Curiosity Not Furiosity

How to Use 2009’s Big News Items about Race
to Solve Cross-Cultural Problems

2009 had its fair share of news items and bad publicity for organizations with different racial and ethnic groups among its customers and employees.  There were several instances where the cultural “clueless” dynamic was at play.

Here’s my wish for 2010:  that we replace denial with curiosity, not furiosity.

What do a swim club in suburban Philadelphia, the Cambridge police department, and an owner of a hotel in New Mexico have in common?

They all gave the same response to big news items involving them and members of other races.

Why should we care?  Because noticing the pattern in these responses is a great Discovery moment for leaders of multicultural customers and employees.  You can prevent and solve many cross-cultural conflicts by tuning in here.

Did you see these news items in 2009?

  • A swim club that had contracted with a Philadelphia camp for kids asked them not to return after they came on June 29.  The kids and the camp director said some swim club members said, “What are those black kids doing here?” and that members pulled their kids out of the pool when the camp kids came in.  The club said, “Allegations of racism are completely untrue,” citing overcrowding.
  • Remember Professor Henry Louis Gates returning from an overseas trip to his house, and the police coming and asking him to step outside his house?  There is much dispute over whether racial bias influenced the policeman, no doubt.  But what struck me most was that very early on, the head of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association said, “We…reject any suggestion that in this case or any other case that they’ve allowed a person’s race to direct their activities.”  So Mr. Dennis O’Connor, the Association’s President, assured us not only was race not involved in this case, but in “any other case” in Cambridge police history.
  • A new owner took over a hotel in New Mexico.  He decided to lay down some rules:  No more speaking in Spanish in his presence (he thought they were talking about him) and no more “Marcos.” Now it would be Mark – he ordered workers to anglicize their names.  The town and employees were upset, the hotel got picketed, and the AP, among others, picked up the story.  Mr. Whitten, the new owner, said, “It has nothing to do with racism. I’m not doing it for any reason other than for the satisfaction of my guests.”

You can pretty much bank on folks denying that race is involved when, well, race is involved.  Now, of course, in all of these cases, we can debate whether the motivation of the swim club, the policeman, and the owner is racial or not.  But after years of these disputes, aren’t you as tired as I am of that debate?

Here’s what I would call a Discovery moment:  if you are a leader or organization dealing with whether an incident or performance or a denial of a promotion relates to race, or gender, or another cultural or diversity dimension:  Don’t debate!  Don’t try to figure out who’s right.

Say “Hmm, let me think about that.”  Or better yet, “Hmm, tell me more.  How are you seeing the situation?”

This not only makes you more thoughtful and considerate, it gives you time to think.  And furthermore:  it will knock the socks off the person who is speaking to you.  Why?  Because they are likely used to years of these debates, too, and they are probably just waiting to dismiss you when you say, “This has nothing to do with race.”

At home, you can argue these kinds of things till the cows come home if you like.  But as a leader of diverse customers, your job is to expand and serve your customer base, not to drive them off.  As a leader of diverse employees, your job is to motivate them, not alienate them.  In both cases, you want to understand the perspective of your customer and your employee.  If you don’t, in today’s world, you can put your business at risk, as Mr. Whitten, the hotel owner, later admitted:  “What kind of fool or idiot or poor businessman would I be to orchestrate this whole crazy thing that’s costed (sic) me a lot of time, money and aggravation?”

And as I point out in my book, Are You Clueless?, we all have our own cultural background, but I believe we are all essentially clueless to the backgrounds of those whose cultures are different from us.  That would argue, I would say, for a bit of humility as to whether race, gender, disability, or any other cultural dimension is influencing a situation.

So for 2010:  how about a little cultural curiosity rather than furiosity?

For more suggestions on cultural conflict and leading a diverse workforce, go to this page, where you can order the book, or find other tips throughout the site.



Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply