Are you in a cultural bubble?

How to shift your cultural perspective

The concept of the ‘filter bubble’ is increasingly well-known, particularly after the result of the last US Presidential Election.  “I never saw that coming,” was a common day-after refrain at many actual and online water coolers.  The fact we all live in filtered social media and cultural bubbles – and are cut off from other ways of looking at the world – was a prominent theme in the mainstream media.

To clarify, a “filter bubble describes the tendency of social networks like Facebook and Twitter to lock users into personalized feedback loops, each with its own news sources, cultural touchstones, and political inclinations” (‘Having built a bubble, tech firms sell a way out’ in The New York Times (International Edition, March 7, 2017).  Every day we can visit with online ‘friends’ and have our own opinions, beliefs, and values validated by what they post and what they like.  Our networks become our online self-perpetuating culture bubbles in which we share a reality with other members of our tribe.  Cultural ‘fit’ sometimes becomes more important than the credibility of the information posted which is troubling when you consider that 62 percent of Americans – based on a 2016 Pew study – get news from social media.  The social media paradox is that while it potentially opens a wider window onto the world it can also narrow our vision.

Being entrepreneurs, leaders in Silicon Valley have picked up on the criticism they received post-election and are looking at ways to gently burst our bubbles – ‘gently’ because they don’t want to upset you too much and lose your business.

How to get out of your cultural bubble

  • If you are unaware of the political bias of your Facebook network the Chrome extension ‘PolitEcho’ will help you find out. It visualizes the network’s bias by looking at how many of your friends ‘like’ pages about, for example, Breitbart News or Bernie Sanders.
  • Flipfeed’ – a Twitter plug-in – allows you to replace your regular Twitter feed with that of an anonymous user who has a different political viewpoint.
  • If you read articles through the iPhone app ‘Read Across the Aisle’ you will see a meter turning red or blue depending on the ideological leanings of the content. Take note, however, that while Red signifies Conservative (Republican) in the US and Blue signifies Liberal (Democrat), in most parts of the world the colors mean the opposite.
  • Buzzfeed is testing ‘Outside Your Bubble’ which pulls together opinions from across the web and presents them on a neutral platform. A curator takes them out of their often combative and emotionally-charged context and rewrites them dispassionately.

Whatever you think of these efforts to open our minds to different ideas, as trainers we know that the exercise of perspective shifting can yield very positive results.

Often used in diversity training, perspective shifting helps participants see and talk about the world from another viewpoint, e.g. a different culture, religion, race, ethnicity, or gender.  This isn’t easy because the participant needs some background understanding of the other worldview to engage with the exercise.  Whatever background information is shared should be contextualized and nuanced, i.e. the information shared about a culture or gender, for example, should not be positioned by the trainer as ‘true’ of all members of a group; cultures contain variations and contradictions.  How many different ways of being a Christian or a white male are there?

The exercise of perspective shifting should be on the skill itself – seeing through another’s eyes – rather than adopting another perspective per se.

Another area of diversity where perspective shifting can be useful is in recognizing and understanding the world from the viewpoints of different professional cultures within an organization.  In my time working in corporations, many of the main challenges I encountered were when financial, engineering, marketing, manufacturing, legal, and human resource people tried talking to one another.  No one understood the perspectives, expectations, needs, and priorities of others.  Meetings were often unproductive (or destructive) because everyone was speaking from a different – and often misunderstood – perspective.

I have often used a ‘goldfish bowl’ methodology to begin exploring role and cultural bubble perspectives and seeking a shared understanding.  Participants in the ‘bowl’ are given a common problem, but each one must speak about and work the problem from their assigned worldview.  The leader and a few of the ‘bowl’ members are not given specific worldviews so that they can help facilitate dialogue and mutual understanding.  It helps deepen the debriefing if some members of the wider group can talk from their real-world experiences about the different worldviews, the challenges they faced, and how they were managed productively.

Perspective shifting is not only vital when colleagues of different national or regional cultures work together.  Think of matrix organizations where members of different professional cultures must ensure their functional needs are accommodated while reaching an outcome best for the organization.  Perspective shifting underlies the successful application of so many workplace skills, e.g. team-working, influencing, delegating, problem-solving, negotiating, and conflict management.  We could even call it a ‘root’ workplace skill without exaggerating its importance.

About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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