“To put yourself in someone else’s shoes”

Addressing the topic of perception and particularly the role of stereotyping and prejudice, I do not only discuss with the students how stereotyping ‘works’ and what the consequences are. I also discuss with them what we could do to address and thereby potentially reduce people’s reliance on stereotypes and prejudice. In so doing, I refer to an article written by Adam D. Galinsky and Gordon B. Moskowitz (2000) entitled “Perspective-Taking: Decreasing Stereotype Expression, Stereotype Accessibility, and In-Group Favoritism” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), pp. 708-724). In their article, the authors demonstrate that “to put yourself in another person’s shoes” constitutes an effective way of reducing people’s reliance on stereotypes and decreasing prejudice.

In the last written examination I asked my students to provide specific examples from the workplace in order to describe how putting someone in another person’s shoes could look like. In the following I would like to share with you some of the examples that the students provided to illustrate the variety of possible answers from students in the first semester even though most of them do not have any previous work experience.

  • “A few years ago, the boss of Germany’s Burger King headquarters took part in a television experiment called “the Undercover Boss” in which he disguised himself beyond recognition and “infiltrated” the workforce to experience and ultimately improve working conditions for employees. After his newly won impressions, he demanded that every manager needs to work a specific number of days a year in one of the restaurants alongside regular staff to earn their annual bonuses.”
  • “Another approach could be to put the colleagues of the disabled in a wheelchair for a day. This approach makes people think about the experience they gain very quickly – it is impossible to be in a wheelchair for more than a couple of minutes before obstacles occur during everyday activities, just to go through a door can be difficult. Even getting around at the university which is to some extend handicapped accessible can be a task. I need to know where all the elevators are (and have developed a elevator radar) and which elevator to take to come to which classroom with the least amount of steps. This is something others just do and never think about, if there is not a elevator nearby the stairs are.” (this has been written by a student with physical disability)
  • “For example, university. Student think that teaching is easier than study. Because teacher have to prepare only one subject, but student four and more. And it’s a good idea to change it for some hours or for a day. For student it will be good to understand that it’s not easy to teaching, to prepare for every lecture, because not every student cares about preparing for the subject, but teachers can’t come not ready.”
  • “Another example is my last summer job in Hard Rock Café, I was working on the shop: selling t-shirts and others products of their brand. I used to be just by myself and sometimes groups of people would come in and ‘destroy’ my clean and tidy shop. The managers would get upset if the see the shop messy with t-shirts unfold so one day they put themselves in my shoes and came with me in one of those crazy days when big groups of people from different countries come into the shop and start asking questions, unfold clothes and at the same time other asking to please come into the counter because they want to pay. After experienced this, my bosses praised me for my good job and I got a bonus. A limited edition pin from the shop.”
  • “Lets say, that you work as an academic doing some complex analysis of the economy of the society at a university. While you work long hours, you might see the cleaning staff go way earlier than you and having coffee breaks while they are talking about gossip and daily life. You may see it as easy simple work without a need to think much and therefor done by not so smart people, since they just talk about silly things in their breaks. By putting yourself in the cleaners shoes you might realize what the job not has in complex thinking, it probably has in daily fast and repeatedly physical tasks, which would demand a physical smartness, that you don´t have as an academic.”
  • “There is also this guy in Denmark, he is one of the riches in the region around Skagen (Skagen is located all the way in the north of Denmark). He is the CEO of the largest (or maybe the second largest, I don’t know) fishing vessel fleet in Denmark. And out of the days he is working, he spends 2/3 of them on the sea, with his workers to stay neutral and at the same level as them. In the 1/3 that is left of the year he spends that running his business. Here you can really see, a good example on, how he is fulfilling this saying ‘to put yourself in someone else’s shoes’.”
  • “Another way could be for a multinational company that some workers are sent abroad for a short or medium period of time to work there. This way, workers can see how it is to be abroad, to be a foreigner and how to live in a different culture. Thus, when coming back those workers would be more tolerant, open and receptive towards other cultures or mindsets. Here as well, the actual feasibility needs to be questioned. It should be asked as to whether the workers that have stereotypes actually want to go abroad. It would be more likely that those want to go that are already open-minded and have fewer prejudices than those that would actually need to go abroad. But still, in my opinion, this could be an effective way to make single workers and a whole company more open or tolerant towards other persons if those that have been abroad can implement the experience they have gained into the working culture.”
  • “As a different example, take school teachers that (at least in Finland), once or twice a year are obligated to try out working at another place for a day or two. Experiencing other jobs (e.g. working as a supermarket cashier), they are able then to reflect these experiences on their pupils truthfully, preventing the young from forming prejudices from those jobs. Today school teachers in many countries also engage often in international cooperation with teachers from other countries, learning from one another in their everyday work environments. Therefor they develop their own work habits, introduce new ideas both home and away, and get rid of some national stereotypes, both for themselves and for their pupils.”
  • “Another, quite creative idea to reduce prejudices has developed over the past few years. Workers do not have their own desktop at work any longer, but use any of the available, possibly a different one every day. This gets them to meet a lot more colleagues, get in touch, be involved. Especially in bigger companies this is useful to decrease prejudices about other departments, not only individuals. Just to mention a few, Microsoft, Google and Facebook have implemented this principle. The Examples might also show that this method is not working for every kind of organization. For instance, a highly digitalized work environment is necessary to make workers independent from individual desktops etc.”
  • “Another example is the strategy of worker-worker understanding at Cafe Gratitude. The company is a collaboration of farm and cafe with the common goal of serving specially grown and prepared food for their customers. The cafe decreases the cause of stereotyping and prejudice by letting the two collaborators meet and identify with their different positions. This is accomplished by arranging trips for the workers of the cafe to visit and help at the farm, creating an understanding of the underlying process and workings of the farm. When back at the cafe, the strategy has established a feeling of relation to the producers and respect and understanding for the worker doing the labour prior to food preparation.”
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