Monday, November 02, 2015

Breaking Down, Building On

I am not a fan of stereotypes, but unfortunately they are how we think until we know a person better. They do form first impressions, and we can't stop them. They build up through the things we read, the experiences we have, the people we meet and the way we interact with the world. They can be incredibly misguided short cuts based on patterns that don't exist. Or they can be helpful. Stereotypes make us racist, sexist, homophobic and prejudiced in all sorts of ways. But even once we know that, they seem true if the bubble we are in isn't pricked and so our impressions keep getting reinforced.

Another word for a stereotype for scientists is an 'empirical generalisation'. On average, our experiences may reinforce them because on average they may seem true. The problem is cause and effect is very complicated, and we oversimplify things. We may take something that is related to the cause to be the cause and that can change the whole story.

Less controversial than racial, gender and sexuality issues are cultural stereotypes. The culture I grew up in, a white British influenced bubble in South Africa, had a strong feeling of not faking. An insistence on authenticity. One of the books that I never read growing up because it gave me a 'klein bietjie kots in my mond' (a bad taste) was 'How to Win Friends and Influence People' by Dale Carnegie. Anything that seemed manipulative was a No No. There were lots of chirps about American Brashness. I didn't touch the book and we used the title as a way of sarcastically teasing people who had done something socially awkward.


When I did eventually read the book a couple of years ago, some of the points resonated incredibly strongly. One of the things I had been in strong favour of was probably more of an Afrikaans influence. Perhaps more broad than that. There are lots of cultures where life has been tough. I often think of the cultural similarities between the Zulus and the Boers. They are both proud farming cultures, with tight knit families, fond of dancing and a long history of migration. The Boers crossed the sea to flee religious persecution. The Bantus moved South in a long migration. They landed on the South of the continent. Together. Two hard cultures. Hard cultures that give direct feedback. That believe in hard knocks, strength and toughness.

If you are in a team where ability is an assumed baseline, the belief is that you don't need to give positive feedback. You only want to look for the areas to improve. Being argumentative and pointing out the holes in an argument strengthens them. Telling someone they have done a good job serves nobody. Life is tough. Work hard, treat your mother well, and you'll be a success.

Carnegie argues compellingly, and differently. Negative feedback is largely pointless. Even it is true. Our emotions get involved. Like prejudice. We might not be intellectually biased, but emotions don't stop to think. Actions are led by emotions. As soon as someone criticizes or pokes holes, defence mechanisms kick in. Barriers and Walls are raised. We aren't moving forward. We are trying not to lose ground.

It made me think of Theatre Sport. For things to flow, you have to feed off each other. Each bit needs to build on what has been said. If someone draws a banana like a sword, and stabs you, you have been stabbed. You roll with it. You take their lead, and the story moves on. You don't close it down by pointing out that that banana isn't an effective choice of weapon. 

The Brit in me screams that following 'Theatre Sport' techniques is fake. Not authentic. American. The Boer in me screams that I am going soft. Harden up. The Zulu in me gets the banana stabbing, but will be suspicious that I will be overwhelmed by guns despite my superior banana wielding warrior skills and tactics. If other people don't use Theatre Sport techniques too, won't my arguments just get shot down while I am trying to be nice?


I don't claim to know the answer, but I do think we can get more effective at having constructive discussions. Arguments aren't purely intellectual things. We start with emotions and build logic latter. We need to start learning to listen beyond words, and to build on what people say rather than constantly cutting things down.
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