At a business networking event recently in 21st century ‘post-ethnic’ America, I noticed the same thing I saw in the high school lunch room 25 years ago, and in the college cafeteria: when it was time to sit and eat, everyone self-segregated: African Americans were in their clusters, whites in theirs, and so on.
A few months ago there were a number of studies and articles saying that whites were afraid to talk to people of color for fear of saying something that would be construed as racist. But in the world of business, for example in Chicago, the fear of crossing the cultural divide can rule out 50% of your potential customer base before you even say go.
Rudyard Kipling once said “everyone who is like us is ‘us’ and everyone who is different is ‘them’. But in a business networking situation, everyone is ‘us.’ Everyone is there for purpose of making professional contacts to promote their business. The fact that people are of different racial and ethnic backgrounds is simply a reflection of the world we live in. So, get out of your cultural comfort zone.
- When you walk into a seminar, consciously step out of your culture comfort zone and sit next to someone who is different than you. (This is clearly more directed to me and my ‘fellow’ Caucasians-from observation and tales of personal experience, people of color are more often the minority in these situations, so sitting next to someone different may commonly be the only option.)
- Etiquette is etiquette-being polite and charming is always in style, no matter who you are talking to.
- Exercise your personal power. Know who you are and offer your experience as a starting point for conversation. Who your are and what you do professionally doesn’t change because of who you are talking to.
- Listen. Remember that listening is the number 1 skill to master in effective communications-dialogue is a give and take with both parties having a chance to share.
- Throw assumptions to the wind. Double remember. You know nothing about this person, because you just met him or her. Don’t let your assumptions get in the way of really learning about and appreciating who you are with. This could be the person who will transform your life.
Good, simple suggestion! However, just a warning: Kipling tends to get many people’s backs up, due to his colonial/imperialistic writing.
Thank so much for the insight. From that perspective, I wonder if in the original context the quote was a directive, rather than an insightful observation.
I’m Caucasian, but Muslim, and I wear a head scarf. In March, I attended an education conference in New Orleans. When I entered the room, about sixty people seated at large round tables turned and stared at me. Only one smiled.
The only person who behaved different was the only African-American there. He leapt up from his seat, strode to the door, invited me to join his table, escorted me across the room, and even pulled out a chair for me. He introduced me to the others at the table.
Incidentally, he was the best-dressed man in the room, in a beautifully tailored but conservative business suit. Many of the other participants, theoretically professional educators, were wearing ratty t-shirts and jeans, as though they were going to the park instead of to a professional conference.
This gentleman taught me a lot about public manners. From now on, when I see that someone is different, I’m going to go out of my way to make her/him comfortable, wherever we are.
Thanks so much for sharing this, Anne, and great insight on your resolution or ‘takeaway’ from the experience. If only we all realized our power to spread positive energy with our every action.