This I Believe

Brian - Houston, Texas
Entered on October 14, 2008
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: tolerance

I believe in the 80/20 Rule of Global Proportions. Many years ago I met a Japanese man, a corporate expatriate who had recently arrived in the United States. I casually asked what he thought about America; his earnest reply revealed a profound cultural insight that has since become an article of faith for me. “I believe that 80% of Americans are good people,” he said, “people who would help me if I had a problem, people who would not take advantage of me. But 20% of Americans are not such nice people. Unfortunately, I cannot tell the difference.”

I’ve been on several overseas assignments myself since that brief encounter. I think his ratio works, and not only for America: around 80% of everybody everywhere are good folk; 20% ain’t. I believe it to be one of the very few truly universal truths.

It’s his last insight that cuts the deepest: sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference. For better or worse, I believe we almost can’t help but use superficial clues like haircuts, clothing styles and patterns of speech to discern whether strangers might be friends or foes. Many of those ‘cognitive biases’ operate deep in the iceberg of our subconscious; they can be difficult to grasp, much less re-wire. No doubt each of us has turned away a prospective soulmate because they happened to be wearing the wrong shoes.

Stepping outside our native culture can mean losing most of those familiar cues altogether. It isn’t that people in other cultures don’t use such signals — only that theirs might be quite different from ours. Some we don’t detect at first. Others we recognize, but their meaning is different than we expected. It’s like learning another language, except that the medium is intuitive rather than linguistic. The results can be hilarious or tragic. Sometimes both.

Unfortunately, I think another universal truth shares this space: when confronted with an unfamiliar environment, almost everybody everywhere assumes the worst. It doesn’t happen overtly; it’s an insidious process that operates just under our conscious radar. When we’re unable to recognize anyone who appears to be with us, then everybody must be against us.

Perhaps that’s too extreme, but it’s easy to get paranoid in a strange land. This dynamic can do more than ruin a foreign vacation; it does rotten things to foreign affairs in general. Worse, it isn’t even necessary to leave the country to encounter this phenomenon. I don’t even have to leave my neighborhood.

“But that’s only natural,” someone will say, “it’s a healthy survival instinct.” True, it pays to be wary outside your comfort zone. But that’s also where I take comfort in my 80/20 rule: just because I can’t spot the differences doesn’t change the underlying proportions. It isn’t the fault of all the goodies that I’ve lumped them in with the baddies. The onus to learn discernment lies with me. In the meantime, I owe those strangers the courtesy of an open mind and a second look. After all, isn’t that what I hope they’ll do for me?