30 Sep

Cable Three: Triggers and Overt Discrimination

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”                –Abraham Lincoln

The world now is giving us plenty of reasons to feel we are caught in the “stormy present.” Even when we are not the targets of racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia or the tempestuous divides in politics, this climate of divisiveness produces a sense of anxiety because we don’t feel safe.  When you are the target of overt discrimination, it is even worse.  So let’s understand just what is going on in a cultural collision and what to do when we get triggered.

At the beginning of any relationship, information is shared about what role the other is playing in relation to us and often we assume what to expect from the other person based on their role.  Looking from the perspective of a newcomer coming on board in an organization, there is usually an orientation. Still, it can take from 9 months to 2 years to learn the invisible rules of an organizational culture, and the way this learning takes place is usually by the new person’s making mistakes, especially in regard to breaking the unwritten rules. Usually, a small rolling of the eyes is enough to stop the newcomer from risking the same behavior twice. A sharp word will teach the newcomer not to offer ideas without following the unstated protocol. Our desire as humans to assimilate and fit in is so strong that we can learn from these social cues extremely quickly.

So, you know you are in a cultural collision when your first response is anger, shock, or laughter. A strong emotional “trigger” in the moment lets you know you have bumped up against an unexpected response or circumstance. Once one of these reactions comes up, pause, take a deep breath, and be aware of what is happening in that moment. Were you insulted by a slur or an ethnic joke? Were you the victim of false assumptions or over-generalizations about yourself—“women are just emotional like that” or “people with British accents are snobs?” To diminish the barriers, recognize the underlying patterns of culture and experience that are at play. The shift is from an amygdala hijack of reactive emotions to the neocortex of centered responsiveness.  Continue breathing consciously. Be very present—and one way you can do this is to become aware of the feeling of your feet on the floor. Then ask a question such as, “I am not sure I heard you correctly. Can you help me understand what you are saying?”

Language was invented to ask questions. Answers may be given by grunts and gestures, but questions must be spoken. Humanness came of age when man asked the first question. Social stagnation results not from a lack of answers but from the absence of the impulse to ask questions.” –Eric Hoffer