Was he threatening me? No, he was smiling.
Am I fearful of Pakistanis? No, all my barbers are Pakistani and I let them flash razors around my head all the time.
Why was I so afraid?
It was his big, yellow truck.
He was there to empty the septic tank and I knew that he had spent his day sucking out sewers… and now he wanted to shake my hand.
For many of you that wouldn’t be a problem, but Cindy sometimes accuses me of being “germophobic.” My response is that I’m not afraid of Germans, although I am pretty wary of Italians with super-spicy meatballs. She thinks I may have mysophobia, or the fear of contamination or germs.
I’m not afraid of germs, I just feel the same way about them that I do about heights—I have a very healthy respect.
Now he wanted me to shake his hand. I gulped.
The truth is, we miscalculate danger all the time. For example, one Noble prize winning psychologist asked people the question, “Are you more likely to die being eaten by a shark or by falling airplane parts?” nearly everyone thinks that sharks are the biggest danger. In fact, you are 30 times more likely to die from falling airplane parts than you are by a shark attack. I guess your chances of dying must skyrocket if you live on a beach near an airport.
This kind of miscalculation not only effects our vacation plans, but also our lives in interactions with people from other cultures. The problem is information and the fact that we bring familiar information to mind first and make decisions based on easy information instead of correct information.
Here are 3 pitfalls that we often fall into.
1. Availability Error-
That’s the problem in the shark/airplane question. A shark attack is big news, so we hear about it more, so it seems to happen more often. Unless we actually do the research, we feel like a shark attack is a greater danger.
I sometimes call it the fortune cookie problem. In America, most Chinese restaurants finish each meal with a fortune cookie. When Americans travel to China and eat real Chinese food, they are shocked not to get a fortune cookie. Fortune cookies are an American Chinese thing and not a real Chinese thing. (Wikipedia reference)
Error Correction: Do your research!
2. Confirmation Error-
Have you ever considered buying a certain brand of car and suddenly it seems that everyone is driving that kind of car? It may not actually be as popular as it seems. When we hold an idea or attitude, we are constantly seeking confirmation that we are correct and will grab onto small verifications that are really not proof at all.
Error Correction: Think objectively!
3. Out-Group Homogeneity Error-
Out-groups are people from a different group than ours. I am a male, so women are an out-group for men. I am an American, so Italians (and their super-spicy meatballs) are an out-group.
We tend to see people in our in-groups as very different, but people in our out-groups as being all the same. I’m sure not all New Yorkers are rude and and all Koreans like rice.
Error Correction: Notice differences!
Back to the Pakistani, I did shake his hand and was glad to make a new friend that day. I did, however, go in my house and wash my hands. Twice!