Human beings are odd. Put three or more into a group and they will immediately divide into “us” and “them.” Such division might be for useful reasons such as speaking the same language, having a shared interest, or pursing a common goal but it also may be completely arbitrary.

Even our language reflects our view of others. In The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way, Bill Bryson wrote:

We tend to regard other people’s languages as we regard their cultures—with ill-hidden disdain. In Japanese, the word for foreigner means ‘stinking of foreign hair.’ To the Czechs a Hungarian is ‘a pimple.’ Germans call cockroaches ‘Frenchmen,’ while the French call lice ‘Spaniards.’ We in an English-speaking world take French leave, but Italians and Norwegians talk about departing like an Englishman, and Germans talk about running like a Dutchman. Italians call syphilis ‘the French disease,’ while both French and Italians call con games ‘American swindle.’ Belgian taxi drivers call a poor tipper ‘ un Anglais.’ To be bored to death in French is ‘être de Birmingham’ literally ‘to be from Birmingham’ (which is actually about right).[1]

Perhaps there is a grain of truth in some of these names, but the reason we find stereotypes so repellant is that individuals are far more complex than any one-dimensional attribute. Instead, we use these devices to protect ourselves from truly knowing others when greater understanding, greater empathy, and greater security are found in striving to know the other.


Failure of Understanding

Take two historical examples. Before the American Revolution, the British regarded Americans as unpolished ruffians. During the French-Indian war, Washington had risen to become a colonel—but a colonel in the colonial militia. To their minds, he was clearly second-rate.

During the revolution, Britain sent peace negotiators to the colonies. The commissioners were headed by Frederick Howard, the 5th Earl of Carlisle. He was accompanied by George Johnstone, and William Eden. When they met with the Americans, the British delegation was informed that “the only terms to be discussed were withdrawal of British forces and recognition of American independence.”[2] The British found these terms insulting. Carlisle felt that, “Our offers of peace were too much the appearance of supplications for mercy from a vanquished and exhausted state.” The peace commissioners decided that they needed to send a stronger message.

On October 3, 1778, they issued a proclamation intended to frighten the population into submission. They included the following provocative line: “Britain may by every means in her power destroy or render useless a connection contrived for her ruin.”[3]

The commissioners were afraid that their threat would go unnoticed. To ensure that the threat was made clear, they had copies printed and sent to congress, the governors of each state, George Washington and his generals, and ministers who would read it to their congregations. 

Their fears were unnecessary. The Americans saw the value in publicizing their threats. “Congress recommended to state authorities that the British text should be printed in local gazettes ‘more fully to convince the good people of these states of the insidious designs of the Commissioners.’”[4] 

William Eden later wrote that he regretted “most heartily that our Rulers instead of making the Tour of Europe did not finish their education round the Coast and Rivers of the Western Side of the Atlantic.”[sic][5]

As World War II was just beginning, the Japanese high command reasoned that the United States would be a threat to Japanese ambitions in the pacific. Admiral Yamamoto knew that he could not win a protracted war with the United States. The strike on Pearl Harbor was designed to “fiercely attack and destroy the United States main fleet at the outset of the war so that the morale of the Unites States Navy and her people [would] sink to an extent that it could not be recovered.”[6] Instead, December 7th 1941 became, in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words, “a day that would live in infamy.” In The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman explained:

Here was a strange miscalculation. At a time when at least half of the United States was strongly isolationist, the Japanese did the one thing that could have united the American people and motivated the whole nation for war. So deep was the division in America in the moths before Pearl Harbor that renewal of the one-year draft law was enacted in Congress by a majority of only one vote—a single vote. The fact is that Japan could have seized the Indies without any risk of American Belligerency; No attack on the Dutch, British or French colonial territory would have brought the United States into the war. Attack on American Territory was just the thing—and the only thing—that could. Japan seems never to have considered that the effect of an attack on Pearl Harbor might be not to crush morale but to unite the nation for combat. This curious vacuum of understanding came from what might be called cultural ignorance, a frequent component of folly. (Although present on both sides, in Japan’s case it was critical.) Judging America by themselves, the Japanese assumed that the American government could take the nation into war whenever it wished, as Japan would have done and indeed did. Whether from ignorance, miscalculation, or pure recklessness, Japan gave her opponent the one blow necessary to bring her to purposeful and determined belligerency.[7]  

How well do you know the other? The other may be a customer, your boss, or even a competitor. In each instance, knowledge of the other will give you insights and help you deal with them more effectively.

Chester Nimitz did just that. Admiral Nimitz had studied the Japanese, and he anticipated the surprise attack. According to his son, Nimitz said,

It is my guess that the Japanese are going to attack us in a surprise attack. There will be a revulsion in the country against all those in command at sea, and they will be replaced by people in positions of prominence ashore, and I want to be ashore, and not at sea, when that happens.

He was Chief of the Bureau of Navigation in Washington D.C. when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. Ten days later, President Roosevelt promoted him to Commander-in-Chief of the United States Pacific fleet.


What About You?

What are you doing to get to know the other? What will you do with that which you have just learned?



[1] Bryson, B. (1990). The mother tongue: English & how it got that way. New York: Perennial. (p. 17).

[2] Tuchman, B. (1984). The march of folly: From Troy to Vietnam. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.  (p. 223).

[3] Tuchman, B. (1984). The march of folly: From Troy to Vietnam. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. (p. 224).

[4] Tuchman, B. (1984). The march of folly: From Troy to Vietnam. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. (p. 224).

[5] Tuchman, B. (1984). The march of folly: From Troy to Vietnam. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. (p. 224).

[6] Tuchman, B. (1984). The march of folly: From Troy to Vietnam. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. (p. 30).

[7] Tuchman, B. (1984). The march of folly: From Troy to Vietnam. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. (pp. 31-32