Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Walk in the Woods

After the Storm

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Our train-the-trainers (T3) session ended around 3 pm and Juan Carlos and I took a walk in the woods outside of the IBM Learning Center. It was still gray out, and cold, but in a good, bracing way.

"I'm going to surprise you," I said. "At first, you'll think we're just retracing our steps, but then --"

"Good. Surprise me."

"I grew up 25 minutes from here [in Stamford, Connecticut] and the terrain is identical, and so I feel like I'm getting to show you around the woods near my house, where I grew up."

I do love the huge rocks that jut out of the earth, and the stone walls that were built probably 100-200 years ago. I'm most at home when I'm surrounded by oak and maple trees and rocks and sun-slivers through the trees -- though there were no such slivers today.

"It's beautiful, and you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere."

"We are." Our walk reminded me of nothing I experienced in Madrid, when Juan Carlos and I were last together. No couples were making out in front of us; no chic women were walking past me as though I were invisible; no gutter-puddles lured my raspberry cashmere sweater out of my arms and into them; no unforgettable, little restaurants were available to be slipped into; no cafe chairs were beckoning us to use them to bake in the sun with icy bottles of Spanish spring-water chilling our hands and throats; no LGBT bookstore was available for me to find later, with two new gay and lesbian IBM friends, Miguel and Kristiina....

Rather, there we were, just the two of us, and then 10 minutes later, the surprise:

"What's this?" Juan Carlos asked, as we stood in front of the elegant, but understated building of glass and steel, and a bit of marble, which was tucked into the woods, trying to blend in as best it could, without disrupting the trees and rocks too much.

I looked at the clear-glass, eight-bar logo on the blue-pearl marble front of the building and looked back at Juan Carlos: "This is IBM Corporate Headquarters."

"I thought it would be a building with many stories."

"No, it was built this way on purpose, to blend in with its surroundings." He was impressed and maybe a bit disoriented by its strong, but unassuming appearance. "Do you want to go inside, into the lobby?"

"No, it's OK. Seeing it from outside is fine." Maybe both of us were enjoying the woods too much. Taking the walk felt so good; our pace was naturally fast, upbeat, and it was like being a child again, with a boy I never would have played with then, as he was five years younger than I and living in Spain....We would never have met if we hadn't worked for IBM as adults.

Food for Thought

I considered yesterday's posting further, and how lucky I am that all of the colleagues I mentioned are fluent in English and don't mind speaking it. At lunch, the German colleague I mentioned yesterday ate with me.

I asked her to explain cognitive complexity to me in relation to her Masters thesis on decision making. She compared a sample of German decision makers and American decision makers and found that the Americans made decisions faster, whereas the Germans did more planning prior to making decisions.

She promised she wasn't being diplomatic when she said that it turned out not to be a bad thing, the rapid decision making. I had a stake in whether or not it was a good way of being, I told her, as I'm very quick to make decisions and sometimes need to be told to slow down.

She spoke of having designed an instrument for the decision makers to use and I wanted to try it right then and there -- I suppose I'm action-oriented altogether -- because I wanted to learn whether it's mostly good that I'm so quick in my decision-making, or what could come if I allowed ideas to ripen further sometimes.

I told her that I was reminded of an instrument that Harvard designed, to meaure hidden biases, and that we include in the Traps section of our Diversity & Inclusive Leadership QuickView on the LEADing@IBM internal leadership development web site.

For example, I told her that you are served an image of a famous black female and an image of a famous white female and there are words associated with each image alternately, like, 'evil,' 'good,' and depending how often your fingers press a negative word associated with one or the other photo, your hidden bias around race is calculated and revealed. [There are all sorts of tests on implicit associations.]

We talked some more about EQ v. IQ and then it was nearly time to return from lunch. I said, "I don't find it difficult to pronounce your last name, but mine sounds German, too, even though it's a Jewish last name. Is it a Jewish name in Germany, too?" We got up from the table and began walking into the classroom.

"Not necessarily, and there are a lot of Siegels at IBM -- [a total of 27, I just counted, but none of whom are relatives to my knowledge, and seven of whom are based in Germany.] Do you have any family from Germany?"

"No, everyone on both sides is from Russia."

"I don't know how you feel about Germans," she continued, and I looked away, trying to figure out a diplomatic response, "but I was sitting next to a woman on the plane and she saw the book I was reading and said, 'Is that German?' I told her yes and she said, looking at her husband, who was sitting across the aisle from us, 'My husband is a concentration camp survivor.'"

"Wow, what did you say next?"

"She didn't seem to want to talk about it further and --"

How to answer her on what I think of Germans: I began, "My mother is 81 and she grew up during the Holocaust -- not in Germany, but here, and --"

It was time to start class and we never got back to it after the class ended. It was a tender question.

It goes back to the theory I've always used as fuel to bolster my own dedication to being openly lesbian: It is nearly impossible to blindly hate one of them (whoever "one of them" is) once you meet one of them.

My mother raised us to be wary of anyone who might want to hurt us for being Jewish while inculcating a fierce pride in our identity in parallel; often, I figure that her way of raising me is what enabled me to be so open about my lesbian identity.

Here's an example, though, of the fear part:

When I was 10 at the oldest, my mother and I were still eating breakfast on the back porch of our home during a warm, summer morning, looking out at the sort of woods scene I described above, only with plenty of sun-slivers. My mom said suddenly, "Sarah, do you see that stone wall back there? If there's ever another Holocaust and they come for us, you run into the woods and hide behind that stone wall and don't worry about your sisters or Daddy or me."

When I talk about working in a miraculous environment, the miracle is also how much more open I am to meeting people from other cultures than I might have been, considering the worried upbringing I had. We did go to AFS dinners annually prior to when my middle sister Kathy went on AFS to Helsinki for her senior year of high school, and afterwards, and my parents were friendly with a German couple who were especially active in AFS, and so I think that conceptually, my mother sometimes was worried, but in practice, historically, she has been open to individuals of other cultures.

My mother is the first one to take a vocal stand against racism at the senior lunches she sometimes attends at the local community center, whenever anyone makes a racist remark, and she loves meeting colleagues of mine from faraway countries; so far, I've been fortunate to introduce her to my colleagues/friends from India and Japan. I know, it sounds like I'm trying to say that some of our best friends are non-Jewish, but really, I'm just describing the complexity of our human psyches -- more cognitive complexity, or is the problem that our cognition is not sufficiently complex and needs further sophistication/adventuresomeness?

I'm still thinking about the annual AFS dinners, which were potlucks, where everyone brought a dish from their country of origin, or from the country to which their child had travelled on AFS and it was such an inviting way to learn about other cultures. I do believe that if we could taste other cultures' most delicious foods prior to warring with them, most often, we would not start wars....It could also be simply that I am super food-oriented.

Which prejudice were you raised with, and how are you overcoming it?


nematome said...

My take on quick decision-making...

As I think you know, I'm certified in the Myers-Brigg Personality Assessment, and I subscribe to the notion that being a "Judger"—their term for those who make decisions quickly, is neither good nor bad. It's simply a preference.

What's important about it is realizing that that's how you operate, which you evidently do realize about yourself. Some situations call for more careful decision making, some situations call for less careful decision making.

Our challenge as Judgers (I'm an ESFJ) is to not be lazy and just do what we "prefer" when it's one of those times that require more careful decision making. Again, it's not about a wrong or right way to be; both are valuable approaches.

Another thing we "Judgers" tend to do is to want to assign something as good or bad—or just assume there is a "black or white" option to most things. :-) I constantly have to force myself to consider the possibility of gray.

Welcome to the blogosphere, Sarah.

Sarah Siegel said...

Oy, I'm experiencing the virtual version of running into someone whose name I should know, but I am blanking out when I see his or her face. In this case, I cannot see your face, and I am not recalling your handle (nematome), and so I am frustrated at not knowing who's being wise and welcoming. I'm an ENFJ, according to Myers-Briggs...or when did we have this conversation, and where? Electronically or in 3-D?