By Susan Fader
This article first appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Quirk’s Marketing Research Review. Reprinted with permission.
No matter how open-minded we think we are, we all live in self-created bubbles that influence how we interpret what we hear and see and how we interact with others. Your individual norms and rules, which provide the baseline assumptions underpinning your navigation of the world, may differ just as much from someone who lives in another country or speaks a different language as from someone who grew up down the block from you.
As a business strategy consultant and qualitative researcher, I have found that baseline assumptions are generally seen as givens and are rarely double-checked to verify that they are still an accurate or relevant foundation for what is being explored. But if you begin with the wrong baseline assumptions, it doesn’t matter how much data you gather, you may end up going down an incorrect path.
Three new books help us to reexamine the key baseline assumptions that may be integral to our worldviews, with each focusing on a different key component of bursting our bubbles: emotions and empathy; aging; and interpersonal skills. While all three have a business focus, with diverse business situational and application examples, they are just as relevant to helping us consider how we act in our personal lives.
Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions, by Batja Mesquita, will have you reappraising your skill at reading emotional cues and questioning whether you truly know the right empathetic reaction to exhibit in certain situations. Mesquita is a pioneer of cultural psychology, which is the study of the roles of culture in emotions and society. She was born and raised in Holland in a Sephardic Jewish family and then came to the United States for postdoctoral work and research. She recounts how, even though she is an expert in cultural aspects of emotions, was actively researching the topic and her radar was super-attuned for cultural differences when it came to emotions, in America she was repeatedly misreading and misusing emotional cues. These missteps negatively impacted how her colleague initially viewed her and how she interpreted work rules.
“Between Us” explores the two different models of emotions she developed – MINE and OURS. These models effectively challenge the belief that emotional cues and societally approved reactions, as well as the role of empathy, are the same across societies or even among people from different cultural backgrounds living in the same city.
The MINE emotional model – Mental, INside the person and Essentialist – is Western (or WEIRD: Western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic) and focuses on how a person personally feels. The OURS model – OUtside the person, Relational and Situational – focuses on what is happening in the relationships with people around us and is more likely to be found in non-WEIRD cultures.
However, even within WEIRD cultures, societal norms and expectations of behavior are different, which can cause the clash that Mesquita encountered with her academic colleagues when she came to the U.S. or, as she relates in the book, that of a Belgian teacher and a student of Turkish background, but born and raised Belgium, who had incorrectly accused of wrongdoing. The student’s emotional reaction of lowering his eyes to show respect – which follows the OURS emotional model – is misread by the teacher’s MINE emotional model that says not looking at her directly is an admission of guilt.
The book is full of revelations, including that there are a number of languages that don’t have a specific word for “emotion,” and, in addition, that many emotional concepts that a person from one WEIRD culture may feel are integral to conveying emotion may not exist in other WEIRD languages. Another was that happiness as a motivator for employee happiness in MINE cultures has less relevance in an OURS culture. As Mesquita points out, “Happiness is not universally motivating … If happiness informs and facilitates action in WEIRD cultures … individuals in East Asian contexts may not believe that happiness helps their task performance, as white Americans do seem to believe.” 
“Stage (Not Age): How to Understand and Serve People Over 60 – The Fastest Growing, Most Dynamic Market In the World” lays out a strong argument that businesses are leaving a lot on the table when they think of those 60 and older as one homogenous group of consumers. The book also works as a clarion call for individuals to rethink their view of what their opportunities are as they age.
Author Susan Wilner Golden, director dciX at the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute and an adjunct professor, advises startups and companies on the entrepreneurial opportunities that longer lives and the growing longevity economy ($8.3 trillion in the U.S. and $22 trillion worldwide) present.
The focus of the book is that we as a society, and as individuals, need to rethink our baseline assumptions and definitions of what an “old person” is and what they are capable of doing, and, more importantly, how these individuals want to engage with life.
Golden’s thesis is that the classic three-stage view of modern life – learn, earn, retire – no longer works, especially with record life spans and numbers of people reaching 100 years old. Consequently, the language we use to describe aging has not evolved and many times the descriptors for this demographic create negative imagery that can inhibit a company from successfully tapping into this market.
She also feels that the attempt to create a linear relationship between age and functionality, e.g., 65-74 is young-old; 75-84 is middle-old; 85+ is old-old, is the wrong approach to thinking about and grouping older people. Any categorization of “old” people must move away from chronological age and move to one that incorporates the person’s overall health plus their mindset or life stage. As examples of how chronological age can be misleading – and how health and mindset are more appropriate gauges – she provides a snapshot of three different 75-year-olds: one whose chronic health issues keep her housebound; another who is a creative entrepreneur starting a clothing company; and third who is a daredevil Grand Prix race car driver.
The book is divided into two sections. The first shows that businesses need to move away from thinking about and defining a person by their age and instead shift to considering what stage of life they are in. In the second part, Golden provides multiple cases that dive into market opportunities, the roadblocks that may be encountered, and how to overcome them. Golden also provides in-depth case studies of how an array of businesses, including Warby Parker, Merrill Lynch, and Nike, have successfully reframed how they think about and segment this market and thus have unlocked new and substantial business opportunities. At the end of each chapter, Golden offers helpful recommendations for how businesses (and individuals) should shift their thinking if they want to develop and market products/services for these consumers.
Our final selection is “Rising Together: How We Can Bridge Divides and Create a More Inclusive Workplace,” by Sally Helgesen, and at the outset I have to admit that I have personally bought and given away more than a dozen copies of a previous book she co-authored, “How Women Rise”, and every woman and man I have given it to has said that it was incredibly helpful in guiding them to reframe how they both view and respond to work interactions and their workplace behavior.
Helgesen has done it again with “Rising Together,” in which she offers new ways for how companies and employees should approach the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) Gordian knot. By focusing on the how, she provides an extremely insightful and concrete pathway that is more effective than most current DEI approaches.
Her DEI thesis is that, “Behavior and actions are the key. This contrasts with the emphasis on mind-sets, assumptions and the search for unconscious bias that has become the dominant means for addressing diversity in organizations in recent years ... it is usually easier to try out new behaviors than to attempt to shift our internal thoughts … we can’t control the events that trigger us but we can control how we respond.”
The first part of the book identifies the eight common triggers she feels undermine our ability to connect with people whose history and values may be different from ours. Helgesen then outlines how making small behavioral tweaks can help people begin to understand other people’s baseline assumptions and worldviews that are coloring their behavior. She explores how the internal dialogues/stories we tell ourselves may be barriers to our success and the success of others and provides many business scenarios and alternative scripts that can reshape how we self-perceive and behave.
Sharing a commonality with the authors of the two other books reviewed here, Helgesen feels it is very important to explore the taxonomy we use to communicate and also recognize that the meanings of words change over time. Her example of whether some newly hired employees were “cheating” or “collaborating” is quite effective.
These three books will definitely help you see and better understand roadmaps to thinking and behavior that might not be mirrors of yours and thus will unlock business opportunities and better interaction with and understanding of others. The more we challenge our own assumptions, the more likely we are to be able to identify and dismantle the barriers that prevent us from communicating effectively.
About the Author
Susan Fader is a business strategist and qualitative researcher at FaderFocus. She can be reached at email@example.com.
1 For an in-depth discussion of WEIRD, check out “The WEIRDest People in The World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous,” by Joseph Henrich.
2 “How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back From Your Next Raise, Promotion or Job,” by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith.