal bias to a form of acceptance that was largely rhetorical. As long as I said the right things and held various public positions, any private bias I may have developed was OK. Or so I thought.
The journey through those years in the 1980s was most rewarding, for I learned so much about how my view of the world needed to change. My thoughts about other nations and peoples, given my lack of international experience at the time, were very colonial in nature. I had been taught the work of my government and the work of my church was to bring my familiar worldview to people disadvantaged by their birthplace, race and culture. I eventually realized there is indeed much we can offer, but we also have so much to learn.
The journey did not end there. Step by step I moved from the systemic to the personal. The harsh reality was my prejudice and bias were certainly amplified by my early surroundings but were quite firmly rooted in personal arrogance. Others had it wrong. I needed to make them comply…for their own good. My head, my heart and my stomach still ache when I think about that journey of self-discovery. It’s hard to become aware of your own shadow. It’s even harder to dispel it by making yourself subject to the light.
Though I’m still a learner, the past 30 years have taught me so much. Here is a list of my observations:
First, I’ve learned that people order the world in different ways. We are shaped by the experiences we have amassed in the settings that have defined our personal and group identity. It’s not so much a matter of what we value. Often we value many of the same things. It has more to do with how we get things done – things like individual vs. group initiative, interpersonal and group dynamics, the positive or negative role institutions have played in accomplishing things for good or for ill.
Second, cultural norms are mysterious. Often taking the form of symbols, such conventions communicate much more than respect for ritual. Rather they articulate values, tell the story of a people, facilitate interaction and reinforce a shared sense of purpose. The challenge is that without spending time to learn about the cultural norms of others, we risk using our lenses of interpretation inappropriately. This invariably leads to misunderstanding as words and phrases are taken too literally and practices are held in suspicion for their unfamiliarity. It’s easy to draw errant conclusions out of ignorance.
Third, the interpretation of rules, regulations, policies and procedures means different things to different people. Many of us are textualists or literalists when it comes to the articulation of what is expected or required. Others look for the rationale behind the boundary conditions we create with a greater tolerance for flexibility. This surfaces in our understanding of the “letter of the law” vs. the “spirit of the law.” Misaligned understandings are so common that rules seem to grow with every exception we uncover.
Fourth, moral and ethical interpretations are deeply affected by cultural context. The rigidities we bring through our patterns frequently diverge from the thoughts and ideas of others. The dilemmas of life only get more complex and the rights of one person or group are placed against those of another. History has taught us that notions of morality and ethics are sometimes subject to ideology. In certain cases moral contortions and ethical compromise are the result.
Fifth, successful management of conflict and the negotiation of solutions can rest entirely on interpretive contexts, nuances of language and historic traditions. Even reasonable people can disagree. Yet our ability to listen well, understand deeply and interpret carefully requires a sensitivity that is less juridical and more relational.
In reading these observations it would be easy to conclude my thoughts pertain to international settings. The reality is these same considerations exist within the United States and extend through each state, municipality and organization. America is experiencing rapid change and the stresses of that process are pressing the limits of our cultural and linguistic diversity. Our collective future relies on our individual capacity to hear others speak and express their needs and interests; to see clearly how they order the world; and to understand the relational dynamics that can build trust and reduce barriers. It’s easy to define others, but the rigidity of our thinking can be the basis for bias.