Two sets of plain wooden blocks: one jumbled, one sorted by shape.

Editor’s Note: As Head of Global Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Kristina Brunelle writes monthly messages for RTI staff, encouraging us to reflect on our lived experiences with structural and interpersonal bias, and how we can foster a culture of belonging at work and beyond. We invite the Insights audience to join us in the same spirit of reflection.

As mere toddlers, we are taught to sort. Squares vs. circles, hot vs. cold, red vs. blue, light vs. dark. As we age, the exercise becomes a tad more complex, vanilla vs. chocolate, birds vs. mammals, weekdays vs. weekends, home vs. away, good guys vs. bad guys. Sorting is a survival skill, ingrained in us by our earliest ancestors who had to choose between animals and plants that were safe to eat, hunt, touch – and those that were poisonous, predators, dangerous. As a young child I remember one of the TV programs I watched even had a catchy jingle to help the process along, “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong. Can you tell which thing is not like the others… by the time I finish this song?

Sorting is part of our bodies’ process of activating either our sympathetic nervous system – which makes the age-old choice of whether to fight or flee – or our parasympathetic nervous system, that activates our “rest & digest” reaction.  We sort instantaneously, without conscious thought, which in today’s increasingly stimulating environment, makes mental sense if we are to survive.  Junk mail vs. “real” mail, rumors vs. truth, urgent vs. important – we face these types of choices every day as a matter of course.  They are ingrained within our daily interactions to help us make sense of a complex world. 

We not only do it with things, we also do it with people – often with a tendency toward the binary. Jews vs. Muslims, Catholic vs. Protestant, Black vs. white, Democracy vs. Communism, old vs. young, Master’s vs. PhD, straight vs. LGBTQ, men vs. women. There is even a name for it; it’s called “othering.”  To treat or consider (a person or a group of people) as alien to oneself or one's group (as because of different racial, sexual, or cultural characteristics). Our environment demands that we do it through an ongoing onslaught of images and messaging in movies, television programs, commercials, school textbooks, social media, advertising, and newspapers that promote choosing between something safe, good, pretty, valuable and something nefarious.  We are constantly being conditioned.

But what if we didn’t do it? What if we opposed this conditioning that we have been taught to do so well from the time we were young? What if we caught ourselves when our body/mind was playing the sorting game and consciously made a decision to question that tendency to simplify?

The results could have far-reaching effects on our relationships at every level from the personal to the worldwide. Consider the hiring process. What if we looked and listened more deeply to the person, at the resume, about the experiences behind the face in front of us and found the commonalities, the connections, the shared humanity? What new and different flavors, ideas, perspectives, experiences, opportunities might we discover? What new people might we get to know? What new projects might we work on? What new colleagues might we have the opportunity to hire and work with? What new friends might we make?

This month I encourage you to notice when your body/brain is sorting. Notice when other people are sorting. You can do this at work, among friends, when following news and other media – in any aspect of everyday life. Who and what are you sorting “in” and who you are sorting “out” and what wonderful possibilities might you have before you if you choose differently?