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Posted by Philip on 1 June 2017, 4:36 pm in , , , , ,

What makes people fear difference

I often write and talk about my simple definition of diversity: the synergy of our uniqueness and commonality.

In other words, the combined effect or interaction based on our differences and similarities. And we're all both similar to and different from each other, all 7.508 billion of us.

In general, people seem to feel comfortable with similarities: language, interests, values, beliefs, favourite music. But when it comes to differences, suddenly people get antsy, uncomfortable, fearful, angry. Why?

A lot gets talked and writen about unconscious bias, confirmation bias, ignorance, etc. But I actually think it's simpler than that.

I think people feel uncomfortable with difference for two reasons:

  1. They're uncomfortable in their own skin (or not aware of and at ease with their own values, beliefs etc).
  2. They're not curious.

The reason I use 'unique' and 'common', rather than 'different' and 'similar', is because alternative words invoke alternative emotions. Have a look at this list of words beginning with 'diff':

  • difference.
  • difficulty.
  • diffidence.
  • diffusible.
  • diffracted.
  • diffusions.
  • diffidency.
  • difflation.

Notice how many have negative meanings. Now look at words starting with 'sim':

  • simulcast.
  • simulated.
  • simulator.
  • simpleton.
  • simpatico.
  • simulacre.
  • simulacra.
  • simulates.

Interestingly, they don't follow the same theme.

'Common' is defined as "collective, communal, community, public, popular, general; shared, joint, combined."

'Unique' is defined as "being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else." I've also seen it defined as "different in a way worthy of note."

Changing our language about diversity, I think, can subtly change our (un/sub)conscious response to it. Using 'unique' neutralises our negative reaction against difference and encourages us to be curious. Using 'common' removes the positive leaning of 'similar' and suggests a more ordinary, even boring connotation.

Try it. Reframe different as interesting and similar as meh (as well as becoming more comfortable in your skin) and see what happens.

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