Monday, June 1, 2009

Be Careful What You Hear

Another guest post from another talented ZMF colleague - enjoy! Talk soon, TZ
Effective communication relies not only on good listening, pronunciation of words, and reading nonverbal signals; it also requires awareness of assumptions that exist among us. Factoring in subconscious stereotypes and effective communication can get a little tricky. What made me think of this was a recent encounter I had while walking my dog.

So, I was walking my dog, and another guy was walking his, and as many city dwellers would not be surprised to learn, the two dogs sniffed each other and I engaged in small chit chat with the other dog's owner. Then a third guy was walking past us, without a dog, and seemed to have an important message to relay.
He approached both of us, sounding not frantic but concerned about danger lurking. He said what sounded like, "Watch out across the street over there (he pointed) because there's black guys." The guy I was talking to and I were dumfounded. I know racism still exists in society but I could not believe this guy (by the way we were all white, except for the other dog owner's dog), in downtown Chicago, would find it alarming there were black men walking the streets, let alone feel the urge to warn others about this. I sought clarification. Again he said, "Be careful if you walk in that direction there's some black guys. Stay away." This couldn't be. Just as I was about to ask him where he was from to try and get a sense of why he was petrified of black guys, and enable me to warm up to my lecture on the stupidity and ugliness of his comments, he said it again but this time his nonverbals suggested he was saying something else. As he pointed to the ground, and made a gesture showing what could happen on an unsteady surface, he said, "The black ice is really bad." Plus, he said it in singular form which made me realize he was talking about black ice. Ah, black ice! The ice without air bubbles that makes it transparent and hence taking the color of the material it lies on top of – often wet asphalt.
After realizing he was being helpful and not ignorantly hurtful, I thanked him and did not walk over in the direction he said contained black ice.

Thinking about it all I was struck by the misperception both of us dog owners had about what the third man was trying to warn us about. Was there a larger collective unconscious at work creating stereotypical (negative societal stereotypes about urban black men being dangerous) images out of what was a warning of danger? Or, did the third man just have poor pronunciation, which led to such a bad misunderstanding? Or both? Would his message have been interpreted differently if he were black? Or a woman? How does the "who" involved in communication interact with "what" is being said, heard and interpreted? The other guy with the dog also heard “black guys.” So, was it simply the way he said it that led us to think he was talking about black guys? Is there some unhidden stereotype of black guys that is evoked when a stranger comes up on the street and has a message of foreboding danger?
Listening is important and being aware of biases is too. I conclude that many times during daily interactions that consist of listening it is imperative to “check in” with those you are communicating with. Thinking through what you are hearing, and weighing it against nonverbal language, facts, etc., is key to not making rash judgments. I initially thought this guy was ignorant at best and racist at worst, so what if I hadn’t waited and decided to immediately confront his "racism?” That would have been a useless exercise and made me appear as if I was blindly looking for racism where it didn’t exist. So with that I say not only listen carefully but make sure there is some oversight to your listening by thinking about unchecked assumptions. Oh, and watch out for the black ice!

Alan Tuerkheimer, M.A., J.D. utilizes his background in psychology and law as a litigation consultant for ZMF. His experience conducting jury research has given him an in-depth understanding of people’s attitudes, biases and decision-making processes. He is highly sought-after due to his ability to deliver solutions that bridge the communication gap between trial team and jury. Alan earned his J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School and completed his graduate and undergraduate work in Psychology from Connecticut College and University of Wisconsin, respectively.

No comments: