When Is It Appropriate To Yell At Someone? Depends On Where You’re From!

davidlivermore | December 17th, 2019 No Comments

By David Livermore, PhD

Someone cuts ahead of you in the security line at the airport. It’s the same woman who cut in front of people at the check-in counter a few minutes ago. Do you say anything, shake your head in disgust, or take a deep breath and ignore it? Some of us would be quick to let her know that we’re all in a rush, and she needs to step back and wait her turn. Others of us would bite our tongue and say nothing. 

Do you scold her loudly on behalf of everyone else in line? Or do you quietly confront her in a more measured way?

What’s the right way to respond to this kind of situation? It depends!

First, there are different cultural norms surrounding queuing. And we need more information about why she’s doing this before we jump to conclusions. But the issue I’m most interested in considering is the wide variance in what we deem as “appropriate” ways to express frustration. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few weeks. Many of the workplace challenges I observe are related to the cultural value difference we describe as Neutral versus Affective. Neutral cultures believe that minimizing emotional expressiveness is a sign of dignity and respect, whereas Affective cultures value expressing feelings. 

Go through a security line in a Japanese airport, and the staff says virtually nothing, other than “Kindly place your jacket in the bin” or “I’m sorry, but you’ve been selected for a random screening.” Go through the same kind of line at a New York airport and TSA agents start yelling at you as soon as you get in line: “Laptops out. Empty your pockets. No water bottles… Some of you aren’t paying attention! Laptops out…” And on it goes. Most Japanese are Neutral communicators. Most New Yorkers are Affective communicators. 

Neutral communicators might view New Yorkers as rude and mean and Japanese as kind and hospitable. Affective communicators might view the New Yorkers as efficient and clear, and the Japanese staff as shy and lacking confidence.

Okay, so some cultures yell at you more than others. It can be irritating, but it’s not a big deal. However, there are some situations where this difference can be a big deal.

Many of the hospitals we work with have safety policies where medical staff is instructed to note their concern if they believe a patient may be violent. Many of the patients who are labeled as “violent” come from different cultural backgrounds than the hospital staff. If nurses come from a Neutral orientation, they believe disappointment and anxiety should be discussed in calm, measured ways. Tears are understandable, but losing your cool isn’t. Many of the patients who are labeled “violent” are Affective communicators. Their response to bad news often results in yelling, crying uncontrollably, and what some might describe as wailing. Are these patients really more violent, or are they just openly expressing their emotions? Once you’re labeled as violent, there’s an implicit reluctance by staff to provide the same level of care. 

A psychologist working with one of the largest police departments in the US describes a similar situation. His chief responsibility is focused on assessing and mitigating threats across a diverse population of over 10 million people. He says, “I believe 75 percent of what we deal with requires high levels of cultural intelligence. Our officers have not been trained to know whether someone from a different cultural background is exhibiting a behavior that should be considered a potential threat, mental illness, a culturally derived emotional response to a crisis, or some combination thereof.” A great deal of what he describes comes back to the difficulty of discerning Neutral versus Affective behavior.

To avoid misjudging someone’s character or behavior, here are some ways to think more specifically about these differences:

Affective: Emphasis on expressive communication and sharing feelings

People with an Affective orientation use a wider range of facial expressions and physical gestures during everyday conversation.

Neutral: Emphasis on non-emotional communication and controlling emotions

People with a Neutral orientation strive to control their emotions. Reason may influence their behavior more than feelings.

  • They talk loudly when excited, and enjoy animated arguments and debate
  • They’re more enthusiastic and spontaneous
  • They consider emotions and intuitions in the decision-making process
  • Statements are often emotional and dramatic and may often be exaggerated simply to make a point. “This is a complete train wreck.”
  • They are more likely to disguise what they’re thinking or feeling
  • Being cool and in control is admired, although sometimes this leads to unexpected outbursts which become all the more jarring
  • Speaking is usually done in a more monotonic manner and lacks an emotional tone
  • Expect others to “stick to the point” and keep to specific, predetermined topics

Examples: African American, Italian, Latin American, Middle Eastern, Spanish, Working Class, Marketing

Examples: Chinese, Ethiopian, German, Japanese, Native American, Upper Class, Engineering

The Canadian home where I grew up was a Neutral environment. We used formal manners at the dinner table, fine china was on the table for Sunday dinner, and there was a very strong rule that you should never interrupt someone. This rule about not interrupting guided our family protocol, and it informed the way we evaluated other people’s behavior. To this day, I become anxious when someone starts interrupting because that was such a taboo in my family. In Neutral cultures, interruptions are rude unless an emergency really calls for it. Whereas in Affective cultures, interruptions are okay, but silence is awkward.

In many Neutral cultures, particularly throughout Asia, silence is not only okay, it’s welcomed. Silence is a sign of respect, and it allows both parties to reflect and take in what has been said. In many Affective cultures, the “silent treatment” is viewed as punitive.

Nurses and police officers may wrongfully label someone as violent based on an Affective response, and overlook someone who is violent because of a Neutral response. Some terrorists never scream and shout. And there are people who scream and shout who aren’t violent. 

Managers may assume a Neutral staff member is disengaged when, in fact, they may have a different way of expressing their enthusiasm. And team members may assume a teammate has a temper when, in fact, they may simply have a different value for how openly and passionately to voice their opinions.

What should we do?

The first step for addressing this communication difference is emotional intelligence. You have to understand your own emotional state and gain the ability to regulate emotions in yourself and others. But emotional intelligence isn’t enough. You may wrongfully identify others’ emotions based on your cultural interpretations of those emotions. 

Cultural intelligence (CQ®) is the only way to effectively understand someone from a different cultural background. With CQ, you have a growing repertoire of tools and strategies for reading a situation, discerning if and how culture may be influencing the situation, and then determining the best strategy for responding respectfully and effectively. 

In the meantime, watch how this cultural value plays out over the holidays. Different family members have different orientations on Neutral vs. Affective communication styles as well as people from different parts of the country. And if you’re traveling, keep yourself occupied in the security line by identifying whose Neutral and whose Affective. And if someone cuts ahead of you, it’s usually better to start with a more Neutral response and regulate your expressiveness accordingly. 

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You Might Be “Mansplaining” If…

davidlivermore | September 16th, 2019 No Comments

David Livermore Interviews Amy Heaton, PhD

Ever since I heard about this idea of mansplaining and its close cousin whitesplaining, I’ve been tripped up by it. Mansplaining is when men feel the need to over-explain something to a woman in a condescending manner. Or it often shows up as paraphrasing what a woman says to others, so they understand what she meant, frequently interrupting the woman so that we men can say it more clearly for the rest of the world to hear… Wait. Did I just mansplain mansplaining? 

I get it. On countless occasions, I’ve watched my male peers needlessly explain what a woman meant as if she isn’t articulate enough on her own. The same thing happens when white people need to explain what a person of color says.

Here’s where I get tripped up. At the core of cultural intelligence is bridging misunderstanding. And a critical part of inclusion is ensuring people understand. So in almost any group conversation, I’m continually scanning the discussion to make sure people know what’s being talked about. If I’m with two friends and one of them starts telling me a story about a friend we both have in common and the other person doesn’t know who they are, I stop to make sure the other friend has a little context. If I hear our staff use insider jargon that I think will confuse someone outside our organization, I suggest different language. 

So now I’m totally paranoid about whether I’m mansplaining. My friend and colleague, Amy Heaton, has a background in Conversation Analysis and Critical Discourse. She’s a Ph.D. linguist who has enriched my understanding of this in previous conversations. So I asked her if we could have a “public” discussion about this.

DL: So Amy. Is “mansplaining” a real thing, or is this just some pop psychology term?

It’s very real, and it happens all the time. When a woman pitches an idea, if someone doesn’t quite get it, instead of asking for further explanation, a mansplainer just ignores your contributions. Then somehow, an hour, week, or year later, he miraculously has the same idea, and he’s convinced it’s his own!. He doesn’t realize you’ve been planting seeds all along. So he comes into a meeting and says, “This morning on my exercise bike, I thought to myself, Hey, we can just do X!!!”

We all need to get better at introspection and understanding the provenance of our creative, new ideas. Who helped you get there? That’s the first step in addressing this.

DL: Okay. I can see that. This kind of self-awareness is something we measure in our CQ Assessment. But can you give me a couple of specific examples of when you’ve experienced mansplaining?

The worst was when we were in a meeting of about a dozen folks, and I pitched an idea that a client immediately nay-sayed. This often happens when an interlocutor doesn’t totally get something the first time they hear it — either it’s too complex of an idea or too far from their current knowledge base. “No no no, we’re not doing that. That would never work. No one would do that.” Then he thinks out loud about what he wants to do, goes on talking for about 10-15 minutes, proposes multiple things, answering himself along the way, and finally lands on EXACTLY the approach I pitched 15 minutes earlier. 

The one I love the most is when men talk about ME when I’m present, purporting to know my thoughts, motivations, and intent better than me in professional spaces. e.g., “Oh Amy just thinks that’s a good idea because of that one time X happened.” Or “Amy is just saying that because she was trained in X and all those people think Y.”

Here’s one more for you. When a client or boss asks you to come in and brief them on your work, but then never lets you get a word in. This happens to me all the time. “Ok, Amy. So what’s going on with X?” I respond with one phrase like, “Well, the project is nearing the end of the Period of Performance, and one of my concerns is that we are not getting the data we originally….” BOOM! I’m interrupted before I even finish one sentence and he continues talking about his ideas and thoughts the entire hour, re-hashing the same things he has been saying, (down to exact examples and phrases) for the last five years instead of ever going back to ask the opinion of the one expert in the room.

DL: I’m annoyed on your behalf just hearing these stories. But how is this a gender thing? Just the other day, someone 20 years younger than me started lecturing me on something I already know a lot about. 

I’m so glad you asked this! People think that mansplaining has to be a conscious manipulation, but it’s not at all – in fact, research shows women interrupt other women twice as much as we interrupt men.

So here’s the key. Whenever we see people from a non-dominant group also contributing to the very oppression of their own group, we know there is a society-wide problem. We have mounting evidence that women are still marginalized in all conversations and discussions in the workplace. Thanks to the work of Jennifer Coates, we have the “androcentric rule,” which basically states that the linguistic behavior of men is seen as the norm. By and large, when women speak as often as men or interrupt as much as men, they are perceived as speaking too much, being too aggressive and bossy. 

Recent analysis of 155,000 corporate conference calls showed men speak a whopping 92% of the time! 

We’ve all been interrupted by an annoying know-it-all. But what makes it mansplaining is the cultural and societal background in which the conversation occurs. It kind of reminds me of the other question we both often get: “How come it’s not considered racist when a Person of Color does something to slight me?’ Oh BOY! We know that both racism and gender norms have critical structural power imbalances that we simply can’t ignore. The fact that men speak so much more than women in general in the workplace sets the stage for anything less than actively changing discourse norms to make more room for women’s voices or ideas to be mansplaining. 

DL: That’s extremely helpful. And it’s a good reminder that this is never solely about the words themselves. It’s the meaning associated with them based on the context, the communicators, and so much more.

So help me out here. I might be mansplaining (or whitesplaining) if….

  • You speak on topics where you are not the known expert in the room. You’re particularly susceptible to this if you are the person of the highest status in the room.
  • You’re interrupting, talking over, or nay-saying a female or person from another marginalized group rather than allowing them to finish their thoughts.
  • Overall, you talk far more than your colleagues from other backgrounds.
  • You are summarizing other peoples’ words or ideas for them without allowing them to do so themselves or asking for clarifications to ensure you’ve adequately captured their thoughts.
  • You co-opt ideas of marginalized speakers and fail to give credit where credit is due.

DL: Those are precisely the kinds of cues to help us differentiate whether we’re offering a useful explanation (e.g., explaining insider jargon to an outsider) or whether we’re mansplaining. Thank you!

Finally, what are a few practical strategies to overcome mansplaining?

There’s no need to get overwhelmed or discouraged by this since there are so many clear ways we can each fix this! Here’s a start:

  1. Practice active listening. When someone else is speaking, stop planning what you want to say next. If you’re afraid you’ll lose your train of thought, make notes you can refer to later.

  2. Stop interrupting others when they are speaking. Let people finish their thoughts completely without assuming you know where their statement is heading.

  3. Don’t ever assume you’re the smartest person in the room. Try to learn from others around you and be aware of your status both in the room and in society at large.

  4. Use your power to hold space for others whose voices need amplifying. Ask yourself if you are contributing to the conversation because you have something ONLY YOU know or if someone else in the room might know more than you on the given topic. Provide agreement and ask for clarification of others’ ideas instead of summarizing or essentializing for them.

DL: Thank you, Amy! What a great application of cultural intelligence. You not only expanded our awareness but offered us practical strategies to address this.

Are All White People Privileged?

davidlivermore | June 13th, 2019 No Comments

You can’t have an honest conversation about cultural intelligence (CQ) without addressing white privilege,  the idea that white people inherit certain privileges simply by the color of their skin.

But privilege is not an easy topic of conversation. People on all sides of the issue quickly become emotional and defensive. People of color are fatigued by having to prove the point to white colleagues while many white people feel anything but privileged and experience what Robin DiAngelo refers to as white fragility.

Are all white people privileged? It depends on how you define privilege. You knew you would get that kind of response from me, right? But hear me out.

Imagine you grew up in a very poor, white family. One reason J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Ellegy resonated with so many people was that he offered insight on what it means to grow up poor and white. His family struggled with poverty, domestic violence, moving from place to place, and navigating the welfare system. His ancestors were day laborers in the southern slave economy and eventually, coal miners, machinists, and mill workers. They’re referred to as hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash by the dominant culture. To be clear, that’s not the same as a history characterized by being forced to the U.S. as slaves, but it’s a perspective worth considering.

Even most middle class, white people don’t easily embrace the idea that they’re privileged. It’s not like someone knocked on their door and handed them their college degree, job, or home. And yet what are the invisible benefits they experience day-to-day that stem from a long history of privilege?

A 1,200-word article won’t do justice to such a complex and highly sensitive topic. But here are a few guiding principles for making the conversation about privilege more productive.

1. White privilege is real.

It’s impossible to deny that being born with white skin affords certain unearned privileges. White privilege is knowing I can walk into a restaurant, use the bathroom, and leave without buying anything, and it’s unlikely that anyone will say anything to me about it. It’s knowing I can go to the front door of my house and not have someone ask me if the homeowner is around. It’s the confidence that I can turn on the TV and see people who look like me. I not only experience the benefits of white privilege in the U.S., I encounter it almost everywhere in the world.

It’s not that you’re privileged if you’re white. It’s that being white is a privilege. A white kid growing up in a poor trailer park living next door to a black kid growing up in the same environment has fewer barriers to worry about than the black kid does. But I’m not suggesting that’s the approach to take with struggling white families. Read on.

2. Privilege exists on a spectrum.

Who is more privileged? A white single mom living on welfare or a black, married man with a professional job? It depends! Both have some privileges the other doesn’t have. Ethnicity and skin color are an essential part of the discussion about privilege, but our understanding of privilege must be broader to include other dimensions of identity. Kimberly Crenshaw’s notion of Intersectionality allows us to see that people can be privileged in some ways and not in others. Skin color is one of the most significant variables of privilege, but there are many others. “Privilege” is anything you are born into, not things you earned. Your privilege often has a direct impact on the opportunities you get.

Consider how you would score on the spectrum of privilege in light of these indicators. A person born with most of these identity traits has the most power in most contexts:

  • Citizenship: Born in a stable, developed country
  • Social Class: Born into a financially, stable family and zip code
  • Skin Color: Born white
  • Sexual Orientation: Born straight
  • Sex: Born male
  • Ability: Born able-bodied/minded
  • Gender: Born cis-gendered

This is by no means an exhaustive list. And I’m not suggesting we should start tallying privilege points. But our discussions about privilege desperately need a more nuanced approach that acknowledges numerous factors that influence privilege. It’s reductive and insulting to reduce any individual to a single story. Privilege exists on a wide spectrum.

3. Don’t dismiss someone’s struggle.

Last week my daughter Grace was in a serious cycling accident. It took an emergency rescue team five hours to get her to the hospital, followed by a lengthy surgery overseas. She’s now on a long road to recovery.  All indicators suggest she will fully recover. The same day of her accident, another girl her age fell in the same forest, broke her back, and will probably never walk again. When my daughter was lying in agony, I didn’t say, “Well, at least you’re not like this other girl who will never walk.” Minimizing someone’s pain and struggle by telling them someone else has it worse is not only ineffective; it lacks compassion and empathy.

In a similar way, screaming that your privileged to someone who grew up in a trailer park with a single parent is tone deaf. Only in very specific circumstances would any reasonable person ask a white person in abject poverty to consider their white privilege. My daughter herself later reflected on how fortunate she is that her accident was not worse. But in an attempt to build awareness and foster perspective-taking, we should always avoid dismissing the reality of someone’s struggle and unique story.

4. Dialogue and reflection work better than debate.

It’s inarguable that white males have privileges others don’t have. But it’s the spectrum of privilege that is most helpful to consider. Debates about who has more privilege put people on the defensive. 30 percent of people feel like you’ve lost your mind when you tell them that their benefits are things that were handed to them. Rather than arguing with someone about whether they’re privileged, structure conversations to move toward reflection about the gradient of advantage they may have had as compared to if they had been born differently. For example,

  • How would your life be different if you had been born a different gender?
  • What about with a different skin color?
  • How would your reality change if you had been born in Sudan?

The point is not to say, “Hey—every aspect of your life is privileged.” That is not true for most people. But we want to get everyone to start thinking about it. The ask for white people is this: Consider the fact that because you are white, there are certain aspects of the world you don’t have to worry about.

5. CQ your messaging about privilege.

Finally, we need to apply cultural intelligence to how we talk about privilege. It’s ridiculous to suggest that white privilege is the same for all white people in the world. It’s equally ludicrous to deny that a white person has certain things they just don’t have to worry about.

Don’t say, “You’re privileged!”. Instead say, “You have access to privilege.”

We need to find the zone of productive disequilibrium where we allow enough discomfort to foster productive reflection and change but not so much that people shut down and feel defensive.

I didn’t choose to be a straight, white, able-bodied male. But I’m ignorant if I don’t acknowledge that I hit the lottery on the privilege spectrum. To be honest, I was leery of writing this article. Who am I to be pontificating about privilege? Our own team at the Cultural Intelligence Center has rigorous discussions about what we all need to consider about this personally as well as in light of our work. My privilege blinds me from certain aspects of this conversation. But the enormous privilege I have makes me all the more committed to engage in meaningful dialogue with others about these realities and to strive toward making the world a more inclusive, equitable place for everyone. I welcome your perspective on this complicated topic.

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