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Red and Blue make Purple: Becoming a More Effective Communicator across Cultures

Red and Blue cloud of colors meshing.

Have you ever been in a situation when you have a strongly different opinion about a person than someone else does? Add to it, the interactions you have with that certain person are negative, but for other people those interactions with that same person are awesome?

Why is this?

It’s because Red + Blue = Purple.

Stay with me…

In a communication interaction, I bring with me my past experiences, my personal biases, and my multiple identities (among other things). Just as the person I'm communicating with brings with them their past experiences, personal biases, and multiple identities.

Therefore, whenever I get into a communication interaction with someone, it is shaped not just by me, but by the person who I am communicating with as well.

Here’s an example with “Doug,” an older White gentleman who is a pharmacist at the local pharmacy.

My communication interaction with “Doug” is very different than my White male husband’s communication interaction with Doug. Doug remains the same person, but because of Doug’s experiences, biases, identities, etc. he may respond very differently to me when compared to the way he responds to my husband; each with our own experiences, biases, and identities as well.

If Doug is Blue, and my husband is Red, their interaction is shaped by each other, and it becomes Purple.

But, if Doug is Blue and I am Yellow, then our interaction becomes Green – different from the interaction of my husband’s.

The tricky part comes right here:

When my husband has no clue why I have felt offended by Doug, or think Doug is rude, or that Doug has made a racist comment because my husband’s interactions with Doug have all been very pleasant.

A single red stick figure with arrows pointing to different colored stick figured.
Every interaction is based on the individuals involved. Red's interaction with Blue will be different than their interaction with Yellow.

Maybe I have had bad experiences feeling disrespected by older White Southern gentleman, so I come to the interaction defensive. Or maybe “Doug” doesn’t like the fact that I am a younger (if I may) Black woman from up north and don’t use the word “sir.” Maybe, “Doug” has much respect for Veterans (my husband) or maybe my husband is used to the Southern cultural niceties and uses them more than I do. Whatever the case may be, Red + Blue = Purple.

The good news is, this is completely normal. But not everyone understands that context matters.

Understanding this concept of communication interactions becomes especially important when different cultures are involved. I have had many interactions as a Black female with White people who my White friends have felt are "so sweet," "very kind," or who I'll "just love." Only to find out that the interactions weren't so sweet, nor very kind, and there was absolutely no love.

While race/ethnicity and gender may be some of the most apparent cultural differences, be aware that other cultural factors impact the interaction as well.

This concept can even be understood with a different species. As another example, let’s take my dog Huggs.

He’s a pit bull/boxer mix. 70+ pounds of muscle, stubbornness, and awesomeness. Now, while he is the most lovable people-friendly dog you’ll ever meet and gets along well with every dog at doggy day care, he isn’t very lovable when he is walking on-the-leash with me and approached by another dog, off-the-leash.

If the owner of said off-the-leash dog is around, I will often hear them say things like, “Oh don’t you worry about little Fluffy, he won’t hurt a fly.”

Ummm, I’m NOT worried about little Fluffy. I’m worried about the interaction that little Fluffy and Huggs will have together.

Red + Blue = Purple.

Little Fluffy and his owner have no clue about our past experience when Huggs and I were attacked by an off-the-leash dog before. This means that we both get extra cautious when another dog enters our space; I pull up on the leash a bit more, and Huggs gets more defensive.

Funny thing is, Huggs is perfectly fine when being walked by our dog walker. Yet another layer of Red + Blue = Purple.

Boxer laying on top of another dog sleeping at a doggy day care.
Huggs getting along perfectly fine with another dog at doggy day care. Notice, I'm not there.

It may be hard for people to understand how much they actually bring with them to an interaction. But believe me, you bring your whole self and then some.

So, the next time you are questioning someone’s communication interaction with another individual who you think is awesome, saying, “No, he didn’t mean to say that to you,” or “But she’s always been so nice to me,“ or “No, they’re not the kind of person who would do that...”

…take a step back and realize that you were not a part of the interaction and therefore it was a completely different interaction than what you have experienced or will experience.

I've recently been asked to provide talks and trainings on effective communication for everyone from parents, to community organizers, to incarcerated individuals. If you would like to schedule a training or talk, feel free to contact me!

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