It seemed the construction work in our neighborhood would never end. Even from my office at the back of the house, I could hear the seemingly perpetual digging and pounding and packing and an assortment of other strange and undecipherable noises.
In the course of all those months, there would be the occasional nod and smile between myself and one or other of the construction workers as I walked the dog or undertook one of my half-hearted stabs at exercise. I can’t say I thought much about these men, but, if someone had asked me what their interests were, I must admit I’d probably have guessed that they ran primarily in the direction of football, beer, and country music and firmly away from history or ancient languages (more on that later).
Speaking for me, I’m not much of a beer fan, but I sure do like football and love country music so I’m not saying there is anything wrong with those things, merely that those are the first assumptions I would have made. Are those first thoughts biases on my part about the construction crew? Hard to say without analyzing them further, but I do know that any assumption about a group should, at the least, make us suspicious that a bias just might be lurking somewhere in our thinking.
To be honest, I never did get used to the noise, the dust, and the occasional interruption to my work when one of the workers needed access to my backyard for some yet to be understood reason. I remember one incident. It happened just as I was about to write what (I thought) was a particularly cleaver turn of phrase. The doorbell rang. I tried to ignore it. It rang again – I figured it was just the UPS driver letting me know he had dropped off a package. I continued to ignore it. Then, it rang again and it rang again and I knew I was defeated.
Grumbling, I went to the door. Indeed, there stood one of the workers – his face was vaguely familiar. A pleasant enough fellow, he asked if he could get in the backyard to “pull the line through” – I still wonder what that means. Anyway, I mustered up a dollop of common courtesy and went through the elaborate ritual of corralling the dogs in the house, closing all the doors, and unlocking the gate.
He came into the yard and disappeared around the corner of the house where, I imagine, he “pulled the line through.” After he left, I relocked the gate, freed the dogs, and got (I thought) back to work.
The bell rang again. (Expletive deleted!). Having learned from my error in optimism the first time around, I knew it would do no good to ignore it. I opened the door and there he was again, resplendent in orange hardhat and muddy overalls and terribly sorry to disturb me, but he was dying to ask me a question.
Apparently, he had noticed the doormat by the front door and the words that were inscribed on it: Ne obliviscaris. “That’s Latin for “Do not forget,’ isn’t it?” he asked. Surprised that he noticed, I said, “Yes.” He then asked the significance of that cryptic phrase. (In case you’re wondering and to save you the “Google,” it is the family motto of the Scottish Campbell Clan of which I am a member.)
I must say, it was a bit surreal. Here I am standing on my front porch discussing Latin and even a touch of Scottish history with the mud-splattered man whose full-time job is digging ditches for the city. So much for my first assumptions about beer and pick-up trucks and so much for any bias that might be lurking beneath the surface.
That man had taught me a valuable lesson.
The material in this article is based on Sondra’s book, Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace and her video training package, Defeating Unconscious Bias: Five Strategies.
Sondra Thiederman can be contacted for in-person presentations, webinar facilitation, and panel participation 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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