Gauging Personal Bias: How We’re Blinded By Experience

Many of us consider bias to be an ugly trait, even when we’re referring to our own biases. But rather than suppressing our individual biases, it’s a wise idea to investigate them and learn to be aware of how these unique ways of seeing the world influence our mind and actions. If you read my recent article Expanding On Empathy: Why Bias Is Part of Your “Terroir”, it hopefully became a bit clearer to you that when you acknowledge bias instead of blacklisting it, you gain a better understanding of the people in your life, especially those you work with.

Expanding on the concept of personal terroir, let’s take a close and at times humorous look at the biases that result from diversity in customs, traditions, linguistics and delicacies, all of which exist in the United States but vary based on locale and/or ethnicity. It’s remarkable how what might seem obvious on the surface can be more elusive than we had imagined, creating a special lesson about bias we could all learn from.

What’s For Dinner? When you think of the big weekend family meal, what comes to mind? For me it’s matzoh ball soup, potato pancakes and apple sauce, while for you it might be Grandma’s Sunday gravy with rigatoni, meatballs and sausages. For another, it could be dressing up for dinner and heading off to the country club. These each meet the definition of a family meal but make for completely different experiences depending on tradition.

Courtesies and Niceties: If you were a guest at the home of a Korean American family and you finished the food on your plate, it would be of concern to the host, as it would imply they hadn’t served you enough food. By contrast, in a Japanese household, it’s polite to finish your food, indicating to the host that you were pleased with the meal. Meanwhile, in certain Asian American cultures, a burp is in order after a meal to express satiety— a move that would be considered rude to almost everyone else. And don’t forget about those greetings and salutations. Depending on the culture, a handshake versus a bow can mean the difference between respect and offense. So does the amount of eye contact you make, if any at all. Again, subtle differences in tradition make for huge contrasts in personal terroir that require empathy to comprehend.

Geography Lessons: It’s amusing and amazing how location affects the way we show up in the world. We think of being American as part of our heritage, but where in the US we live and who our neighbors are certainly affect our biases. Using another food example, take the word “barbeque”. When you hear it, which flavor sensations arise in your mind? For many, it’s the sweet, smoky, tangy, porky flavors of Texas BBQ. For someone else, it’s the soy/sesame/ginger/garlic interplay of Korean barbecue. And for others still, it’s the bitingly-hot, spice-driven Eastern intensity of Indian Tandoori. And the contrasts even transcend barbecue. My sandwich is someone else’s wedge is someone else’s hoagie is someone else’s grinder is someone else’s submarine. Is that carbonated soft drink you’re enjoying a soda or a pop?

Expecting The Unexpected: Imagine a colleague of yours who heads up a sales team that consists of the Americas. What do you suppose her biggest bias challenge is? Here’s a hint: It isn’t the ethnic and linguistic differences between South American nations and NYC. It happens to be the geographic extremes of California and NYC in terms of lifestyle pace! Who could have predicted that?

You see, in sorting out personal bias, just as important as ethnic and racial differences is societal influence. People experiencing American life in different social classes, for instance, are exposed to different opportunities and see the world through contrasting lenses. This is a hidden challenge for people who manage to change social classes at some point in their lives, because it’s not as blatant as changing geographic location. There are various unwritten rules in every class, and to complicate the issue, these rules vary geographically and ethnically.

When getting a read on these everyday examples, it’s revealed how we each see the world differently and are just scratching the surface of piecing together the puzzle. With this, I pose a challenge to you to “zoom out” and try to get a better perspective on the assumptions you make due to your biases.

In my next article, we’ll continue the exploration of personal terroir by looking at gender-derived bias.