“Those People”

This is going to sound like an inspirational poster, but I make an effort to be a little bit better every day. Not better than, just … better. This involves a degree of self-absorption that I like to call “introspection” instead, and is probably the root of this (now very public) blog. Either way it involves me doing some self-analysis, and today I discovered that I’ve been unintentionally racist for a while. 

Several previous work-related situations have involved me interacting with people whose communications skills have been sorely lacking. “Eventually getting your point across”, to me, isn’t the same as “communicating effectively”. What made it worse was that they didn’t seem to care about improving their own language skills. When half of you are the room are speaking language X — at work, having work-related conversations, no less — and the other half of the room hasn’t a clue, maybe it’s time you re-examined your social skills. 

This sounded all above board and nicely reasoned out to me, so I went ahead and felt morally superior for a while. 

Then I noticed, recently, that I’d been having a significantly different set of experiences with people speaking languages K, W, P and T, at work, related to work, and while in earshot of other people who, again, didn’t have a clue. But there were two main differences: a)  the non-English conversations weren’t carried out while English speakers were actively engaged in the same conversation, and b) the speakers of languages K, W, P and T also spoke excellent English. 

And then I realized something else: I only experienced a significant sense of annoyance with speakers of language X, while they spoke it in earshot. Sometimes, it didn’t even matter whether or not they spoke good English; I was annoyed anyway. I expected their English skills to be poor, and felt pre-emptively annoyed and morally superior.

This is what I’d done: I’d taken my negative experiences and applied them across the spectrum to everyone who spoke language X, regardless of whether or not they actually fell into my “ok to be annoyed” category of “doesn’t even make an effort to be better at English”. 

Whether or not you agree that English excellence should be the goal of all workplace communication — and here I’ll argue that it is, since I work in an incredibly diverse environment and English is literally all we have in common linguistically — what I’m doing here is just unfair. And I think that’s one large part of racism, this unfair application of a stereotype to every single person of that community you meet. 

But what if the stereotype is true? says my imaginary devil’s advocate. What if statistically — let’s call them Phoenicians — 67% of  Phoenicians tells more lies on average than any other nationality?

My argument to that it is that ultimately doesn’t matter. I’d say it’s much fairer to treat every new Phoenician you meet as an entity completely independent of your own preconceived notion of a Phoenician as a liar. You get the opportunity to be proven incorrect about your assumptions and learn something, and the Phoenician gets the opportunity to be free of the burden of having to prove that he isn’t a self-serving liar. 

I often wonder why comedians can get away with saying blatantly non-PC things in the name of humor (e.g. Russell Peters). Sure, they bring out the funny aspects of the ways we stereotype, but they also speak about stereotyped people as an aggregate. Maybe that’s the key here: acknowledge that it’s possible there are some statistically significant behaviors that communities exhibit, but never automatically apply them to individual members. 

But that still assumes that all communities are historically static, non-evolving entities — which is also vastly untrue. 

I dunno. Ultimately the only principle we should probably be sticking to is “be nice”. 

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