Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Blind Spots in Communication

On Thursday's I have class at the Magill Campus, 15 or so kilometers East of downtown. Since it begins at 4, the bus system can get busy as it makes its way through town, but luckily isn't too crowded when I get picked up. As I stepped onto the bus, I saw a few empty seats and sat down towards the front. By the time we were a few stops down the road, the bus was getting pretty full, and people started to stand. This was a bit strange to me, premature, really, since there was an extra seat next to me. I saw a man unnecessarily standing nearby and I wanted to tell him that he could sit down. However, it didn't take long for me to realize that there is no easy way of saying that. After all, maybe he just wanted to stand. Regardless, there's no normal way of communicating that to a stranger on a bus if they don't sit down of their own accord.

In a way, it was completely natural for this person to choose not to sit next to me, assuming he would have sat there if all two seats were available. He, like many of us, have developed this mindset of not wanting to cause me (or anyone else who would have be sitting there) discomfort by sitting in the next seat. The strangest part of all, however, is how people have managed to give him that mindset. What is it about the way we live that caused us to be extremely compassionate to the few that we know, and utterly disregard the ones we don't? This bus ride isn't exactly a great example, but let's say I was an acquaintance of his. Would he have stood there anyways? My guess is no, that he would have sat down to talk to me. Unfortunately, there's a distinct line between how people treat strangers and how they treat people they know. I use the word "unfortunate" because many people seem to regard strangers as competition rather than peers on this blue and white marble floating in the milky way somewhere in the infinitely vast universe. And yet, as soon as that stranger appears to be in danger, we rush to help. As soon as someone collapses in the street with a heart attack, ambulances and firefighters rush to save their life. We have systems set up to help complete strangers stay alive regardless of their income or background and yet it is undesirable to sit next to one of them on the bus. Is it instinctual to be suspicious of those we don't know, of the unknown? Have we evolved to assume that we must be competing for the same assets in life? At what point does a stranger cease to be seen as competition and instead be seen as another human being, complete with their own thoughts, problems, memories, and ultimately quite similar to everyone else on earth?

Humans have this incredible ability to empathize with one another, but this ability is not always as straightforward as it seems. During Crew Resource Management class last week, we watched a video summarizing everything that led up to and caused a particular plane crash. It turned out to be a mechanical failure, but when they interviewed one of the air traffic controllers, he said that after seeing the crash he got out of his seat, went downstairs, sat on the stoop and cried. Here he was, crying over the death of someone he had never known due to a crash that was not his, or anyone's fault. This is human compassion at its finest.

Sadly, this compassion of ours comes with a terribly distinct on/off switch. It is a crime to outright kill a dog in the United States, yet completely legal to go out and shoot a deer. So then, who decided which animals are the cute ones, and which ones are tasty and should be hunted? Many of the laws in our society perpetuate this selective compassion without any of us even noticing. The thing is, many of the nasty things that go on in the world would never happen if there wasn't this blind spot in communication. If we could all somehow know everyone's background, their problems, their lives, what their passions are simply by looking at them, the way people interact would fundamentally change. But the terrible truth to life is that we don't see any of these things by looking at someone. We only the see the way they dress, color of their skin, shape of their body, general attractiveness, etc. If there is one change that could extraordinarily improve the world overnight, it would be to grant everyone the ability to thin-slice their perceptions of others based on the dazzling side of their character rather than their superficial appearances.

I know it's impossible to know any of these things when you see someone on the street, but would it be a bad idea to pretend like you did? The book I'm reading right now is called Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. The main point author Malcolm Gladwell gets at is how decisions made quickly and promptly based on prior intuition can often be as good, if not better than many carefully thought out plans. That many times, haste does not make waste. By avoiding over-analysis we are then able to focus on what originally struck our subconscious' realm of decision making. In this book, there is a section about a successful New Jersey car salesman through the years. As a car salesman, it is imperative for him to judge within the first few moments what kind of customer he is dealing with. For example, is this customer nervous because it's their first time buying a car, or do they know a great deal about cars and would be offended if spoken to with a patronizing tone? Consequently, it was Gladwell's follow up paragraph that struck me most, in which he states, "There is another even more important reason for [the car dealer's] success. He follows, he says, another very simple rule. He may make a million snap judgements about a customer's needs and state of mind, but he tries never to judge anyone on the basis of his or her physical appearance. He assumes that everyone who walks in the door has the exact same chance of buying a car."

That right there is the attitude in which we should regard strangers. As difficult as it sometimes may be, it is absolutely crucial to avoid prejudging people. Given the situation, it is important to get a sense of how the person is feeling and their general mindset, but as soon as these judgments come based on physical appearance alone, all bets are off. Someone you dismiss because they look a certain way could have ended up a close friend, while another who's appearances you were infatuated with could only be there to take advantage of you. Ultimately, this all requires an incredibly open mind. To be able to eliminate all preconceptions and focus on the state of the person in front of you is incredibly difficult tool to access and maintain, but vastly beneficial when mastered.

In Blink, the car salesman assumes that everyone who walks into the dealership has the exact same chance of buying a car, regardless of what they look like. As global citizens, we need to adopt this concept as well. Only instead of people walking into a car dealership, they're walking into our lives.

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