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A Personal Essay on Diversity and Why Every Company Needs It

by | Mar 30, 2017 | HR, Management

I have pretty much always been passionately curious about a lot of things in this world. I enjoy understanding how things work, why people do what they do and how we came to be in the very spot we are in today.

Since I enjoy reading, a regular trip to the library helps feed my need for answers. My daughter and I go to the library without any particular book in mind. We walk through the aisles and pick up whatever looks interesting.

We usually end up leaving with about six books, each varying wildly in topic. I think I love doing this so much because I grew up in a very small town with very limited access to books in general, much less a diverse range of books. So, when I got older and discovered that there was a whole world I knew nothing about, I had to move into high-speed learning just to catch up.

My First World Culture Experience

My first really big experience into world culture came in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school. I was a delegate for the state of Indiana with the United Nations Pilgrimage for Youth program. As part of the program, we went to Washington, DC, Gettysburg, PA, Philadelphia, PA, New York, NY, and Niagra Falls, Canada.

The small town I grew up in was limited in diversity, meaning we didn’t have anyone who wasn’t white. They all had similar backgrounds and upbringing and pretty similar ways of thinking. There were a lot of farmers and the occasional factory worker mixed in.

I remember thinking that people who had an office job were something special. So, when I first saw the big city, I was astounded that such diversity of culture existed and I knew nothing about it. Sure, I had read about it in books and seen it on TV, but I was never truly exposed to it in the flesh.

My eyes wide open could not absorb all there was to see. So many people, so many backgrounds, so many cultures. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this kaleidoscope of people. How had I gone so long without knowing these things? What else was I missing that I just didn’t know about?

The Value of Listening

That summer, I was gifted with a thirst I would never be able to fully quench. I wanted to know more about the vast variety of people and cultures in this big world of ours. What was their story? I wish I could say that I was brave and jet-setted all over the world experiencing different cultures.

But, alas, I am a bit of a wimp when it comes to adventurous travel. I’m pretty sure it’s all that thinking and preparing I do. When I start thinking about all of the hazards of a foreign land and all of the different species of snakes and spiders…I chicken out. I guess I am brave in other ways. So, my curiosity into the lives and worlds of other people has been limited geographically.

I think New York City was for me perhaps the best place to encounter all walks of life. Just about every nation is represented and every socio-economic status is sharing the same sidewalk.

When we take the time to listen to many different stories and life journeys, I think we gain perspective of our own journey–how small our journey has been and how different it is from others, and how others must think the same of my journey compared to theirs.

There is no one right or wrong journey, just different. Yet, somehow, we came to be sitting together having a conversation at that very time in that very place. It really is kind of amazing. Where I grew up, I learned many things, but nothing compared to what I would eventually learn.

In my small world, I was somebody. But, when I saw what was out in the rest of the world, I realized how insignificant those things were in the grand scheme of life. They were valuable to me and those close to me, but all of a sudden, those accomplishments just weren’t enough for me. I think that realization is where my true life journey began.

Acknowledging Different “Norms”

I wanted to reach out to others and learn from them, to grow with them, to create a new path. As I started to experience life from a different point of view, I started to understand how and why people behave the way that they do.

In my early years, I would have thought many behaviors strange and cast a stereotype on those engaging in such strange behavior. As I expanded my mind, I realized that just because something is strange to me doesn’t make it strange to everyone. That person may find their behavior to be perfectly normal within their accepted norms.

Who am I to judge what is right or wrong to them? I think we, as a society, in our limited geographic scope of the planet have groups of accepted norms and try to live by them in order to maintain some type of peace.

As I moved to different states in my adult life, I had to learn to adapt to the local social norms of each new city I lived in. When I moved from Indiana to Tennessee, I had some difficulty fitting in because the social norms were different than what I had been accustomed to.

Up north, calling your female co-workers ‘sweetheart’ and ‘honey’ was just off limits. In the south, it’s an everyday occurrence. At first, I was offended. Then, I had to back away from my personal feeling about those terms and understand them from a southerner’s point of view.

Down south, they are simply polite terms used to describe another person. It is not intended to be demeaning or gender offending (even though it was to me). The person saying it did not view it or intend it to be offensive.

They thought it strange that I was making a big deal out of it. Once I accepted that these terms were part of the local social norm and were not specific to me, I was able to assimilate better into the culture. That and learning to use “ya’ll” frequently.

The same goes for New York City. There is a very strong social code of the personal space bubble. It seems strange that in a highly populated area where you are constantly in each others’ physical space, the norm requires you to respect that space, small as it may be.

It is uncomfortable at first given how small the personal space bubble is, but you can quickly adapt because people expect it from you. You typically don’t make eye contact or speak to someone two inches away from your face. Yet, the personal space bubble remains intact despite the limited amount of physical space between people.

It is fascinating to understand this complex dynamic where public and intimate space proxemics are compressed into one dimension yet, somehow, it all works out. I have found that New Yorkers are quite friendly once you are permitted into the psychological space boundary.

They tend to be very forthright and honest. I never had to question where I stood with a New Yorker, because they would just tell me even if the message was something that might be considered taboo in other settings. I appreciated this type of communication.

Down south, however, I found it difficult to know what others were thinking. The communication, although friendly and welcoming, was always somewhat guarded. There was this perception that you had to be polite to be southern and that prevented some much-needed conversations from being had.

This led to a good bit of frustration since guessing what someone is thinking is still an elusive ability for most people. So, rather than just saying what is going on in their heads, the conversation skirts the issues. Contrary to popular belief, you can discuss difficult topics and still treat others with respect. But those are just my experiences. Others can and do have very different views and that is a very good thing.

Actively Incorporating Diversity

Although I have come to value diversity as a way to expand my understanding of the world around me, many people struggle to truly experience the benefit. We certainly talk a lot about diversity and give it some serious lip service, but I think we usually miss the boat when it comes to taking action. While I don’t think the missed boat is intentional in all cases, I do think we have a hard time letting go of our stereotypes.

Holding on to stereotypes can block our perspective and prohibit fully embracing the value of diversity. Diversity has value from both a personal and a professional perspective. From my own personal experience, diversity has come to mean enlightenment, enjoyment, beautiful variety and an expanded life experience.

From a business perspective, embracing diversity is an absolute requirement if the company wishes to remain in business for long. Consider these two examples:

Company A

Company A has a bunch of people working there who all look similar, think similar, act similar (white, college degree, middle-class families etc…). People usually get along great, but eventually they hit a plateau.

Why? Because people who are too similar lack the ability to stimulate debate and difference of thought in problem-solving. Their intellectual and emotional development maps share too many commonalities to truly come up with innovative solutions. It doesn’t mean they are bad people or bad employees. It just means they are limited by their collective history.

It’s like spending your whole life coloring with only blue crayons. Even when you find out that there are all of these amazing other colors to choose from, you still feel most comfortable with blue.

Company B

Company B, on the other hand, has been playing with the whole box of crayons. Every color you can imagine. They have a very eclectic group of people. Men and women, black, white, yellow and red. Different walks of life, colorful and unique journeys and experiences all brought together in the place called work.

Some pretty amazing things happen because there are many different perspectives brought to the table. Sometimes the debates can get intense, but that debate sparks an idea in another person that simply didn’t exist before.

The reason these drastically different ideas come to the table is because each person in this very diverse group had drastically different life experiences. These unique experiences shape who we are and create value to the companies embracing diversity as a business must.

Final Thoughts

I have long enjoyed the benefits of diversity. It doesn’t mean I agree with everything every person says, but I enjoy looking at the world from different perspectives. In order to accomplish that, I must be surrounded by those with a journey different than my own.

It has not always been comfortable, but it has always been fruitful. It has always been well worth the leap and conquering my own fears has lead to a life full of wonderful variety.

Over to You

How are you actively trying to incorporate diversity into your life? Is your company making diversity a priority? If not, how can you help them view it as important? Comment below and share your thoughts!

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