Glad to Make Your Acquaintance: The Healing Power of Contact

Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

There is a story floating around that may be apocryphal, but, like most good fiction, is well designed to make its point. Supposedly, some children were asked this question: Who is better, the kids in your town or the children in the neighboring village? “The kids in our town,” was the speedy reply. When asked why they felt this way, the children answered, “It’s because I don’t know those other kids.”

Emerson

The point of this anecdote is that the more experience we have with a group, especially if that experience is largely positive, the less afraid and less biased we will be. Even though he never wrote a word about bias, Ralph Waldo Emerson clearly grasped the essence of this process when he said: “Knowledge is the antidote to fear.”

Emerson would have liked the example that Singer Buchanan, EEO Commissioner for the State of Kentucky, provided me of the importance of acquiring knowledge of other groups. Singer, who is black, was the object of one young white man’s fear and bias simply because the man had rarely been around black people. Singer made a special effort to spend time with the man and, eventually, the fear and the bias were gone. Of course it is not always this simple, but familiarity, if practiced with a truly receptive heart, is far more apt to breed understanding than contempt.

Speaking of contact, what comes to mind when you think of this setting?: Night shift at the post office. Is your mind flooded with images of listless low-lives sleeping on sacks of mail and, in between bouts of fist fights and sleazy flirtations, rifling through envelopes looking for cash and endorsed checks?

I’ll admit media-promoted images like this got to me too when I was offered the opportunity to conduct a diversity workshop at a local post office in the wee hours of the night. Once I met the participants, however, I had only one thing to say to the man who hired me: “You don’t need me. These folks are doing great.”

Two Vietnam vets, a young Filipina, an older Latina, two black men, and an Italian made a wonderful team. The humor they exchanged and the good-hearted connection they obviously shared made me embarrassed that I was standing there supposedly telling them something they didn’t already know about how to get along. Clearly their time spent in such close proximity, combined with the fact that they shared a common task, had allowed them to work through any problems and get to know each other as people not just as distorted reflections of a painful and divisive past.

Workplace Application
Had Emerson been, not a 19th-century writer, but, instead, a 21st-century diversity consultant, he no doubt would have given this advice about how to apply his “knowledge” idea to the workplace: Create opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds to spend time together and their biases might just begin to fade. The type of time spent together that is most apt to accomplish this goal has five characteristics:

  1. The participants are focused on a common goal.
  2. The contact is with a variety of different people who are members of each diverse group. In other words, different financial strata, personality, occupations, etc. within the broader demographic.
  3. The contact is appropriately intimate. For example, the close-proximity and relative isolation of the postal workers mentioned above was a factor in the harmony they created.
  4. As much as possible, the participants need to be of equal status within the organization.
  5. If possible, the time together should be openly sanctioned and encouraged by an authority figure. This gives the interaction extra credibility and, therefore, more impact.

In short, the more contact there is, the more individual humanity emerges and the tougher it is to sustain the biases – the inflexible beliefs – that do so much damage to our workplaces and our lives.

The material in this article is based on Sondra’s book, Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace and in her video training package, Is It Bias: Making Diversity Work.

Sondra Thiederman can be contacted for webinars and in-person presentations by clicking here or calling 619-583-4478. For additional information, go to www.thiederman.com.

© copyright 2013 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

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