Immigrants on the Internet

I heard a quote the day that people of my generation would always be immigrants on the internet. No matter how well we adapted, we would always be “strangers in a strange land”. Our children would be citizens.

Coming from a city that has truly blossomed as a multi-cultural mecca, I am familiar with immigrants. I’ve just never been one.

The observation started me thinking. I do a lot of work on high performance team building and one of the things that I stress is our need to embrace diversity. In order to do that, we have to examine our own behaviours. I’ve learned a lot by doing this.

One example I use all the time is the way we tend to treat people who don’t speak English well as less intelligent. How did I learn about this? I did observe others, certainly. But I also observed myself — what I thought and how I acted.

I’ve been a bid proponent of being self aware — even when the picture isn’t flattering. And I like to have honest discussions about it. And I know that’s not the norm. I know that confronting these things openly makes some people uncomfortable.

I wonder sometimes if this has cost me in terms of consulting work. I remember one interview where I was shortlisted on a strategy job for a major university. When we didn’t get the job, I replayed the final interview in my head, searching for moments where we might have done a better job.

One area where I remembered a shocking reaction from the potential client was when I mentioned this example of how so many of us regard people who don’t speak English as less intelligent. I clearly stated that almost everyone that I had ever talked to struggled with that reaction, even those (like myself) who had overcome it. The reaction from one of the people was immediate, visceral and I suspect — politically correct. “I’ve never felt that way,” he said. I did the only thing I could do. I congratulated him on being a better person than me and much of the rest of that group that was once referred to as WASPs.

I hoped that the fact that I didn’t believe him didn’t come through in my voice. Perhaps it did. Because I think that almost everyone struggles with this more than we want to admit (and a wee bit of psychological research supports me on this one).

There is a study that I read recently that said that we tend to attribute motives to behaviours. Moreover, we were always more unkind to others in our attribution than we were to ourselves.

When we are late, there’s good reason. Traffic. Subway. Whatever.

But when someone ELSE is late? Don’t you think (even for a second) that they didn’t plan well? Or that maybe they don’t think your time is as important? Or a host of other negative thoughts? Doesn’t it cross your mind for a second? If it doesn’t, you really are out of the norm.

I know. Not just because of the studies, but from the reaction I get from audiences I speak to. I tell the story of “that person” in the checkout line. You know the one? They always catch you when you are in a hurry. Then they have to question the bill or be picky about some minor flaw in the product or just be annoying by talking too much — whatever. You know what I mean? Doesn’t it drive you crazy too?

Then I ask who that person is. And I tell the audience. That person is me and you. But when we are up there, it’s important. We demand our time. Those b**ds in line can wait.

I haven’t seen an audience yet that wasn’t with me totally on the first description. Nor have I seen one that didn’t react with surprise and realization when I mentioned that we were the person.

So I know this “attribution” thing is real. Again if you, denial is only a river in Egypt, stop reading now. But if you are with the rest of the human race, read on — I’ll get to the point.

The point is that as immigrants to the internet, we come with a lot of baggage. This attribution thing fills our lives. We take our dark side with us. The road rage that we exhibit on our highways becomes the flame wars over comments and emails.

I’ve taken these behaviours as examples because they are so common and extreme enough to make good examples. There are a raft of others that you can become aware of if you just pay attention to them. Time lags in instant messaging are another one. I always wonder what the other person is doing — until I caught on that sometimes the send and receive isn’t instantaneous. I found this out by accident. There’s more. Watch for them. Better still — add them as a comment or send me a note. I’d like to hear your favourite.

My point is that these get in the way. In particular, this happens on the internet because we don’t have any context to work with. No smiling face. Or sad face. No body language. Nothing. Just an font on a screen. An pale echo of reality.

The good news is that in many of these things, our kids can be citizens. My eldest (at age eighteen) is one of the founders of one of the largest wikis around today. I remember asking her — who is in charge of this thing? I got a blank stare. So I repeated the question with a little more explanation. “Like, when you disagree?”

Her answer was, “we talk it out”.

“But,” I said, frustratedly, “when push comes to shove. When you HAVE to decide. Who make the call?”

More blank stares. Then she repeated herself slowly — “we just work it out…”

And she gave me that look. Like she was looking at an immigrant. And I didn’t speak the language that well.

It’s a learning lesson for all of us — of that generation that Pete Townsend called, “My Generation”. With knowledge work, virtual work, collaboration and social networking becoming the norm, we are always playing catch up. Someone told me yesterday that the biggest group moving into Facebook were people of my age (over 50). The citizens (our children) have been there for years. Now, the boomers are in. And a massive immigration is in place.

We come to this new world with all our baggage. I hope we will realize that this time we are the immigrants. And I hope that the citizens of this new land are much more forgiving than we have been.

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