Picture credit: The Winters Group, Inc.
“I am a well-travelled person. I certainly am not biased!”
“I have many multicultural friends. I do not have any biases.”
“I have lived abroad in many countries. I do not suffer from bias.”
“I have international colleagues. I have a great time working with them. I am not biased.”
“I am studying in an international university. My classmates are international. I am definitely not biased.”
“I have lived abroad all my life. How can I be biased?”
“Our company employs multicultural team members. We are open and welcoming and definitely not biased.”
For a long time, I have given many of these excuses listed above to fiercely defend that I am not biased. In my attempt to confirm the absence of my unconscious biases (or expose these hideous skeletons in the closet), I went on an experiment: I booked myself in a 4-bed female dormitory on a trip to the US. I have never stayed in a dormitory before or shared a room with strangers, so this was an unfamiliar experience for me. The unfamiliarity was an important criterion, considering I wanted to study my reactions to new settings and people and thereby discover biases I may or may not have.
Now, I come across as a very friendly, outgoing person who makes friends quite easily. I have a proven track record of making long term friendships and am quite loyal to those I call friends. My closest friends are not from my background or race or country. So, this should be easy for me, right? And why call it an experiment when an extrovert like me loves having people around? Well, you will be surprised by what I found out!
I distinctly remember the night I checked in: The entire hotel was dimly lit. There were many people smoking and talking loudly at a bar adjacent to the reception. The place had a motel feel to it although it was supposedly a 3-star eco-friendly boutique hotel. I instinctively clutched my bags tightly as I made my way to the reception to pick up my room key-card. My stomach was in a knot. This was unfamiliar. I was uncomfortable. I rode the dimly lit elevator to the 9th floor. It opened into this dimly lit narrow aisle with brick red painted walls. I hesitated and held my belongings even more tightly as I reluctantly made my way to my room. The warning alarm bells in my head desperately resounded citing imminent danger ahead. Tangible reason enough to quit this experiment already.
The other three room- occupants were already in their bunker beds when I arrived. I was uneasy. Paranoia took over. Who was sleeping on those beds? Was I sharing my room with a thief? A psychopath? A terrorist? The women had left the room lights on, so I unpacked my things, changed into my pajamas and was on my way to my bunker bed when one of the room occupants got out of her bed and was busy looking for something in her bags. She smiled hesitantly when she looked at me. I was not sure if I wanted to smile back. I had fear written all over my face! Who was she? I looked at her and my mind was ticking away-so audibly that I heard it and suspect she did too. “She looks like she is from Thailand (now how on earth did I know that so precisely?!!), must be a student! Why is she so friendly?” I was simply dumbfounded how quickly my brain sized her up without us speaking a word! I was suddenly suspicious. Whatever happened to my social skills at that moment?! I did not offer up any conversation. Not wanting to let my bias look obvious, I managed a fake smile and made my way to my bunker bed. My heart was racing. My brain was ticking away at the speed of light with permutations and combinations of crazy thoughts and assumptions.
Incidentally, I slept that night with a bag holding my precious belongings perched right next to my pillow. I could not figure out the lock the receptionist had given me for my locker in the room, so I decided to watch over my belongings that night. I could barely sleep although my bunker bed was very comfortable (It was a 3-star hotel, remember?!). I texted my husband that I did not fancy the hotel. I preferred a room to myself with no one unfamiliar to share it with. He wrote back, “Did you meet the others in the room?” I said I did meet one Thai girl but did not dare speak with her (again remember it was just my assumption! I had not bothered to ask her at all) “Why do you decide without getting to know them? Take a call in the morning!” he advised.
Despite my husband’s best efforts to prod me to continue with my ‘experiment’, my thoughts and activities meandered to all sorts of unrelated places that night-from searching the booking.com portal for potential single occupant rooms in nearby hotels (I nearly booked twice!) to trying to empathize feelings of the homeless in shelters to unwarranted trepidation about my room occupants. I barely slept. Around 5 am my room occupants were awake, packing their bags. My extra sensitive ears picked up on the sound and I was not sleeping too. I instinctively held my bags close and listened, armed with nothing but a pillow to defend myself should the inevitable happen (seriously, what was I even thinking?!) All my room occupants left by 6:30 am. I made my way down the bunker bed like a mouse waiting in hiding for the house occupants to leave so it can freely foray on a treasure (er, food!) hunt! I was surprised at my unexpected happiness! With my room occupants gone, I decided to stay another night. I got dressed and headed out.
I returned that evening to find one roommate in her bunker bed. I had previously presumed they were all gone. When I caught sight of her, I stared at her like a deer staring at blinding headlights, frozen on its tracks. She looked frightened too at the sudden appearance of this very Asian looking woman before her, unsure of what to say. After uneasily eyeing each other, I mustered a smile, extended my hand and introduced myself. She did the same. I noticed she tried to size me up. I helpfully offered “I live in The Netherlands, not in India.” (as though that even mattered!) But with just that measly piece of information, I noticed she looked rather relieved. In fact, she smiled even more warmly. I learned she was a student who was living in different hotels/ dormitories over the duration of her short-term university course. She seemed nice and no warning signals rang in my head (Perhaps my fatigued, overthinking brain went on ‘silent protest’ mode) Yet I slept a second night holding my precious belongings in a bag close to me. Interestingly, so did my room occupant!
We had a third person join us in the middle of the night. I was awake again hearing sounds in my room and my mind began ticking away mechanically sizing up this unknown person. By this time, I had figured out the safe’s lock and unashamedly stuffed some of my other prized possessions into the locker that evening. I briefly met the third occupant during the wee hours of my final morning in the room. In fact, I caught her by surprise when I emerged from the bathroom-we had both not met each other before so the sight of a stranger in a small, private space can be quite startling! We stared at each other like frightened bunnies but I recovered quickly and informed her I was leaving that morning.
I was in no state of mind during my stay at the hotel to think objectively. Strangely, none of my extrovert, friendly personalities surfaced during my stay. Only a different ‘me’ I was never aware of!
We are all creatures of habit that like things and people that look or feel familiar. Anything or anyone that looks or feels unfamiliar is uncomfortable. Unconscious Bias most often stems when people are thrown into settings where they face situations and people that are foreign or different from what they know or are comfortable with.
Unconscious Bias rears its ugly head even in the workplace: it is the chief reason why some hiring managers end up recruiting people who are ‘like’ them or possess some ‘familiar’ qualities they can relate to. Unconscious Bias is why some companies are comfortable retaining people who look/act just like them. It prompts hiring, promoting and retaining of less favorable candidates. It leads to more deserving candidates miss out on opportunities to grow their career. It hampers inclusion in a diverse workforce thereby adversely affecting innovation and financial performance of the company.
Starbucks was recently on the news because of an incident that involved an employee notify the police because she was uncomfortable to see two African-American men waiting within the premises of a Starbucks facility. This garnered plenty of media attention. Starbucks promised to tackle this issue by offering their entire staff a day long training on Unconscious Bias. So, does this bias go away with just a day’s training? Simply stated: no!
It is not enough to generate awareness of these biases. Much needs to be done to train people to respect differences, accept those who are different, and consciously welcome the unfamiliar. It is an ongoing learning process and cannot be solved within a day or week. These deeply ingrained behavioral patterns that we’ve inherited from our parents, the media, prior experience et al cannot simply go away by waving a magic wand. They have to be consciously and consistently worked on.
Back to my experiment: would I share a dormitory again with strangers? Perhaps not unless staying at a dorm becomes a standard during every travel opportunity. I must, however, be persistent and consistent to improve my reaction to my biases each time and address them head-on.
(This article is written by Ms. Helga Evelyn Samuel. It is primarily written to entertain and create awareness on unconscious bias. The contents are cited from personal experience.)
I thoroughly enjoy writing and would like to use this space to write on a wide range of topics pertaining to cross-culture and international business. These blog posts will range from anecdotal personal encounters to latest cross-cultural business issues on the news, personal musings et al.
© Curry & Culture Company 2019