Age old proverbs meet contemporary business and culture
Saturday, 4 June 2016
Don't judge a book by its cover
This week I paid a visit to Ms D, an elderly lady who has cerebral palsy. With the exception of the occasional visit to church she is basically confined to her home. I endeavour to visit her as often as possible to help with chores and complete the odd task. As her eyesight is failing she often asks me to read her mail and prepare documentation. I am not related or obligated to Ms D but it is a joy to be able to carry out this labour of love for someone who needs it. Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth (Muhammad Ali).
During a recent visit Ms D told me about a love affair she had when she was in her 50s. The gentleman concerned was married and a member of the church. She spoke with passion about the relationship which lasted several years until his death some 20 years ago. While I enjoyed our chat I was secretly bemused by the fact that Ms D, as disabled and pious as she was, had participated in such a liaison. I found it difficult to conceive that this lady who has always struggled to walk, lift her arm, comb her hair; with almost incomprehensible speech and other disabilities could attract the attention of an able-bodied man to the point where he had considered divorcing his wife and marrying her.
I’ve been thinking about our encounter and on reflecting on my behaviour, I realised that I was displaying the same attitudes I endeavour to challenge in society – unfairness and disrespect towards vulnerable and disabled people. In effect I saw Ms D as someone unable to love and be loved by a man, simply because of her extreme physical disability, totally disregarding the fact that her cognitive capacity is unaffected. What I failed to realise is that l’habit ne fait pas le moine – French proverb meaning the vestment does not make the monk (don’t judge a book by its cover). Had she been an able-bodied person I would not have found it funny even taking into account the fact that she is a devout Christian. I think my attitude displayed narrow-mindedness and prejudice. I disregarded the reality that at the end of the day we all crave the same things - the fact that someone looks different does not mean that they have different needs. There is an African proverb – hunger is felt by a slave and hunger is felt by a king. After fulfilling our basic needs everyone wants to be loved and we all have the capacity to love. Although I did not utter a word or in any way reveal my surprise, my covert reaction to the fact that Ms D had engaged in this relationship was judgemental, mistaken and dishonourable. Why wouldn’t she be a candidate for an affair? She’s a woman first and foremost!
In life we run the risk of wrongly judging our fellow men. We all have shortcomings, behaviours of which we are not proud lurking in our closets. We see people through spectacles coloured by our own biases birthed from our upbringing, socialisation, and acquired behaviours. We are influenced by societal norms, expectations and pressures and these, coupled with our personal choices and preferences, make us take actions not because we want to, but because we are afraid of the consequences of our inaction. We try to fit in, often at the expense of others; becoming involved in bullying and general warped behaviour which in time become our norm.
I remember watching a documentary on TV which explored people’s attitudes to black men wearing hoods. It emerged that a black man wearing a hood on a quiet street was perceived as more dangerous than a white man wearing the same garment. In fact the level of danger, if there is any, is exactly the same. No one is saying that we should be naive but we should be careful not to stereotype people. We are well aware of how it feels when the shoe is on the other foot - when we are subjected to jeering, rejection, oppression, sarcasm. When I was completing my MBA I elected to undertake temporary employment and was assigned to a well-reputed higher education institution in London with responsibility for developing and implementing the staff development programme. One day I was working late and as I turned a corner to enter my office I was met with the words “Have you brought our coffee?” Bear in mind that I was dressed in corporate attire and had documents in hand. A secretary had been expecting refreshments to service a meeting in the office located next to mine. I did not respond but continued to my office and opened the door with my key. She was very apologetic when she realised what she had done. On this occasion she had requested coffee but it could easily have been: “Have you brought the mop?” I had no intention of applying for a permanent job at that institution and after that incident I couldn’t wait to complete my degree and leave. This happened some 20 years ago but I have not forgotten it - there is a Jamaican saying “it’s not the person who poops in the pathway who remembers it, rather it’s the person who steps into it”. The secretary might not have intended to offend; she was simply unaccustomed to seeing black people fulfilling such roles at the Institute. Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. (Hanlon’s razor). This was her norm and she was a victim of her own bigotry.
Last week I went to the local market where I saw some sweet potato that were comparatively expensive but looked much better than the others. I bought some to make a pudding. When I started to peel them I was shocked to find that the inside layer of every potato was 70% decayed. It was disappointing; I couldn’t imagine that those beautiful potatoes were so unfit for purpose. Needless to say, I had to abandon my desire for sweet potato pudding and make a coconut cake instead. Some of us are like those potatoes, beautiful on the outside but ugly on the inside - buy meat you get bone, buy land you get stone (Jamaican proverb); there’s really no perfection in life.
As business people, we have to be careful of judging people based on our personal values and expectations. We should not deny people opportunities because on the exterior they do not portray the image we perceive as ideal. We have to be careful of giving preferential treatment to those who resemble us most. Consider, are you fair in your treatment of people or are you swayed by their physical attributes?
We have to develop behaviours that empower and cultivate attitudes that enable us to take the high road and avoid the temptation to be biased. Failing that we risk extending that bias into areas such as race, sexual orientation, religion, disability, etc. If we are to excel in contemporary business our organisations need people from a broad cross-section of society, not just from our inner circles of like-minded people. Organisations that promote closed-minded cultures will not withstand the test of time in cosmopolitan, multiethnic cities. There is no surprise that the Institute I referred to above was struggling with recruiting people from non-white communities; they held several meetings to generate ideas for diversifying the profile of their student body. We are all richer when we embrace and learn from one another because apart from the few individuals who wish to destroy humanity, at the end of the day we all want the same things. Man sleeps in a fowl’s nest but fowl nest is not his bed (Jamaican proverb which reminds us that people find solutions to their problems but that does not mean that they do not have higher aspirations.
I am developing the Pocket Learner educational system which supports individuals who struggle with learning. Sometimes we look at people and we judge them based on what we think we see, not recognising that each person has aspirations and needs similar to ours. As clued up as I am, I still found myself judging Ms D based on her disabilities. I am not sure if this can be attributed to normal human behaviour but it is ugly, very ugly. We should not judge people by their peak of excellence; but by the distance they have travelled from the point where they started. (Henry Ward Beecher).
Judging says more about us than about those being judged. Never judge a book by its cover!