It’s fun to encounter different cultures. Whether through travel or reading we marvel at the differences and share them enthusiastically with our friends. When traveling abroad we look forward to experiencing others and come to expect the oddities. It actually makes our travel experience more invigorating and personal.
But, when it comes to differences in our day-to-day lives others can throw us off. They frustrate us and make life more difficult, causing us to say things like “I can’t believe they thought that,” “do they really enjoy doing that”, “why weren’t they more concerned about what happened”, or “that’s not how I would have done it.” The root cause to all of this is our belief that we are the norm, the standard. We believe anyone who is different from us is odd, lesser than, wrong, or bad.
Bluntly stated though, you are not the norm. Your thought process is different than most people. Your background, lifestyle, political views, and religious beliefs are all different than most people. No matter how you see, do, say, perceive, or think about things, it’s not necessarily the same for others. You’re not always right, good, or better than others. You are who you are and they are who they are. Period.
So, why don’t we naturally see ourselves as the norm? Because we tend to associate and interact with people we are most like. Our friends have the same level of education and affluence, type of profession, and involvement in various hobbies and activities. This lulls us into the simplistic view that everyone else is just like us, making life appear more predictable and causing us less anxiety and fear.
But the reality is there is no one right way, superior perspective, or dominate viewpoint. There is many of each and this is what we must tackle to become better in our professional lives. We don’t need to change who we are, we just need to understand that others are different and that there are rewards to be gained in embracing this reality.
Take Eric who was tasked with leading a project to provide an automated tool for a customer service process currently done manually. This tool would be used by over a hundred customer service representatives in five different regions. He had a handful of team members and a short deadline. Eric interviewed several customer service supervisors to understand the current process and felt he had a firm grasp on the details. His team began designing and building the tool and he made several assumptions and decisions on behalf of the customer service representatives. He felt he could do so because of his detailed knowledge and his proven ability to refine processes. The application was delivered on time and with very few bugs, but it’s acceptance by the customer services representatives was a complete failure. The assumptions and decisions Eric made on the customer service representative’s behalf turned out to be completely incongruent with how they performed their work. As a result the application did not assist the customer service representatives as required in their work environment. Had Eric not believed his assumptions and decision for the customer service representatives were what most people would think and want, he would have pursued their opinions more aggressively and ultimately delivered a well received product.
Not seeing ourselves as the norm and searching out what could be different from how we are will make us better professionals. We will build better products, manage others better, motivate others more effectively, be more tolerant of others, and be less surprised and frustrated when dealing with others. But, it does take some work to get there.
To better understand and embrace other’s differences try taking the Myers Briggs assessment to understand yourself and how others are too. Learn in detail about another profession that is much different from yours. Get involved in an association that has a diverse social economic membership. Put yourself deep into other peoples shoes related to current events and seek to understand how they feel and think thing about the situation. All of this will expand your perspective and cause you to consider more intently how you see, think, and act related to others. You may even begin realizing there are just as may cultural peculiarities within your own country as there are outside of it.