Starting with the most fundamental: internally,
we order our world by sensation, perception, and abstraction. Sensation is the
information received purely by the senses of sight, smell, touch, sound and kinesthetic.
Perception is the manner in which we personally order our sensations and
finally, abstraction is the higher order clustering of our perceptions. Values,
ideas, creativity are all part of abstraction.
One would think that the differences lie
solely in the area of abstraction. Not so. Differences start at the very start
of sensations. Let me give you an example.
I am a redhead with very fair skin, light
aqua eyes and lots of sensitivities because of it. I’ve even referred to these
sensitivities as “the canary in the coal mine” in an article I wrote. Bright
lights hurt my eyes much more quickly than they do for a brown-eyed person.
Loud noises make me jump. Going out in the sun for more than a few minutes
turns me beet red and sometimes even hospitalizes me. I get my vitamin D from
the sun very quickly – whereas a brown-skinned person needs to be out in the
sun much longer to get the same amount of vitamin D, and he/she doesn’t often
burn so quickly.
So, there you have differences in how the
same sensation is received by different people. Now, when we receive this
stimuli, we order it into perceptions: hard, soft, red, blue, quiet, loud,
table, chair, good, bad, etc. Our prior experience, based on our environment,
our DNA (yes, genetics plays a part as we are learning more and more) and how
we were nurtured, taught, and raised in general.
What might seem right for me – such as
holding my fork in my left hand and my knife in my right when cutting my meat
and then switching them to eat (how inefficient!), whereas people from Europe
do the opposite and people from Asia use chopsticks. As an American, I drive on
one side of the road, but in London they drive on the other side.
Language is interesting as well. Words that
have “dirty” connotations in one country, do not necessarily have the same
connotation in another. One example is that the word “fag” refers to a
cigarette in England.
Since there is variation in sensation and
perception, our starting places are different. Now, language plays a role – a
big role – in how we order these into abstractions. We adults operate primarily from our
These are high order abstractions and their
meaning varies tremendously across different groups of people. For example:
Growing up in a middle class family, my
expectations about quality are extreme. I want the seams matched on my
clothing, the carpeting mitered correctly in the corners, and no typos in my
documents. Someone coming from a very poor background might not even see the
things I notice.
Wealthy women in El Paso, just across the
border from Mexico have day-workers who come each day and return each night. During
a Board of Directors’ training there, I was told that some of the women in the synagogue
wanted to know why their day-maids (who hardly spoke English) couldn’t
substitute for them in their volunteer commitments.
In many Latin countries, time is fluid. An
American flying to keep a pre-arranged appointment can be told that the person
she was meeting was unavailable because of a family event. Family comes first.
What we see as bribes, others see as
necessary gifts in order to get business done. What we might see as cheating,
others see as team work and collaboration.
Sexual harassment is a prime example of an
abstraction of a cluster of behaviors that have different meaning to different
people and leads to workplace conflict.
I conduct sexual harassment/discrimination
and diversity training for many of my corporate and government clients. Among
the exercises I use when training to understand these issues is a series of
vignettes that my participants need to grade on a scale of 1 – 5, with 5 being
the most severe and 1 the most benign.
Participants from India, for example, when
given these vignettes, almost always grade each of the items as a 5 – or most
severe. Americans show a range of
answers to the same questions, and Europeans sometimes laugh at some of them
thinking they do not even rise to the level of being an appropriate vignette
for the exercise.
In the Indian culture, you show respect –
deep respect – for women. Therefore, you don’t tease them, touch them, comment
on how they are dressed, groomed, or look in any way. In America, teasing – good
natured ribbing – is very common among men and some of them have yet to realize
it is far less common among women. Italians and French say “viva la difference”
and love harmless flirting – which could get them fired in America.
Very religious people are offended by even
the mildest of what we consider “dirty words” – or profanity. Women who dress
very conservatively are shocked by women who wear low cut or revealing
So, when teaching avoidance of getting in
trouble, those of us who teach these programs need to emphasize the importance
of being extremely conservative in our professional workplace behavior.