Miami has always been a favorite travel spot of mine. It was the first big city I ever visited without my parents. As a high school student from Sand Springs, OK, I represented the state of Oklahoma at the Future Business Leaders of America national conference.
Since then, I’ve flown to Miami numerous times for business and pleasure, always enjoying the sun, ocean, stone crabs, architecture, and night lights.
When I was there in late January for a business meeting, I expected to savor my time in a familiar place.
Instead, my 48-hour stay was anything but ordinary. For the first time, I experienced Miami as a member of the minority. Within two groups of bilingual speakers, I was the Anglo who only spoke English.
Most of my colleagues I met up with in Miami speak Spanish as their first language. The rest had learned Spanish in school or on the job. It was totally natural for all of them to speak Spanish during meeting breaks with the staff at the hotel, restaurants, and the airport plus the Uber drivers as well as the airport shuttle bus drivers.
Initially I felt ostracized, a member of the out-group. That’s natural, as I remembered from all of my neuroscience training. We like to be around people like us, so who was I to deny my colleagues the opportunity to speak Spanish?
After all, when I spoke–in English–everyone could understand me and respond in English. I felt perfectly safe and content.
Meanwhile, while I was enjoying Miami, two individuals further north were making national news for their insensitive remarks about people of other nationalities.
Tom Brokaw, the former anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” made an impromptu remark on “Meet the Press” on Sunday morning that Hispanics in America should “work harder at assimilation.” On Sunday night, he apologized.
A Duke University professor also had to apologize for an email message she sent a few hours earlier. She had asked several Chinese students via email not to speak their native language to each other in the student lounge.
Do you wonder if they stopped to think before they spoke or wrote the email message?
That’s one lesson they should have learned.
The second lesson they should have learned is to pause and put yourself in others’ shoes before speaking or acting. When you practice what should be our innate “theory of mind” ability, you’re able to understand how others are likely to react in certain situations. For example, the Duke professor should have figured out, like I did, that a group of people who share common experiences and a common language often enjoy speaking to one another in that language. It’s a way to tighten social bonds and common heritage.
The third lesson they could have learned – which is probably a graduate level lesson for each of them — is the value of showing empathy for others. Empathy goes beyond theory of mind.
When you’re empathetic, you consider another person’s situation from their point of view, rather from your own. That can start to create deeper understanding between you and make a stronger connection. (For more about this, check out my Forbes.com article, How Empathetic Are You, Really?)
Instead, Brokaw gave a master class in how the empathy network in the brain gets disengaged when you feel powerful or believe you have higher status than others.
This is a particular problem when you’re talking with or about people who are not part of your in-group, and who may be of a different race. You may literally not feel their pain. For example, in an important study, research subjects watched individuals as needles penetrated their cheeks. The research subjects noted much greater pain when the individuals with the needles were the same racial group. (See the research study Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulated empathic neural responses.)
And there’s yet another lesson that seemed to go over their heads. Those who are bilingual and bicultural have important skills in our increasingly multi-ethnic, multilingual society.