When I started out on my own after college, like so many people I furnished my apartment with items passed down from family members—drinking glasses from my grandmother, dishes from my aunt, lamps from my parents, and a well-used sofa from my older brother. It was a great new adventure as I had my own place and I was now a “wise, all knowing adult.” One day some friends visited and laughed at the lamps. I knew the lamps were older, but they were still cool-looking and in good shape. But my friends were actually joking about the plastic wrap that was on the lamp shades. You know what I am talking about—that protective plastic covering that is on lamps in the store when purchased (and that remained on those lamps all those years). I was perplexed and thought, “EVERYONE has the original plastic wrap on their lamps. At least everyone from where I grew up left the plastic on. What’s wrong with these friends for thinking this was odd?” It was eye opening for me that, in fact, not everyone leaves the plastic wrap on lamp shades. Who knew?!?
I look back on this story with humor and great pride. Those covered lamp shades linked to the history of the people where I grew up in central New York State. The area had been settled by European immigrants who came to the United States to establish a better life for themselves and for their children. They worked hard to make it in the U.S. and experienced the Great Depression. Their past financial struggles gave them an appreciation for preserving and protecting their assets. Those lamp shades were a reflection of the culture and the values of my upbringing.
We all have our unique ways of doing things based on who we are and our previous experiences. Sometimes we may feel that our approach is similar to everyone else, and other times we may feel like the outsider, not fully understanding the norms of the group we are in. The opportunity for this variety of feelings is even more likely at work where we have the incredible opportunity to be around colleagues who come from various backgrounds and experiences. It’s the intertwining and interaction of all of us and all of our backgrounds that help create a diverse and inclusive environment.
For me a key element of inclusion is simply having a conversation and getting to know more about others, and being open to understanding and appreciating different approaches. I ask questions and try to get to know others and their story. I may not always fully understand or even agree, but I always walk away with a better appreciation. And, most often, I find I have more in common with other people than I could have imagined. In times I have felt like the outsider, I have always appreciated when someone took the time to welcome me, get know more about me, or seek my opinion. It was through these actions of others that I felt a greater sense of belonging and comradery.
So, the next time you run into someone with “plastic wrap on their lamp shade,” be curious. Strike up a conversation, and seek to know more about them. If you are like me, you will be amazed by what you learn.
-Ken Oyer (The Vanguard Group, Diversity and Inclusion, PA)