“I don’t know if I did it right,“ Louisa told me. She said she’d overheard her son calling it the “Chinese virus” to a group of friends. She’d pulled him aside and told him, “We don’t call the disease by its country of origin. It could come off as racist. We refer to it as Covid-19.”
Louisa explained that her son was concerned he was in trouble for what he’d said, but she realized that – because he’s only 10 year old – she may’ve come on too strong and wanted to soften her approach.
As parents and teachers, when we’re taken off guard, we can overreact. That’s a normal response. When we realize we’ve come on too strong we can:
- Slow down
- Notice our feelings and those of our child, and
- Get more information
She took a breath and said, “No, you’re not in trouble. We just don’t use words like that in our family and what you said took me by surprise. I was wondering where you got that term from.” He told her he’d heard it in a kids’ Messenger group of friends from school.
She explained to her son she could understand why a person would use that term because the virus had originated in China – and if other people are using a term, it’s natural to pick up on it and use it too.
“You have Chinese friends,” she told him, “and I know you wouldn’t want to hurt them but by using a term that could push them away.” Besides, she said we’re Italian and Greek, and we wouldn’t want somebody to associate a pandemic with your countries of origin, something we can’t do anything about.
Her son agreed, he wouldn’t want that and said he’d be more careful.
She explained to me that they’re raising their kids to be culturally aware. And when she heard him say “Chinese virus” she thought she’d totally failed as a parent. Which is why she’d reacted so strongly. But when she realized she didn’t have the whole story, she calmed down. She said, “I asked if I’d done it right because I want to raise my kids to appreciate people of other cultures and their contributions.
What to do
I told Louisa that she’s on track. A culturally intelligent person appreciates another’s perspective and changes their behavior to show genuine respect. As a parent she had…
- Modeled culturally intelligent behavior for her son by recognizing his concern and softening her approach with him.
- Talked through with her son what he could do to ensure his actions are not alienating to people but instead thoughtful and considerate.
I explained that when I’m in a tricky cultural situation with kids or adults, I keep in mind the acronym “S.T.O.P.”
- S – Slow down
- T – Take 3 deep breaths
- O – Observe my reaction, notice the feelings of the other person and check that everyone is safe. Then, if everything’s cool, I…
- P – Proceed with curiosity and wonder.
Without even realizing it, Louisa had slowed down, taken a breath, felt her feelings of overreaction and noticed her son was worried he’d blown it. Then with an attitude of curiosity and wonder she talked it through with her son.
With an attitude of curiosity and wonder, a parent or teacher can say:
- Where did you learn those words?
- Let’s consider how those words might impact a person.
- If roles were reversed, what would you want a person to do?
To more deeply connect, when your child or teen shares their response, it’s important to hear them out and actively listen so they feel heard and valued.
I explained to Louisa that it’s important she help her son just as she had. When a person calls the disease by the place of origin, like the “Chinese virus,” it puts a face to the blame, and that can negatively influence how we treat people. We need to use words that point to a problem without blaming a group of people.
Louisa was relieved. Later in the day she told me she overheard neighborhood kids using the term and saw the problem was more widespread than she had originally thought. While she was relieved she hadn’t blown it as a parent, she saw we all have more work to do.
The key to greater connection in a family, community or corporation rests on everyone feeling and knowing they are valued, heard and engaged. -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD
When someone is in crisis or the whole world is exploding in pandemics and protests what do you do? Studies show most of us respond by minimizing our differences trying to rationalize the crisis down to nothing, invalidating (often infuriating) the person(s) in crisis. Or we minimize by “me tooing” with our own comparable story or we just plain-old ignore what is happening right in front of us. And some of us decide to polarize by going into denial or opposition. Why? Because we don’t know how to respond.
These five steps help you respond to almost any crisis as a compassionate human being:
- Focus the discussion on the other person: “Would you mind telling me your story and what you’ve come to understand?” Steer away from centering a conversation on yourself (your thoughts, feelings or experience). This conversation is not about you, its about uncovering the root of the crisis and the other person(s) experience, not yours.
- Be a listener and learner in a conversation: “Would you mind telling me more about your experience? What has happened to you?” Steer away from being the speaker and knower of truth. This is not the movies – a white person is not going to solve all the problems with a witty speech.
- Affirm the other person’s experience, even if their experience is different from yours: “It sounds like that was tough for you.” Steer away from sharing what you think is a comparable experience that you have had. Let yourself feel what you are hearing.
- Show compassion as you listen. Follow these 3 Steps.
- Check the impact of your words: “What was the impact of my words on you? Did you feel like I heard you well?” Steer away from being concerned about your intent when you speak, your impact is more important.
When I first started in this work of understanding racism, culture and cultural intelligence as a white woman, I didn’t know how to respond to crisis either. Without knowing how to get it right, I originally thought it would be better to minimize our differences and say nothing at all. But not recognizing a person’s pain, makes the problem worse. It strains a relationship. It hurts the other person. Initially, I just didn’t have enough background knowledge to understand the context of why people protest and how to uncover the cause of people’s pain.
If we don’t know, we need to learn the history and context of people’s pain. There are Anti-racism Resources to help parents, teachers and leaders understand the history of exploitation and context of race in America. For my fellow whites, learning history from this perspective for the first time can be initially heartbreaking and undesirable. But stick with it. Years ago, my mentor suggested that it doesn’t help to avoid it but instead ingest the information at a rate that’s manageable and keeps us in the work; it’s worth it.
I realized I was going to need to know history to engage in culturally intelligent conversations. I also recognized I needed to get to know people who are different from me. How does a white gal from the burbs relate to a black man in the city center? How do you talk with someone different from you at work? How do you be an ally with a person at your place of worship or recreation? The answer is with cultural intelligence.
Cultural intelligence is the ability to appreciate another’s perspective and change our behavior to show genuine respect. When we feel the freedom to talk and learn with people who hold different perspectives and have distinct backgrounds, we become open to new possibilities for relationship, productivity and positive change.
What I’ve learned over time is that central to cross-cultural conversations is the experience of being understood by another. Each of us has a deep need for human connection. Even when my experience is different, I can express compassion. When I do share compassion, I am working to hold space for the other person to authentically show up, be accountable, work through problems and be successful. I work to keep the focus on them so they feel valued and heard.
What we gain by listening
In capitalist societies, competitiveness is a cultural characteristic that, if we’re not culturally aware, can get in the way of productive and genuine relationships. We can get caught up in trying to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong in a conversation.
We can get attached to the idea that someone is a loser and someone is a winner, and we want to win. But in that zero sum construct when one person wins, the other loses. It’s either our loss or theirs; in each case both parties lose the opportunity to build a relationship. People lose connection. Organizations lose productivity and opportunities to innovate.
How we win
We know we’ve really “won” when we feel compassion for our colleagues and clients. The survival and well-being of our organizations depend on our collective well-being, not our individual might.
Our collective well-being develops with one culturally intelligent conversation at a time. It is within individual conversations that we are able to pick up on patterns of how people and employees may be/feel exploited, side-lined or silenced. This is where the power of compassion comes into action.
We can notice, feel and respond to systems within our organizations and community that are marginalizing, silencing or excluding people. These systems may include a lack of quality childcare or public transportation; a lack of compassion toward different religious practices or value systems. No matter what becomes apparent in our conversations, we get to notice, feel and respond with compassion and in solidarity.
While words like compassion, feelings and belonging may resonate with you as words that should be used at home with family or in places of worship, it is the exclusion of these words in our work organizations and greater society that aid in marginalizing entire groups of people, minimizing important experiences we could all learn from and alienating us from innovation that moves us forward in life and business. –Amy S. Narishkin, PhD