Just about every element of the human response network is subject to the nature vs. nurture debate. And in almost all cases the answer is that a balance of the two is at play. Sometimes one is dominant and sometimes the other is. As for prejudice and discrimination, I was convinced that it stands as an excellent example of a character trait in humans that is fully the result of nurture and has nothing to do with nature. Surely we are not wired at birth to discount other human beings based solely on attributes of themselves in which they have no choice (i.e. gender, race, skin color, etc).
I heard a story recently from a woman who once overheard a conversation between two young girls who are cousins. The first, who I will call Jennifer, (names have been changed) was visiting Julie. Julie lived in a neighborhood that was, ethnically speaking, moderately diverse. Jennifer on the other hand was born and still lives in a community that is not diverse by comparison.
One day while Jennifer was visiting her cousin Julie, a neighborhood friend of Julie’s (Susan) came over to ask Julie to play. Susan is a foreigner and has physical attributes different from both Jennifer and Julie. Julie is amiable to the idea but Jennifer pulls her aside and asks her not play with Susan.
The woman sharing this story with me was nearby during this exchange between Julie and Jennifer. She inquired as to Jennifer’s reason for denying Susan the opportunity to join them. Her response was troubling. “Well, she does not look like us.” What makes this so troubling is that Jennifer’s upbringing has to this point been completely void of any exposure to discrimination of any kind. So what would possibly provoke such a remark? If not nature (we are not born discriminatory) and not nurture (discrimination and prejudice was never demonstrated in the home) then what might have provoked such a remark. I suggest the environment – apart from either nurture or nature – is at work here. At some point in our lives, we seem to grow less fascinated with what’s new and begin to feel awkward around things that are different. It is oft said that people resist change. Yet, as infants, we can’t get enough of it. We marvel at everything. What happens to alter this? When? How?
The way I visualize this is that what we know to be true is neatly packaged and contained in a circle (or sphere for the more 3-D minded). This is our “paradigm environment”. Very early in life that circle or sphere is very elastic and designed to stretch and grow. As we absorb the world around us, more is drawn into our circles and spheres and they become larger. And, that which fills our circles and spheres enters rather unabated since the entire world is new. Possibilities really are endless. As we age and influences from our very close environment (immediate family) and later a broader environment (school and friends) become more routine and predictable, something happens to our circles and spheres. They become a little more rigid and expansion requires more effort. In my analogy, what exists inside our circles and spheres is what we have developed the capacity to accept as something known. That which lies outside our circles and spheres are things for which we haven’t the capacity to allow as something known. Our response is usually to dismiss it as incorrect, unusable and without value.
Now back to our story of Jennifer and Julie. Jennifer, you recall, was not too terribly charmed by the notion of playing with Susan due to noticeable differences in appearance. Also, where Julie has known Susan for a few years, Jennifer has never had the opportunity to be exposed to too much diversity on a regular basis. The absence of such an experience has indirectly influenced the shaping, and to a certain extent the solidifying of a portion of her sphere. (Jennifer has a sphere – she is very spatially astute.)
Now lets carry this line of thinking into our everyday lives and perhaps with focus on our relationships in the workplace. As adults, we tend to dichotomize ‘what is’ and ‘what is not’ for us in the world – what’s inside our sphere and what’s outside. The difference being our sense of what is true and false. The history of humanity is overflowing with moments when significant impasses become debilitating when we either experience or are told of things that squarely conflict with what is inside our spheres. By this time, our spheres (the boundaries of our “paradigm environment”) are so rigidly formed, penetration of whole new ways of thinking becomes extremely difficult.
The very essence of collaboration, a topic in the workplace very near and dear to my heart, thrives on our ability and willingness to allow our spheres to be penetrable and have the plasticity to stretch and grow to make more room for what we might not accept as true today and will become what we will accept as true tomorrow.
In my example above, I used a story that is based in large part on experiences that did occur as told to me by a friend. I found the story very inspiring and thought provoking. It is important for me to note that the both Julie and Jennifer and absolutely wonderful loving children, raised by wonderful loving parents. When I heard this story, I was reminded of the entire notion of discrimination of not only people but also ideas and the perspectives of others. I am convinced that when neither nature nor nurture adequately confronts drivers of what I will call “paradigm discrimination”, we learn that our environment – over which we exert some influence, can help us conquer this debilitating form of discrimination. Knowing this and managing to it are powerful forces not only for effective collaboration but also for our own personal development.
As always, thoughts and comments are welcome.
Thanks for reading. Have a Great Day!