Observed

What’s been your COVID deep dive?

Actually, it was finishing The Business of WE. I had a deadline of April 15th. We went into total lockdown as a family, and so despite the many difficulties of this time, it was productive because there was nothing else going on. I was able to finish the book on time.

At the beginning, I wanted to write a much more general book about bridging “Us versus Them” gaps in the workplace, but also beyond. Something for anybody, in schools, in communities, you name it. 

But there was a desire for something more business-centric, so even though this is very much marketed and written as a business book, I see this as a tool for anyone who wants to address those Us versus Them gaps. During the editing process, George Floyd was murdered and white America woke up in some important ways. 

That horrible event, and the events of the spring and summer, brought up ideas and thoughts I wanted to include in the book. Instead of just checking edits, I was rewriting complete sections. The national conversation made my ideas more relevant.

The biggest organizations in America were putting out campaigns that highlight Black Lives Matter, and entities like the NFL said things like, “Yeah, we need to improve things and we need to do a better job.” It was unprecedented. I was able to include examples that are central to the message of WE-Building which is that words and slogans are better than being silent but they are not enough to effect change.

That unique spelling … WE-Building … captures the idea of deliberately taking action to bridge any Us versus Them gap. Making an effort to actively connect across differences.

That seems like an almost impossible task these days.

I don’t think there’s a lot of WE-Building you can do if somebody’s out of touch with facts and reality. I don’t promote that. But I do promote actively building alliances across racial and cultural differences. This is one of the biggest missed opportunities in American life especially by people who identify with the white cultural majority.

My first job after college was working in the Tokyo headquarters of Honda Motor Company where I was the only American woman among thousands of Japanese people. In the company, the cultural majority, a group I also refer to as the “home team” in any organization, was middle-aged, Japanese men. They were the “home team.” Every organization has a ‘home team’ and when you identify with that home team you share the advantages offered by that identification. 

In American organizations, the home team is generally white middle-aged men. There’s nothing wrong with being a white middle-aged man, I married one and I’ve created two more white men for the planet! But if you are part of the cultural majority, the home team, what do you have? An advantage. You know how things work. People default to you. The norms are established around you. 

The WE-Building process asks you to measure yourself in relation to another culture, then take action to narrow the gap. This is especially important to do when you identify with the home team. One of the most important tools in my book is the Us versus Them Self-Assessment which is 10 ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. These questions start-off easy with, “Have you ever had a small talk conversation with a person from this target culture?”

By honestly answering the 10 questions, a person can get a quick measurement of their level of integration with another cultural group. Any questions with a ‘no’ answer become potential action items on the WE-building journey to narrow a gap.

I work with organizations that want to help their employees build connection across differences of many kinds. I want to inspire a WE-building revolution and challenge people in how we think about these dynamics.

Have you ever consulted with a company and been pleasantly surprised by their approach to teamwork? 

I worked with an IndyCar race team years ago. A bunch of English-speaking guys in Ohio were working with an engineering team from Japan.

It’s a long story, but basically, the Americans learned to introduce themselves in Japanese. Because they did it, on the day that the two groups met, they connected in a meaningful way. That first day, within the first hour, they did this highly unexpected thing that helped them establish connection as humans. It’s the type of connection that I have seen people take months or even years to achieve. Just one sentence in a different language.

It was a meaningful gesture by the home team that immediately narrowed a gap. That one sentence established a connection that carried through the whole relationship and, ultimately was one factor that contributed to that group winning the Indy 500 many years later. Even the simple gesture of making sure you’re saying somebody else’s name correctly goes a long way. In our diverse workplaces, this is much more of an important skill to have today than it was, say, 20 years ago.

When you have a name that’s different from the norm or you don’t speak English as your first language, it really is meaningful when people make that effort.

Who’s a creative person you really admire?

Everybody is justifiably excited about the poet Amanda Gorman, who was amazing at the inauguration, but I actually have really been inspired by Obama’s inaugural poet Richard Blanco. He wrote a book called How To Love A Country, and he read a poem at Obama’s inauguration.

While working on my book, I would start every morning reading his poetry. He is a talented poet and a person who is sensitive to the experience of people who don’t fit the dominant cultural norm in America.

Do you have a favorite Japanese idiom or phrase?

One of my favorites is “Shikata ga nai,” which is “It can’t be helped.” 

It’s kind of like “Don’t try to control and force everything.” Some things are out of my control. I’m somebody who’s always trying to do, and control, many things I’ve got the kids, and the book, and the work, and it can get very stressful. 

Like this morning, our WiFi was out, one of the kids had school, I had a full schedule, and I was able to take a step back and say to myself, “Okay. Shikata ga nai. There’s really nothing I can do about this at all right now.”

What are you listening to right now?

You know the band Wilco? Jeff Tweedy and his family play live music almost every night since the pandemic started. They do a live stream and my husband listens to them every day, so I know a lot about their lives because they’re just chatting, and it’s so funny.

I’m also listening to Rebecca Carroll’s podcast Come Through. She’s a cultural critic and a writer who interviews a wide range of people. She is a Black woman who was adopted by a white family and raised in a very white community. 

She has a new book called, Surviving the White Gaze which I just read about race, identity and connection. I really respect her because she has worked through these important issues – race, identity and connection – in a very particular way. I learn something new every time I listen to her or read her work.

What’s some brainless TV we should watch?

Do you know Kim’s Convenience? It’s fun. It’s about a Korean-American family in Toronto and the dynamics inside the family. It’s very charming and dips into things that I’m really interested in in terms of culture and race. And Schitt’s Creek of course – hilarious and just fun.

You have been elected Mayor of New York City as a surprise write-in candidate. Congratulations. What’s your first task?

Wow. Make a better relationship with the governor. That is a classic “Us versus Them” situation with de Blasio and Cuomo that harms the citizens and the state. The first thing a leader should do is build a good relationship with other leaders so that you can work toward the same goals at the same time.

I think about this all the time, this epidemic of Us versus Them dynamics, and it makes me crazy. I think many gaps between people, whether it’s race or ethnicity or age or religion, can be narrowed if people utilize two important tools. These tools happen to be free and available to everyone. 

First, it is necessary to be genuinely interested in bridging a gap, whatever that gap is. If de Blasio and Cuomo were genuinely interested in doing this, true progress would start immediately.

Second, I think anybody who wants to understand another cultural group or even another person, must be honest in reflecting on themselves. Being honest when taking the Us versus Them assessment will lead to insights that might feel vulnerable. If we want to improve then we have to be capable of saying, “Well, you know, maybe I haven’t done this correctly,” or, “I should have learned this.” If you can be genuine and honest, I think anyone can close a gap that’s important to you.

Can you imagine what our country, our communities and our neighborhoods might look like if every person, especially those who identify with the home team, took action to narrow gaps? I want to inspire people to take WE-building action to create a safer, more welcoming and productive world. I hope you will join me!

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