The Variation Within All of Us

I attended a panel session a month ago that featured leaders in my company who have worked abroad in some capacity. They’ve been sent to Russia, the Middle East, China, Poland, South Africa, India, to name a few countries. They shared advice on how to initiate the conversation with managers and HR if we are planning on designing an international career for ourselves.

To me, what was remarkable about the insights they shared had nothing to do with their professional experiences, even if that was what the primary reason I was at that event. The stories they shared– such as being an uncomfortably noticeable Caucasian woman in China, or being stared at as an Asian woman in Russia– resonated with me because it drew a parallel to what minorities struggle with right here in the States. And by minority, I am not necessarily referring to race. I’m referring to groups of people who live on the periphery, on the margins, due to situational factors that group them outside of the mainstream, such as religion, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. Jewish people, gay people, minorities, women– these are some example of people who live on the sidelines, which gives them a different experience of life than the rest.

I’m not sure if the panelists– most of whom were Caucasian, a representation of the makeup of the agency– were aware of this. The hypervisibility, singularity and objectification they felt were part of what psychologists call acculturative stress, as they adapted to a new culture and worked through the changes of an environment dissimilar from their own. I think its good for people who have grown up as part of the majority to have this experience, especially those who were raised in America. Individuals who led a relatively comfortable upbringing in a place where the dominant culture is their own, who enjoyed the privilege to be themselves and were spared from being the recipients of negative feedback when expressing their opinions because they are perceived to command and dominate.

In marketing, this acculturative stress is akin to experiencing fatigue when thrusted into a new environment, in which schemas are not readily apparent and have to be observed in order to understand. The indicators of “culture” that become invisible to us when we’re acculturated to a particular environment, such as jargon/slang, popular entertainment, worldview, etc., become barriers to those who are trying to adapt to our environment because to them, these “invisible”   markers of culture stick out. They are hypervigilant of these things and they receive it as separators that stand between them and everyone else. They start seeing themselves as the “other,” and this “otherness” is further fed by the majority group’s feedback toward these individuals, whether through stares or call outs of different mannerisms as “weirdness,” which causes them to further draw a line between them and the rest.

What I described above is not only relevant in racial situations, but rather, it occurs when someone enters a new group that has a dominant culture different from their own. A country girl who moves to the city. A child who grew up in poverty who is placed among kids who grew up privileged. An employee who enters a different industry. Someone who grew up in a diverse environment and moved to some place homogenous.

I notice that as a society, we attempt to be politically correct and avoid acknowledging sensitive topics such as race. We are afraid of pointing to someone different because we don’t want to single them out. We pretend life is a random walk, where we imagine things in the set are wildly varied, and we stop there. Sometimes, environments have little variation, which make us deluded when we imagine that environments are diverse. And when there is some level of variation, we don’t appreciate the individual tiles that make up the mosaic. What we fail to acknowledge is the culture in which an individual identifies with is central to that person’s identity. When we disregard someone’s race, we miss a big part of what makes that person distinct. We fail to see the whole person, in favor of what is convenient.

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