Foreign travel helps managers understand minority views

Dear Ms. Maven,

   One of my employees has told me that I am not sensitive to the issues and needs surrounding minorities and protected class members. I always try very hard to treat everyone exactly the same, regardless of race, color or creed. Am I missing the boat here?

Frustrated Boss

Dear Frustrated,
   This is a case where you both may be right. You may indeed work and supervise in a color-blind manner. (Color substituting here for all types of minorities.) You may be scrupulously fair and careful in how you treat, discipline and reward staff. You may, in short, be a paragon of perfection, and still not ‘get it.’
   Anyone who is a middle-to-upper-class ‘white’ male probably doesn’t. Middle-to-upper-class ‘white’ women may get it a little bit, depending on life circumstance and surroundings. If they are or have been in a largely male-dominated system where their contribution was minimized solely because of their gender, then they may have had an experience they can extrapolate. But until you are well and truly in the minority, it is nearly impossible to fully ‘get it.’
   So what to do? The Maven knows only one way to really experience this, and that is to travel to somewhere where you are in the minority – completely and totally. (And even that may be missing the element of assumed inferiority.)
   It’s a little harder to do at home, but you can trot yourself over to the International District in Seattle or Vancouver, B.C. While these have a lot of tourists and locals of distinctly pale skin hue, they are a start on the experience.
   Try to communicate without using English. Notice how your communication immediately goes from (hopefully) an educated, articulate adult to that of a not-too-bright child. You gesticulate, play charades, and nod and point like an idiot. Immediately your perceived status in the world starts to slip. It’s hard to feel (or look) superior when you are miming “Where, oh where, is a bathroom?”
   Next best way? Host someone from another country. This can be done through a variety of sources – international student exchange programs are one, and there are also sister city programs and other methods within which you can volunteer to host someone from another culture. If they speak little to no English, all the better. Notice how you attempt to communicate and how your perceptions of each other are colored by the experience.
   The Maven and Husbandly One hosted two gentlemen from Russia a few years back through a Kiwanis program. One spoke a little English, and the other had just a few words. Ms. Maven is, naturally, fluent in Russian. She is very able, for example, to say “Thank you,” as well as “Here’s a toast to you,” and the ever-useful “There is the map.” Pressed, she can come up with the similarly useful “Where is the map?” Not exactly a recipe for effective communication.
   So we resorted to grunts, charades and body and facial language. A remarkable amount can be conveyed this way — remember that only about 7-9 percent of what we "get" from each other is transmitted through the actual words. After a day or two of trying to communicate without those words, however, one learns how precious every bit of that 7-9% really is.
   So how does this help you learn what it’s like to be minority? When language barriers reduce us to pointing and grunting, there is a tendency to view the other person as less smart or able than oneself. After all, if they were smart enough to communicate in English, they would, right?
   Remember, however, that they are probably thinking exactly the same thing about you and their language. In our Russian experience, our guests began to pick up a lot of English, and we tried to pick up some Russian.
   The Maven and Husbandly One quickly discovered that there was one person in the house who was smarter than all the rest by far, and it wasn’t either of us. One of our guests, by the end of the three- week visit, was essaying basic puns in English. (Word play in a foreign language is devilishly difficult.)
   Neither the Maven or H.O. was even remotely able to do so in Russian. We learned one pun by rote repetition, which was something along the line of “spicy oyster.” If we were to travel through the former Soviet Union, the Maven bets that “Oh, you spicy oyster,” would be less than helpful in most situations.
   For the ultimate “getting it” experience, travel to a country where you are the minority. The Maven is currently teaching a series of management and leadership classes in Trinidad, where her lily-white skin is both the minority and dangerous. (No matter how much sunscreen one slathers on, the sun at the equator requires a lot more melanin than the Maven possesses. O-U-C-H!) The language here is English, with a thick Caribbean patois. Understanding others is difficult, but even more salutary is the experience of walking around anywhere besides the classroom and being utterly invisible.
   Smiles are good, and show that one is friendly and harmless, but when you are in the minority, you either disappear or become a focus of much (and perhaps unwelcome) attention. Either is very different from what "white" Americans are accustomed to and is a terrific learning experience. It’s been a long time since the Maven was invisible, and she suspects it’s very good for her.
   So her advice to Frustrated Boss is to book a trip to a country where the language and look of the people are completely different and travel through that country without a tour bus.
   When you return, you will have learned some valuable lessons that will make you a better manager and, hopefully, human being. And that’s good business. If you have any questions you’d like the Maven to answer, please send them to Ramona@EssentiallyProfessional.com with “Ms. Maven” in the subject line.

Ramona Abbott is a local management consultant who specializes in on-site training and coaching for managers and supervisors. She can be reached at ramona@essentiallywhimsical.com.

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