Sure We're Smart, But Are We OtherWise?

Martin is the author of OtherWise: The Wisdom You Need To Succeed In A Diverse And Divisive World (AMACOM, 2012)

Everybody thinks they’re smart. And out here in the white collar suburbs, a greater proportion than average actually are.  But how many of us are OtherWise?

That is, how many of us have acquired the wisdom of relating to people so unlike ourselves that they seem a little “other”?  Put another way, how many of us have friends of another race, a religion we know little about, or a different sexual orientation than our own?  I won’t even get into friends of a completely different political persuasion.

I always considered myself a relatively open-minded, live-and-let-live kind of guy. But in the course of researching my latest book, OtherWise, I discovered that the depths of my ignorance about other ways of life were darker than I suspected. I was a lot less tolerant than I thought, and my presumed ability to relate to the Other was shaky at best. The tolerance on which I prided myself seemed inadequate and problematic. I had a lot to learn. And as it turns out, it had less to do with the behavior of others than with my own inner workings – the unconscious patterns of thought and feeling that cause us to see the world in terms of “us” and “them.”

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Those patterns of thought and behavior are evolutionary adaptations that allowed our prehistoric ancestors to traverse the African savannah safely when anyone outside their tribe was a potential enemy, but in the second decade of the 21st century, they’re shortsighted and dangerous.

They’re also common. Just look at the current political campaigns. 

My new book makes three recommendations for anyone who would be OtherWise.  The first is to acknowledge all the unconscious biases and prejudices that we carry around, the psychological mechanisms that cloud our judgment and decision-making, and the stone-age legacy that shapes our social life.  If you want to test yourself in this regard, take Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test (

The second step is to better understand the people around us who have a different culture, racial background, sexual orientation, religious belief, or who we consider "different" in some other way. Ironically, the trick at this stage isn't learning more about their differences, but about all the ways they are just like us.  And you can’t gain that understanding in books, you have to spend time with people you consider “different” on their own turf.  Take the “other” to lunch.

The third step should be the easiest, but it requires the most discipline. It consists of refusing to go along with the common practice of otherizing people who are different. At the most basic level, that means objecting when someone tells a sexist or racist joke, not out of some sense of political correctness, but because it perpetuates a culture of "us" and "them." It's literally de-meaning because it robs people of their individuality.

Political and social labeling is akin to the same thing. Think about it, do you know anyone who is consistently and completely "left" or "right" on every issue? Does it make sense to apply those labels so freely? 

Being OtherWise doesn't mean papering over disagreements. But it does mean being able to disagree with people without demonizing them. Let’s make questioning people's motives, intelligence, or patriotism as inappropriate as picking your nose in public. Not only should we avoid doing it ourselves, but we should call each other on it.

Do all three and you’re on the road to being OtherWise.  Which, these days, is 90 percent of being smart.

Dick Martin is the author of OtherWise: the wisdom you need to succeed in a diverse and divisive world (AMACOM, June 2012). He lives in Summit and has written for such publications as the Harvard Business Review and Chief Executive magazine.

 The Guest Column is our readers' opportunity to write about a given issue or topic in an in-depth and educational manner.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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