ArLyne's Diamonds

A running commentary of ideas

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Fundamental Differences of Ordering Information

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 abstractions.

Quality, Timeliness, Ethics

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

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 clothing.

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.


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