Expanding On Empathy: Why Bias Is Part of Your “Terroir”

Practicing Empathy is difficult because each of us experiences our own reality. This often reduces empathy to a nice-to-have, when in actuality, for a sustainable workplace where inclusion is built into the culture, empathy is a need-to-have. In my recent article I Feel Your Pain: An Empathetic How-To For Today’s Professionals, I created a concise workplace empathy guide, laying out 3 important steps for acknowledging the perspectives of your colleagues. I hope this provided a valuable outlook for anyone who is serious about emotional intellect as it applies to your career.

To expand on this empathetic how-to, a useful analogy is to see yourself as the star of your very own movie. The movie is your life, and the movie set is often your workplace. Next, acknowledge that everyone around you is also starring in their very own movies, and despite sharing the same movie set as yours, the plot and action of their movies is in considerable contrast to yours. This is because every one of us lives quite differently— even folks who are deliberately sharing their lives. Siblings, best friends, even spouses are still pairs of individuals with their own unique realities, despite all the commonalities and proximities they share. Our individual experiences, attitudes, outlooks, beliefs and propensities compose our unconscious and subconscious biases, and the process began even before we were born!

Now remember, bias is not a four-letter cuss word. We need not suppress our individual biases. Rather, we need to investigate our biases and acknowledge and learn to be aware of how these unique ways of seeing the world influence our mind. It is only then that we can begin to see more broadly and gain a better understanding of the folks we spend most of our time with. Let’s use another analogy to bring bias and empathy into focus, this time using the beloved grapevine.

The Classic Wine Analogy

In discussing bias, I often like to refer to everyone’s personal “terroir”. This French term is usually associated with wine grape growing, and acknowledges how the combination of climate, weather, soil composition, altitude and latitude can lend unique nuances to grapes growing in a specific vineyard. Terroir is so crucial to viticulture that it can literally determine whether the grapes will be made into insipid jug juice or into a glorious and sophisticated wine that collectors will trip over each other to spend thousands of dollars on.

When we analogously apply the concept of terroir to an individual person’s life perspective, it becomes clear where one’s biases originate. Our personal terroir affects how we develop socially, how we see the world, and how we are seen in the world. Our race, ethnicity, social class, gender and geographic location converge like the pieces of a puzzle to become our cultural persuasion. For instance, chances are that some of your first familial experiences were influenced by your ethnic heritage, or ancestry. Traditions and superstitions are passed down subliminally through such households, lending familiar meaning to the phrase, “You can pick your teeth, but you can’t pick your family”. Enter: Empathy.

In my follow-up article, I’ll look deeper into these cultural persuasions, and explore a few palpable examples of personal terroir to paint the picture of bias origins a bit more sharply. Between now and then, take 10 minutes to jot down some ideas about what your personal terroir looks like. Wisdom begins from within.