Column: I Am A Different Person In Different Contexts … So Are You!

Column by Elena Yang
I Am A Different Person In Different Contexts … So Are You!

In the previous post on diversity/multiculturalism, I focused mostly on the differences between groups, such as males and females, or white and African Americans. 

Equally important, if not more so, are our conversations across the differences within a group. 

For instance, many of us have more “issues” with our family members than with someone of different racial background or religious background.  

Similarly, within a racial group, there can be painful dealings with members’ differences. 

Just look at some religious or political groups!  But often, when facing an “adversarial outside” group, these within-group differences can be temporarily suppressed; we rally with our “own kind!” 

If we don’t, “disloyalty” is usually the first assault that gets hurled around. 

I think it is usually within our affiliated group, be that based on identity, work, family, or whatever that’s most important to a person, that we experience most keenly the tension between holding onto our individual identity and group identity, or between individualism and collectivism. 

Diversity or multiculturalism is a very personal topic to people because whatever categories/groups you choose, they help define you. 

Personally, negotiating those boundaries has been a lot harder than dealing “straightforwardly” with visibly different group members.

Every one of us has some stories to tell about balancing between these two desires — personal or group identity and individualism or collectivism — and handling such tension.

Appreciative Inquiry stresses stories and offers a solid foundation for people to grasp and compare their different backgrounds. 

There are good reasons for using stories. For a starter, they provide context and depth; it is through stories that we form relationships with others and begin to understand each other. 

Most of us feel more ourselves, when given chances, to narrate our stories from beginning to end, as we define them. 

While stories can still be misinterpreted, they also offer more information on which we can base our inquiry and further clarifications. It is also a whole lot easier to remember a story than a theory, a hypothesis or a quick rundown on highlights.

Remember, the “essential is invisible to the eye!” One must be wary of those that can be immediately categorized.

Another important reason for using stories is that all of us possess several identities. For example, I am a daughter, a mother, a wife, a consultant, a painter, a gardener, an enthusiastic cook, an amateur photographer, etc., and not necessarily in that order of importance. 

Some of my colleagues and I adopt the usage of multiculturalism for describing ourselves at personal level. I don’t always want to choose only one dimension of myself to present to the public – in fact, at any given moment, I possess several of these identities simultaneously – and using stories allows me to better relate the complexity of me. 

In a prescribed dialogue, we tend to paint each other in one dimension, and leaving us feeling utterly misconstrued.

During a few months’ stint of working in the Diversity office at LANL, one conversation really struck me: The diversity office staff voiced their “concerns” for the work “attitude” of the majority of the scientists in that they tend to work long and odd hours. 

Some staff members actually advocated imposing restrictions on office hours with the rationale that “these people need to take care of their personal life!” 

It is perhaps true that some scientists are rather obsessive, but a lot of them actually feel “relaxed” when they are immersed in their work, mentally relaxed, that is. 

I saw this type of difference, between professional groups, as one of the most profound schisms between groups at a lot of workplaces. When these differences are conflated with race, gender and whatnot, the world gets complicated to navigate through.

There is another type of difference at work that is rarely discussed: the difference between introverts and extroverts. The majority of managers are extroverts, and I don’t think we need to conduct another social research project to understand why. 

And since the world is dominated by extroverts – according to Myers-Brigg study – introverts by nature are not likely to make a fuss about it. 

So, for instance, the concept and the emphasis on teamwork, while certainly having merit, does not address the ramifications of “making the introverts work in a team.” 

I am by no means suggesting that introverts are not capable of, nor taking pleasure in, working with others. However, the nature of extroverts is that they get “energy” by being with others; the opposite holds true for introverts. 

So, for introverts, why shouldn’t organizations be aware of their needs as well, and provide them ample space and time to be alone so that they can “recharge” themselves? 

I think of diversity and multiculturalism like cooking (I like food, what can I say?) Each ingredient or equipment can be interesting by itself, but it’s the combination that produces a flavorful dish or an awesome dessert. 

Sometimes, we may yearn for a simple fruit – and we do need them – but more often than not, it’s the complexity of combining ingredients from different food groups that provide us with the necessary sustenance to live fully. 

So it is with our mental development. We may prefer to sharpen our professional wit by hanging around with like-minded, but ultimately we need different ideas from different segments of the population to push ourselves onto the next level of development. 

So, till we get to the next level or next entry,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Editor’s note: Elena Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania where she taught for a number of years. She also has consulted on cross-cultural issues. She can be contacted through



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