Lessons From Abroad

OPINION: How educators can raise awareness of ‘daily indignities’ that disenfranchised communities endure

Helping students navigate relationships and overcome biases

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Educators have a responsibility to prepare the next generation, find common ground with a diverse group of people and successfully shape the future.

When it comes to diversity education, schools have options.

Exposure to different perspectives early in life is key — challenging assumptions about social norms and understanding the links between everyday life and work. Ideally, the process begins in elementary school.

Consider a woman in your workplace. She may hear a sexist joke four times without ever saying how much it bothers her. Imagine you make an off-color joke one day and it’s the fifth time she hears one. What you consider an overreaction on her part — anger, shock or directly reporting you to Human Resources — is the typical attitude that individuals assume when dealing with microaggressions.

These small, cumulative comments, slights or jokes take on an aggressive character for the receiver that continually points out someone’s difference. What you considered ‘no big deal’ fanned a flame started by others before you. We all grapple with this, and we’ve all created awkward moments where one slip of the tongue said a thousand words. Wouldn’t it have been better to recognize the inappropriateness of that joke before you said it? This is exactly the sort of issue that diversity training explores.

Educators have the power and the platform to raise awareness about the daily indignities endured by others. They can help shine a bright light on things that those blind to their privilege or status are unable to see, from the perspective of others whose point of view was previously invisible.

Related: America’s colleges struggle to envision the future of diversity on campus

What is it like to walk in the shoes of someone whose place in society does not grant him or her the same privileges? What does the person endure that I ignore? How can I pay closer attention to these things? By becoming aware, people might recognize deliberate and accidental offenses — and then they can help their peers see them, too.

Putting students in uncomfortable situations before they get to the workplace can help them better cope in the future. Along with my Grenoble École de Management colleague Gazi Islam and consultant Frank Alain Rouault of Practical Learning, we conducted research on ‘uncanny strangers’ in organizations.

We aimed to determine how people dealt with the foreign and the familiar simultaneously. Essentially, we set up a typical business scenario in which individuals were participating in a meeting with the presence of someone doing strange, unexpected, awkward things as you find when you work internationally — such as individuals taking off their shoes, washing their feet in a tub, talking too loudly on the phone, interrupting frequently, switching to their native language or making loud slurping sounds when eating.

We noted that people have different reactions to the strange, awkward or weird behaviors of others. Some participants ignored the unique behavior, acted aloof and tried to re-establish normalcy immediately. We called this a form of denial and, in the debrief, these individuals seemed to suppress the memory or weird encounter.

Others were passive-aggressive, alternating between demonstrating irritation and actively ignoring the behaviors. We called this a form of rationalization and, when debriefed, they tried to make sense of the behavior.

The final group, which we saw as the most successful in these awkward scenarios, used humor as a means to diffuse the discomfort. We called this a form of ‘positive derision’ and, when debriefed, these individuals were more amused about the ‘weird’ and strange attitudes and recalled the behaviors with laughter and smiles.

Related: Designing ways to move beyond diversity

Experimenting and testing reactions in this way can be an effective teaching method because it enables students to be surprised and uneasy in a ‘safe space’ where the unconventional or unexpected behavior may be less threatening than in the workplace.

Once students gain practice in dealing with such incidents, they will be able to come up with effective ways to handle them in the future and not act according to first impulse. Such experiences prepare students for the inevitable cultural divisions, unique habits and different ideas that they are sure to encounter — and even clash with — in the real world. They may in turn become more sensitive and confident when working in diverse groups.

Creating empathy and gaining deeper insights into another person’s world are the end goals as we navigate our relationships with others. Having students deliberately step into another’s shoes can help.

Sometimes, we wait to avoid interrupting work or until tempers have cooled.

Then, the student who raised the red flag will explicitly state the  problem. This helps people recognize that what works in their familiar environment will not work in all others, and grasp how others perceive them, to adjust their patterns of behavior accordingly. The offending student should either apologize or provide an earnest, in-good-faith explanation.

Communication about the offense in real time is crucial. Ultimately, those involved can grow into both better team players and leaders by learning how to listen to others and take action based on constructive criticism.

Related: Can better transportation increase diversity on college campuses?

In all of these activities, one point is evident: Humor can diffuse tension. Asking questions and being able to laugh at yourself, or a situation in which you find yourself, are great unifiers and diffusers of tensions. These approaches can help teams overcome cultural differences and anger. Students learn to flash smiles, the universal language for moving on and getting along.

For too long, educators and businesspeople alike have paid lip service to diversity. It’s a great concept in theory, but in practice it’s tricky and not necessarily a great thing when people just want to move forward quickly. Diversity often requires compromise, and it takes time.

We cannot expect young people to magically figure out how to navigate relationships successfully with those who are unlike them. They need opportunities to practice using a framework or set of tools. These sometimes challenging, delicate and yet necessary dialogues can begin in the classroom. Diversity training is about a lot more than simply giving students an edge in the job market.

It’s about helping people self-reflect and self-examine, to deepen their self-knowledge. And that knowledge is the key ingredient in improved professional and personal relationships.

This story about diversity education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Michelle Mielly is academic director of the Doctorate of Business Administration program at Grenoble École de Management in Grenoble, France.

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