I love the conversations that happen after I give a presentation. I hear such interesting stories and learn so much! (To learn more about the presentations I give, click here.)
One person recounted a story about a conversation she had in a work setting. She is a home health aide and encounters many diverse people. She seems to have a knack for getting along with people who she doesn’t agree with.
This particular discussion was about the slogan “Black Lives Matter.”
The family member of the client she was working with was bothered by the slogan. So, the home health aide asked, “What if it said, ‘Black Lives Matter, Too’?” That was much better, said the family member.
It sounds so simple, just the addition of one word. It might not even be something different than what is meant, at least by some people.
Let’s analyze the slogan using the lens of the Ethical Zones I have written about in my book, Persuade, Don’t Preach: Restoring Civility Across the Political Divide. In my book, I claim there are three “flavors” of the Ethical Zone of Fairness.
· Equality: When everyone gets a turn or an equal slice of pie
· Merit: College admissions are often done on the basis of merit. First-come, first-served is another form of merit.
· Need: When we give charity or welfare to people, that tends to be need-based. Need is also underneath the affirmative action college admissions and idea of reparations for slavery.
The New York City Marathon incorporates different flavors of fairness into their race admissions process. They have a random drawing (equality), a qualification based on other running times (merit based) and raising money for charity (a different merit-based flavor of fairness). They even have a way to qualify by participating in local races and volunteering, which uses belonging as a basis for a still different merit flavor of fairness.
I believe that we all have all three different flavors of fairness in our brains. Support for this idea comes from research with very young children that shows that they have the first two forms. In the research, the kids’ application of the fairness flavor switched with the situation. If there was no difference in effort, the kids used equality; when there was a great deal of effort put forth, they switched to merit. According to these young children who were research subjects, effort should be rewarded.
But adults are less flexible than children; we don’t switch back and forth as easily as they do. We adults tend to favor one form or another and stick with it more often than not. Liberals tend to more often favor the equality flavor of fairness and conservatives favor the merit-based form of fairness. And the need-based flavor of fairness is favored more often by the most liberal among us. Of course, that isn’t always true, but it often is.
These flavor preferences about what “fair” means are often behind the disagreements we have over what is fair. The word “fair” is very unspecific—we actually don’t know what the person means when they use it because we don’t know the flavor of fairness they are using.
Let’s apply these differences in fairness to the reaction that the client’s family member had to the slogan, “Black Lives Matter.” After hearing this story, I can see that the slogan isn’t explicit about the form of fairness being referenced. It appears that the person who was upset might have been interpreting it as a statement of merit flavor of fairness, which could be something like, “Black Lives are worth more than everyone else’s because they are Black.” Or maybe her interpretation was need-based: “Black Lives Matter because we need to make it up to them because of their history in this country” or “Black Lives Matter because they are mistreated by the police so often.” I don’t know, I wasn’t there.
But by adding the word “too,” the flavor of fairness becomes explicit. “Black Lives Matter Too” is a clearer statement of equality. And that was OK with the person who was upset.
Words matter. Not just because they’re words, but because of the values underlying each of them. But we ignore the values. They’re invisible to us.
What flavor of fairness do you prefer most often? Are you flexible based on the situation like the kids were, or do you usually use one flavor? Is your fairness preference behind some of your conflicts? Could this awareness help you resolve some of your conflicts?
What are the lessons to be learned from this encounter?
First, that the words we use set off emotional reactions. We need to be aware of those reactions; they can help us identify the resistance to them.
Second, our words may be interpreted in ways we don’t intend.
Third, that we can learn more about people’s reactions by asking questions.
I’ll repeat the model I have been working with.
· ASK, don’t assume,
· AFFIRM what you can,