You are in the midst of a conversation or perhaps a discussion at a business meeting when it takes a turn for the worse. Tension rises. “Women,” you mutter under your breath. “Typical black guy,” you think.

The conversation had nothing to do with the speaker’s race or gender. But when things got hot, suddenly those attributes were front and center. Does it make you a bad person? Not necessarily. But it does reveal our natural vulnerability to knee-jerk reactions and the physiognomy and paradigms of unconscious bias.

The good news is that there are tools to help.

What is Physiognomy?

If you were studying at a prominent University in the 18th or 19th century, Physiognomy likely would have been a required course. Physiognomy is the once deemed “absolute scientific” field of study that said character could be determined by facial features. Think that has no influence today? Think again. High brow. Low brow. Beady eyes. What images came to mind? Likely all correlations had their origins in Physiognomy.

“Physiognomy has its roots in antiquity. As early as 500 B.C., Pythagoras was accepting or rejecting students based on how gifted they looked. Aristotle wrote that large-headed people were mean, those with small faces were steadfast, broad faces reflected stupidity, and round faces signaled courage.”
The Iris, Behind the Scenes at the Getty

Just because Physiognomy is an outdated theory, it doesn’t mean people don’t still practice it all the time. Today, making immediate judgements about character based on a person’s appearance is called unconscious bias.

Separating Difference and Bias

Ironically, the universal “American” part of our many hyphenated identities (think African-American, Irish-American, etc.) feeds our natural inclination to categorize and discern difference. In Geert Hofstede’s extensive research and framework for the six dimensions of national culture*, the US scores 91 out of 100 on Individualism—one of the highest of all countries in the world. We are culturally wired in the United States to think “I” before “we.” While it makes us fierce protectors of our immediate family, it also pre-disposes us, culturally, to more readily recognize differences.

“We have not done as well as we might with cultural differences in this country because we simultaneously value individualism–and therefore see differences quite readily– while valuing equity and fairness. This leads us to pretend that we don’t see difference – that we are “color blind” – for fear of being unfair or judgmental,” says Elmer Dixon, President of Executive Diversity Services. “This creates real confusion and a tension between us.”

The better approach is to allow yourself to notice race, gender and culture (including your own) without attaching judgment. That judgement could be of yourself for noticing difference at all, as in, “oh no, I see difference therefore I must be racist.” Or it could be judgment of the other: “I’ve noticed a difference so that difference must be the cause of the problem.”

We also need be sensitive to the source of multiple layers of difference. “Interacting with others is not only in regards to race, gender and facial features. It’s combined with everything else related to that person,” says Dixon. When a person opens their mouth and sound comes out we respond to their communication style, which is influenced by culture. We overlay our perception filters that come from our own culture, our past experience and from our underlying assumptions, stereotypes or generalizations.”

Intercultural Tools Offer Help

“Our challenge is to recognize difference without judging it as better or worse and to take a moment for self-awareness and evaluation before acting or reacting,” advises Dixon.

Here are three tools to help:

1. Slow Down the Knee-Jerk Reaction

Going back to the conversation that began to escalate negatively. As it did, we made assumptions about the other person and were ready to act on them in response. If our assumptions are accurate for the individual or situation, our behaviors will be effective; if our assumptions are inaccurate, our behaviors will be less effective.

This quick response can be called a “knee-jerk” reaction. It’s not expected that you stop seeing difference, filtering or making assumptions. You cannot. What you can do is slow down your action until you have had enough time to check your assumptions and to consider other external attributes to the situation. You’ve heard of counting to ten before responding when you are angry. Think of it as 10 seconds for reflection and awareness that will allow you to respond more effectively more often.

2. Recognize that Culture Influences Communication Style, Including Your Own

A direct and detached style of communication is the communication style most highly normed across dominant US culture. That approach focuses on the facts, delivered with very little expression of emotion, like Spock on Star Track or Sheldon on Big Bang Theory. Other styles may be indirect and attached, a style which values relationship, discussion and feelings.

No style is right or wrong. It’s just different. And no group is monolithic, although research has normed the influence of culture on communication style to as high as 55 to 88%. For example, direct and detached communication style is the norm (55-88%) for Western-European-American culture. Direct and attached tends to be the cultural norm for African-Americans while Latino cultures tend to communicate in an indirect and attached style.

The ability to separate style from content is one way to glean meaning and understanding from the situation. One appropriate prior step is to mentally remove the face of the person speaking and listen for the style. Are you reacting to the way someone has communicated something, or are you unconsciously reacting to the face on the other end?

Dixon says “it is in that second that we either react out of the paradigm of unconscious bias or we learn to respond to the style needs of the other without a negative reaction.” “While detached communicators may need data with little emotion, attached communicators require more passion along with any relevant data,” Dixon adds.

3. Check Your Assumptions Regularly

Becoming culturally competent is a process, not a finite destination. We may have many “a ha” moments along the way. As with any special skill or talent, however, it takes continuing education, ongoing practice and performance to master.

The more we recognize our own communication style as distinct from others, the more we are self-conscious of our assumptions and can slow down our “knee jerk” reaction to our assumptions, the more often we can be effective in our interactions with others.


* Geert Hofstede, Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations. Second Edition, Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications, 2001

Adapted and reprinted with permission from the Executive Diversity Services blog

About the Author

Deanna Shoss is a marketer, writer, interculturalist in Chicago. As CEO of Intercultural Talk she provides digital, intercultural and real life marketing. Previously Deanna enjoyed 11 years in City Government, being past President of the League of Chicago Theatres and leading Public Relations for McDonald’s Owner/Operators of Eastern New England. Hire Deanna at

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