Gauging Your Personal Microclimate: How Bias Can Be Elusive

Men are from Mars and women are from Venus. It’s been said a million times and was written about extensively by John Gray in his 1992 book of a similar title. And if you read my recent article What Planet Are You From: Dissecting Gender-Derived Bias At Work, you’ll have a clearer understanding of how everyone’s personal lens, including around colleagues, is filtered with the bias of one’s own “terroir” as a woman or a man. This fascinating study demonstrates that not only does gender prescribe how we communicate with the opposite sex in the workplace, but that it’s up to women to take initiative to mend the disconnect and empathetically inform men about their bias-derived misbehaviors toward women. I hope you’ve been brainstorming about taking ownership in this call to action!

Our personal terroir is composed of many determining factors, which I often liken to wine vineyards. For instance, rows of Pinot Noir grapevines planted in a specific soil-type on a unique hillside located in a particular climate zone will translate to unique flavors in the resulting wine, differing dramatically from that of Pinot vines grown elsewhere in the world. But as is often the case, the vines at the other end of the same vineyard might yield dramatically different wine as well— the result of a real phenomenon called a microclimate in that section of the land.

For humans, our personal “microclimates” often dictate the biases we carry with us through life and the ways in which we empathize with others. Even people who are ethnically, socially and geographically similar, and are of the same gender, can see the world completely differently based upon other unforeseen personal criteria. First, let’s look at just a few examples, both subtle and blatant.

Birth Order

When growing up, each of us takes on a role in our family without even realizing it. Some of these very generalized tendencies might even resonate with you in your family life, particularly the ones related to where you ranked in birth order. For instance, when there are several siblings, the oldest child can sometimes acquire a greater sense of responsibility and feel like she’s always getting in trouble, while the middle child can feel “left out” when observing her older sibling reaping the benefits of seniority and her younger sibling getting all the parental attention. Youngest kids, or “last-borns”, are said to feel unimportant or less intelligent during their childhood experiences and sometimes express resentfulness, while the “only child” (one who never has siblings) doesn’t get used to sharing, often displaying an unwillingness to do so with her schoolfriends. And this doesn’t even delve into the complexities of being the sibling of a special-needs child.

Each of these circumstances creates the microclimates of our personal outlooks, as they transcend the cultural commonalities we share with our siblings. Studies even reveal that these microclimates translate into the social tendencies we acquire in our adulthoods.

Parenting Style

Our parents’ philosophies and attitudes were profoundly responsible for sculpting our personal microclimates during our upbringing as well. Politics, religion and popular culture each combined to establish the specific place-and-time terroir that inspired our folks’ approach to parenting. We all know the different types. Parents with traditional leanings, for example, might feel uptight about modern social issues, while more open-minded parents welcome the new. In each scenario, we as their kids were impacted differently, and as a result either adopted their worldviews or chose the opposing direction.

Then there’s the child of a single parent, who may have taken on great responsibility in her childhood regardless of her birth order, having become comfortable with care-giving to siblings. Also to be considered are the children of gay parents, adoptive parents, parents with profoundly higher education, and parents who are immersed in the military service and its culture. All of these factors lend themselves to our bias miroclimates in undeniable ways, transforming bias from a dirty word to something as involuntary as breathing or yawning.

A Terroir Experiment

So how can we expect our personal microclimate to affect our empathy in the real world? There’s a simple exercise you can conduct with colleagues, work friends or family that can shed some light and illustrate how seemingly similar people can have such contrasting worldviews. Write a word like “self-awareness” or “respect” in the middle of a piece of paper, and then create 6 lines radiating away from the word like the spokes of a wheel. Ask each person involved in the exercise to take two minutes to write what that word means to them at the end of a spoke. Afterwards, discuss the differences that arise. Ask these folks to share some stories that get to the “why” of the matter. Acknowledge what surprised you. Keep in mind that anything goes; with one group, the word “porcupine” came back as what “trust” meant to them!

As you witness more and more people seeing the world vastly differently from your view, you may find yourself getting curious. Eureka! That’s a great stride towards empathy. In my follow-up article, I’ll offer some new insight on HOW to build your empathy muscle.