Have you ever been startled to discover yourself thinking thoughts you don’t agree with?
Perhaps you’ve found yourself with foot-in-mouth disease, listening to yourself say something intolerant about – for instance – an ethnic or religious group. Even as you hear the words coming from your lips, you’re thinking, “I don’t really believe that!”
You’re not going crazy, and you’re not some sort of secret bigot.
But we all absorb messages from the world around us. Those messages come from family, from cultural stereotypes, from advertising – they’re everywhere in our society. Even if we don’t actually believe them, we’ve heard them so often that they’re ingrained into our brains.
And no one is immune from absorbing these messages. In fact, Dr. Steve Robbins, a well-known diversity expert, cites research showing that those of us who think we’re the most immune are actually the most likely to be affected.
Fortunately, even though these stereotypical messages may be hiding out in our minds, we can take steps to avoid them tripping us up.
1. Forgive yourself! The human brain is hard-wired to absorb repetitive messages. Discovering that your brain has latched on to some bigoted or intolerant thoughts doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person; it just means you’re normal.
It’s not necessary to “get rid” of those thoughts, and anyway, that’s a struggle you’re not likely to win. Have you ever tried to stop thinking a thought – as in, don’t think of a pink elephant? Save your energy!
2. Stereotypical thoughts tend to pop out when we’re under stress. That means when you feel threatened or anxious, you’re more likely to say or do something based on an ingrained stereotype instead of on what you truly believe.
Learn to notice your personal warning signs of stress and anxiety. For some people, it’s a clenching in the gut; others find their shoulders floating somewhere around their ears; or you might experience yourself shrinking, trying to become smaller in the face of a difficult situation.
3. Slow down, and then slow down some more. Stressful situations drive us to react quickly – it’s part of our biology. The cave man had to react immediately to the charging sabre-tooth tiger or he wouldn’t live to tell the tale, but we don’t have the same need for instant reactions today.
When you slow down and give yourself time to think, your true beliefs have a chance to override the ingrained stereotypes. Now you can respond mindfully instead of reacting mindlessly.
And finally, if you do find yourself blurting out something you don’t really mean, it’s not the end of the world. Obviously you’ll want to apologize – and then you can show the other person this article, and help increase understanding about how stereotypical messages get into our heads even when we don’t actually believe them!
Recommended Training Resource: Inclusion Insights is a smart, compassionate, and humorous presentation of key principles about difference, change, and the ways we can learn to understand ourselves and others better so we can help make the workplace – and the world – a better place to be. Combining cognitive science, storytelling, and plenty of humor, this three-part video from the well-known diversity expert Dr. Steve Robbins offers a range of learning opportunities.