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Thinking outside of our boxes

Updated: Aug 10, 2022

When what we see or experience doesn't fit into our ingrained cultural frameworks, being intentionally curious expands our framework to be more inclusive and minimize stereotypes.

Uniqueness of nature

Nature is amazing. I have developed a love of gardening over the last few years, as Covid-related distancing and restrictions forced us to stay at home more than I was used to. It's been a learning experience in so many ways.

This particular image is a dahlia from my garden. The plant I purchased was full of flowers with white speckled petals, like the ones on the right. But one day this unique blossom showed up. I wasn't expecting this.

At first, I thought, that's weird. But then I thought, just because it doesn't fit my expectation doesn't mean it isn't beautiful.

Normalize curiosity

At first glance, the blossom might be considered strange or out of place, because it doesn't match the ones in the same environment, or even from the same plant! And when faced with things that don't fit our familiar frameworks, we can judge (what's wrong with it?) or we can get curious (I wonder how this happens?).

Judging is a natural part of how our biology functions, to quickly categorize things that we see and experience to know in an instant how to react. We fit things into the familiar frameworks that our brain uses to keep us safe from danger. Friend or foe? Dangerous or safe? Can I relax, or should I flee?

The problem is, sometimes our immediate categorization leads us to misjudge or dismiss what we're experiencing. Rather than react unconsciously or impulsively, taking an intentional inquiry stance can help us expand our category boundaries.

What are your categories?

The categories, or mental boxes, we've created come from our own unique lived experiences. This is called our cultural framework. It is the lens through which we interpret of the world around us. Stereotypes and assumptions can form as we rapidly align what we see and hear with patterns we've seen and heard before. But when we react based on stereotypes, we miss an opportunity to learn more about the uniqueness of the person or experience in front of us.

To move beyond stereotypes and expand our cultural framework, we have to be willing to name the categories we rely upon. This is especially important because we use our categories to define how we interpret the actions or appearance of those around us. When stereotypes drive our reactions, we miss the opportunity to learn more about what we see and bridge across differences.

To uncover your categories, ask yourself these questions:

  • What experiences and influences led me to define what is means to be: a good person, a team player, respectful, or professional?

  • How did I come to this belief or understanding?

  • What situations have reinforced or challenged these beliefs?

Expanding our boxes

One thing I've learned is that I have a lot to learn. Working in diversity, equity, and inclusion, I've met a lot from people whose experiences differ greatly from my own. As I listen and become curious, I've learned to recalibrate my own categories to take into account different perspectives and interpretations.

Here are some questions to ask to help you broaden your cultural framework:

  • How might someone whose life experiences differ from mine define being: a good person, a team player, respectful, or professional?

  • How can I learn what experiences led them to this belief or understanding?

  • How can broadening my understanding lead to more productive engagement?

By normalizing curiosity, we interrupt our boxed-in thinking and allow ourselves to expand our understanding of the uniqueness in the world. And enjoy the beauty this diversity offers.

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