‘Us vs Them’ : Where do we draw the line?

Economy, Industry News, People, Work Place Competencies

When we all think alike, no one thinks very much”- Albert Einstein

As a life coach I frequently find my client fighting an ‘enemy’ which could be a group, person, situation, oneself or simply a fear of something.

Once during a coaching conversation, the client whose employer organization had been acquired by a competitor, was resisting the new management and the consequent new rules, expectations and culture.

He had positioned his old organization (European) as the ‘us’ and the new owners (who were Korean) as the ‘them’. He had deeply analyzed all the differences and how all the ‘wrong’ things were happening to his colleagues. Of course, the culture of the old management was the ‘right one’, while the Koreans were coming in to ‘spoil everything’.

What was interesting was that he had totally blinded himself to the positive aspects of the change.

Browse through newspapers or news channels, listen to conversations or points of views and we would see many instances where people have grouped into an ‘us’ versus ‘them’. These lines could be drawn on anything from politics, region, religion, spirituality, food, Alma mater to mundane things like tattoos, jewelry or favorite newspapers.

We can imagine infinite ways to segregate and group the people and situations around us. It could be an unknown person in a distant part of the world, an acquaintance, close friend or even family, it takes us a few seconds to create imaginary groups and decide whether that person is in the ‘in group’ or the ‘out group’….

So what motivates us to group people? This process seemingly works two ways… when we are engaging with a person and seeking to be ‘aligned’ with them, our mind continually searches for areas of commonality and delve on them to strengthen the bond. So when I am having a conversation with a stranger in a party, our minds would start scanning for information which could help us connect and create an ‘us’ ( same Alma mater, city, region, common friends, hobbies, books et al) to enhance conviviality.  Once the ‘us’ is structured, the conversation focuses on similar experiences so that the ‘bonding’ is deepened. Great process to enjoy a conversation and make a friend!

On the other hand, whenever there is a conflict or painful engagement, the mind conjures up a ‘us’ versus ‘them’ to polarize the difference and create an ‘enemy’ who has to be defeated. This deepens the conflict, preparing us for ‘battle’ instead of looking at synergy or reconciliation. So an altercation with the boss (‘the management is not bothered’), conflict with children (‘the new generation’), spouse (‘the other sex never understands us’), or any other conflict ignites the process which makes ‘them’ as wrong and ‘us’ as right. Ask for the opinion of the ‘others’ and you would get an equally compelling argument how they are ‘right’.  Lately, there has been an ongoing tussle between real estate companies and home buyers on the inordinate delay of housing projects in India. As a consumer myself, I have engaged with other home owners and forums, where we discuss the rapacious attitude of real estate builders. A few days back, I was talking to an employee of one such real estate builder, and he gave me a compelling perspective of the ‘out group’ about how they are  trying their best despite various issues related to financing, corruption and regulation.

You might also notice  how our minds, while including a person in the ‘in group’ now, would later segregate that person into an ‘out group’ over a different perspective, which seemingly is quite normal.

Just to describe a commonplace situation,  I was talking to a lady a few days back and we were sharing our similar thoughts on religion and spirituality, seeing ourselves as an ‘us’ as compared to people who think differently. A few minutes later, when we were chatting in a group, she positioned herself as a woman, putting me in the ‘out group’ of males.

I believe this is a natural mental process which helps in crystallizing our individuality, taking decisions ( and sides !)  and justifying our perspective/judgement of people and events. The trouble starts when we deepen the ‘polarization’, thus impacting our judgment and decision making.  The harmless ( or even playful) segregation done initially, when reinforced with repeated thinking and talking to like minded people, can degrade to  ‘groupthink’ where a group could end up taking wrong decisions or actions.

So where do we draw the line? Some basic pointers which could possibly help us avoid the pitfalls of this habit are :

  1. Take it lightly as its ‘just a perspective’ : Watch your mind, and you would realize that this thinking is like shifting sand, as we continually seek alignment or prepare for ‘combat’. In both cases, if we hold on and allow it to deepen, it becomes a belief or ‘inviolable truth’ which can seriously hamper us. Remember that it’s just a point of view and not the whole truth.
  2. Expand the boundaries of the ‘group’: As your mind defines a group or the ‘us’ in a specific situation, play with the idea of expanding the boundaries. For example, if you are in conflict with your child over effective studying methods, make the exams as a ‘bigger challenge’ which has to be defeated, bringing both of you into the ‘in group’. That would allow you to think together on how she could study effectively.
  3. See people as individuals: We tend to generalize people when we are in this thinking mode. See a person as a complete individual, and it would be impossible to position him in an ‘in group’ or an ‘out group’.

The human intellect is trained to dissect and segregate, and we do it continually to make sense of this world. For many of us, it becomes an ‘addiction’ which leads to fear, conflicts and stress. Detaching ourselves from this mental compulsion of polarizing people and situations could make things easier, give less stress and get us more friends!

Look forward to comments !

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