November 20, 2014


How many times have you made assumptions about a person based on their appearance? Most of the time we don’t realize we’re doing so. We catch a glimpse of a stranger and create a story in our minds about them with limited and superficial information distorted by our biases, perceptions, and past experiences.

But the truth is, we have no idea who another person is until we know their history, listen to personal stories they share, learn their value system, and understand how they experience life. Until then, people are enigmas and mere projections of what we already believe to be true about them.

The belief is self-fulfilling until we change our vantage point. Look for new information. Choose to see the person from another angle. Through a different lens, with empathy. If we care to know who they really are. Identity, perception, and human behavior have always been interesting topics to me because they are complex and multi-layered. Since beginning my first apprenticeship as an Ei student, I have a renewed enthusiasm for them.

I’m working with an advertising agency where I’m exploring the intersection of business, creativity and culture. The agency is experiencing an identity crisis as it moves from focusing on Hispanic and Latino markets to becoming a subject matter expert on emerging cultures that are not ethnocentric. The transformation requires a significant organizational culture and behavior shift. The agency is highly regarded and sought after for its Hispanic and Latino expertise. Most of the team share this cultural heritage. The agency has been described as the multicultural agency among the parent company’s subsidiaries, yet its focus has been on speaking to one specific market. The business decisions it makes often reinforce this.

But if you look within the unifying Hispanic and Latino culture, the agency actually is multicultural and very diverse. The team represents three continents and several countries each with its own traditions. Multiple languages are spoken (Spanish, Portuguese, and English). Many people speak all three. The accents within these languages are different, depending on nationality. There are nuances to the sounds among Puerto Ricans (Caribbean), Mexicans (North American), Argentines (South American), and Spaniards (European) speaking Spanish. Written Spanish is different among them. Business etiquette can also be different for each.

Add race to the mix and the view gets even more interesting and rich. Similar to my own ethnicity, there is a wide variety of complexions and facial features in this community. I estimate 95% of people in the company are Hispanic or Latino. When looking for exceptions, they can be ambiguous. I have walked by people in the office and wrongly assumed they were white and not Hispanic or Latino based on their Anglo appearance. Then later heard them speak English with a noticeable Latin accent. When I realize I’ve made a biased assumption like this one, it concerns me. “Why did I do that?” I wonder. I began my apprenticeship asking, “What is culture’s influence in a creative agency? Does it matter?” Yes, it matters. I don’t know all the reasons why yet. I have more questions than answers.

I started the year at Ei wanting to learn how to build brands and why people feel connected to them. Why I connect to them. My learning experience at the advertising agency has me looking at brand identity in a whole new way. As I help the company re-brand itself and change behaviors while also preserving its heritage, I examine my own behavioral patterns and choices and wonder what influences them. Why do I like certain things? What communities do I belong to? What assumptions do I make about people? What do people assume about me? How am I showing up? In what ways do I connect beyond my ethnicity? What choices does my ethnicity influence (e.g. where I travel, what I do, how I perceive myself and others, why I’m attracted to ideas, conversations I have, who I love)? So many questions. All of them ask, “Who am I?”

I hope the insight I gain from asking these questions cultivates an even stronger self-awareness and helps me recognize similarities in all kinds of people and our shared humanity. The next time I catch myself making a biased assumption about someone, I want to instead become very curious about them. Be conscious. Look beyond the surface and know that what I think I see or experience of them at a moment in time is not all of who they are. I hope I can help the advertising agency do the same when shaping identities for its clients and do the same for itself.

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