Implicit Bias Series — Face
I recently had coffee with a young lawyer who works for our Public Defender here in Tampa. She and I had connected on LinkedIn and, as is my wont with local lawyers I don’t yet know, I suggested we meet. I like to use this type of opportunity, not just to market my services for referral purposes, but also both to introduce young lawyers to the concept of collaborative dispute resolution, in case they have any interest in obtaining the introductory training, and also to discuss whether they might be interested in joining the Inns of Court, in which I’ve been deeply involved for over 30 years.
Finally, I also offer to mentor younger lawyers, especially women, if they feel that would be beneficial. If working in a small law firm, they are usually especially interested in my marketing expertise.
Of course, I looked this gal up on The Florida Bar website before our get-together, not just so that I could get some additional background on her, but also so that I might recognize her at La Segunda.
By the time we were served our café con leche and Cuban toast, despite the thirty-year difference in our ages, and the difference in color (I’m white; she’s black), we had connected quickly and shared deeply.
We Are Similar, But Not Identical
Eventually I felt comfortable enough to comment on the marked disparity I had recently observed, perhaps because it had happened again in the parking lot outside just that morning, between walking past a white person on the street and passing by someone who is black. It seems to me that people of color are far more likely to initiate or to respond to a greeting in passing, whereas white people tend to avoid looking at strangers, especially looking them in the eyes, or, if “caught” (because that’s what it feels like) looking, then they quickly look away.
Coming from my car to the café, I had passed a black guy headed the other way. I smiled and greeted him, “Good morning.” He grinned back at me, responding “Same to you!” and kept going on his way. Made me feel good!
My conversation with Sophia was enlightening, to say the least. For one thing, she agreed with me. We talked, not just about the apparent disparity in racial attitudes, but also about the different attitudes that prevail in different cities, as well. We had both noticed, for example, that pedestrians in New York go out of their way to not even look at you, whereas people in Tampa tend to be friendlier. We concluded that, despite that she and I had grown up in similar cultures, they were not identical.
Perhaps we Caucasians could learn something from our black peers?
Importance of Facial Expressions
By the same token, once I had raised this subject, there was something else this young black lawyer wanted to talk about. She observed that, somehow, despite her repeated and express invitations to all the newer lawyers in her office, her face or her demeanor appears to discourage her fellow black public defenders from seeking her help or advice. On the other hand, it does not dissuade the white lawyers from coming into her office and asking for aid.
Sophia and I discussed the fact that, as I was able clearly to observe, she has extremely expressive features, her eyebrows in particular, and that, when she’s concentrating, she looks like she’s frowning. Perhaps this is part of her problem.
Because I lecture all the time to collaborative professionals on how important body language and facial expression can be in marketing and in a collaborative team or client meeting, I told her what I knew about the impact we can inadvertently have on those around us, without realizing it. Humans all have a natural tendency to seek out patterns and associations. Implicit biases are influenced by a person’s experience. Cultural conditioning, personal upbringing, and the way others are portrayed by the media (including social media), all affect our implicit biases.
Body language and facial expression are just two factors that may impact the many biases that a person may subconsciously apply in a professional workplace.
I made some suggestions about how she might be able to change how those around her perceive her by purposely changing her facial expressions. We both decided to work on smiling more often.
Interesting conversation, right?
Understanding the Impact of Cultural Upbringing
This intriguing coffee conversation led me to consider a concept that can be helpful in any context, but especially in a divorce or paternity matter in which former lovers are asked to sit across from one another and to make decisions that will affect their lives and those of their children forever. Regardless of which process option we choose to resolve our disputes, our cultures and upbringings impact how we treat others . . . aligned professionals, opposing professionals, neutrals, mediators, judges . . . really, everyone. They affect the ethics that we live by, the standards that we hold dear, the relationships and things that we value, and, consequently, the decisions that we make.
Our unique histories may cause us to appear rude, standoffish, overly friendly, uncomfortable, quiet, loud, etc., and it is up to us, as well as our aligned supporters, to ensure that our true interests are relayed by our communications. We cannot rely on the perceptions of others to understand what we mean if we are not perceived as we truly are.
This approach will lead to more successful settlement conferences that are less likely to erupt in unnecessary and unconstructive drama or to create settlements that are eventually flouted.
Stay tuned; this is the first of three in a series concerning implicit bias. Once someone understands his/her implicit bias, how it works, and its effect on day-to-day operations, s/he will be empowered to tackle any dispute resolution process.
The attorneys at Open Palm Law are sensitive to how our clients’ backgrounds can impact their decisions. We work to completely understand each client and what makes him or her tick. Clients leave their disputes with better resolutions that more effectively meet their needs and interests.
If you are involved in a family law dispute, call us today; we can help!
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Joryn, attorney and Open Palm Founder, began her own firm here in Tampa after a 14-year career in law, two of which she served as a professor of law at Stetson University. She is a recipient of the prestigious A. Sherman Christensen Award, an honor bestowed in the United States Supreme Court upon those who have provided exceptional leadership in the American Inns of Court Movement. For more information on Joryn’s professional experience, take a look at her resume.