You Don't Speak My Language

I was at a Home Depot recently and found myself in the plumbing aisle with a pretty unhappy customer. I went there looking for a 3/4” backflow preventer valve and ended up getting a lecture on “What’s wrong with America.”

What set my fellow shopper off was a package. Actually, several packages. And it wasn’t really the packages that bothered him so much as it was the writing on their fronts and sides. The Spanish writing, or as he would refer to it, “all the goddamn Hispanic words.”

(Hispanic words?)

His frustration...more like rage...was not only directed at the manufacturers who chose to include a non-English language on their packaging. He was angry at the reader. The people these words were meant to help.

I suppose I could end this story here knowing most of you have already formed an opinion about my Home Depot Guy (HDG). Tobacco-stained tee shirt, Skoal ring in the back pocket of his jeans, empty cans of Budweiser in the bed of his pickup, right? Well, not exactly. In fact, not at all. But that doesn’t stop our brain from summoning up a stereotype. Just as it didn’t stop HDG from stereotyping those who want “goddamn Hispanic words” included on packages.

Being prejudice is part of our human nature. That may be unsettling to hear, but it’s true. Today, we consider bias and bigotry and discrimination to be moral issues, moral wrongs, but they didn’t start out that way. They evolved in our brains as a protective mechanism. A means of sorting out the threats in our lives. When someone looked different, acted different, or communicated different than us, it told our brains to be careful and to not let them get too close.

Knowing that we all carry around some biases and prejudices towards others shouldn't surprise anyone. At least not if you are being honest. What is interesting, however, is the way our brains appear to “stack rank” our biases and formulate our bigotry. Our public discourse of the past 100+ years would lead us to believe that race would be at the top of our prejudicial tendencies. When, if fact, a number of studies have shown that it is language that triggers our greatest fears.

  1. Language
  2. Income
  3. Race/Ethnicity
  4. Sexual Orientation
  5. Disability
  6. Social Status
  7. Social and Spiritual Affiliation (politics, religion, membership, etc)
  8. Gender

Considering the history of racial, sexual and gender discrimiation, it may be hard to believe that our brain is more prejudicial of someone who speaks a different language. But if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Consider our ancient ancestors living in their tribes and communities hundreds and thousands of years ago.The most reliable information they had to distinguish their friends from their potential enemies was a common language and a familiar means of communicating. You could have a different skin color, be a different genger, or be inflicted with a disability and still be part of my clan. But not if you didn't speak my language. That was a tell-tale sign that you were an outsider and a potential threat. Our brains learned this lesson a long time ago, and as my trip to Home Depot reminded me, it hasn't unlearned it yet.

We communicate with others in so many ways. In person, in the way we speak and write, through our websites, our Facebook pages, our emails, and our packaging. Just keep in mind that the human brain has been conditioned to look and listen for what is familiar and is suspicious of the sights and sounds it doesn't recognize. So whether you are an Indian programmer looking to do work in the United States, a Chinese engineer offering your services to companies in Brazil, or a hip-hop artist trying to sell records to a mainstream audience, you will be judged more by the way you sound, the way you speak, and the way you communicate, than you will by the color of your skin, who you date, or whether you have a Y chromosome.

James Kane