Reduce Divisiveness by Studying Customer Differences
The topic of red and blue customers sometimes meets with a reaction: "Hey, won't that just make things worse?" The idea is that clarifying differences between conservative and liberal customers could exacerbate an already divisive situation. After all, we may be told not to bring up politics or religion in the workplace. You might make someone mad. So don’t talk about it with customers either. Yet can you think of two things that might shape someone’s view of the world more?
In the runup to the 2020 presidential election, two big technology companies, Basecamp and Coinbase, banned conversations about politics while employees were at work. The result was pretty bad - immediate resignations and turmoil. So how do you approach this topic?
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The answer is to more proactively put political worldview on the table to make it less of a conversational flashpoint. The trick - if you want to call it a trick - is to do it by putting customer worldview on the table and studying the differences through your market to grow a business and profitability. The business imperative demands the analysis and creates the opportunity to reduce divisiveness.
There is a lot of divisiveness because Americans - your customers and colleagues - are increasingly consuming media that reflects their specific liberal or conservative worldview. That media tells them what they want to hear while rationalizing their decision to have a conservative or liberal worldview. From a media consumption standpoint, conservatives and liberals now live on different planets.
There is also evidence that Americans are now physically migrating to neighborhoods and communities with like-minded neighbors. So when red and blue Americans look at their phones or out the window, they see reflections of themselves, not a country evenly split between conservatives and liberals. That other group, conservative or liberal, is out there somewhere beyond the horizon in real life or virtually.
When you don’t engage with "the other side," it becomes easier to view them negatively. Strangers are strange. Maybe it's a self-preservation mechanism for the human race. Immediate caution with strangers keeps us from getting into trouble. Or we’re all just a little too paranoid.
Think how often you changed your mind about someone as you started talking to them, learning about their dreams, meeting their family, or hearing about a sick loved one. There's an expression I heard years ago that went, "you can learn to love anyone if you hear their story." You may not agree with that for everyone you know or see on TV, but getting to know someone has a transformative impact on your perception of them. The less mysterious someone is, the more likely you accept them.
In 1937, Mexican poet Octavio Paz traveled to Spain to help defend the Loyalists against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. It forever changed how he thought about conflict. He says in an interview from The Paris Review:
“My Spanish experience did not strengthen my political beliefs, but it did give an unexpected twist to my idea of fraternity. One day—Stephen Spender was with me and might remember this episode—we went to the front in Madrid, which was in the university city. It was a battlefield. Sometimes in the same building the Loyalists would only be separated from the Fascists by a single wall. We could hear the soldiers on the other side talking. It was a strange feeling: those people facing me—I couldn't see them but only hear their voices—were my enemies. But they had human voices, like my own. They were like me.
I began to think that perhaps all this fighting was an absurdity, but of course I couldn't say that to anyone. They would have thought I was a traitor, which I wasn't. I understood then, or later, when I could think seriously about that disquieting experience, I understood that real fraternity implies that you must accept the fact that your enemy is also human. I don't mean that you must be a friend to your enemy. No, differences will subsist, but your enemy is also human, and the moment you understand that you can no longer accept violence. For me it was a terrible experience. It shattered many of my deepest convictions.
The soldiers on the other side of the wall were laughing and saying, give me a cigarette, and things like that. I said to myself, Well, they are the same as we on this side of the wall.”
Maybe it comes as no surprise that five years later Octavio Paz entered the Mexican diplomatic service with assignments in New York, Paris, Tokyo, Geneva, and India while he continued to write. He won many awards, including the Nobel prize in literature.
Pew Research studied Americans’ views of different religious groups using a thermometer scale to gauge how “warm” someone felt toward various religious groups. Across the board, those Americans who personally know a Jew, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu, Mormon, Muslim, or atheist person, graded the religious group 8-13 points higher than those that do not know one. That’s not a giant swing, but it’s moving in the right direction.
When we don’t know a group or person, we also make up who they are and why they act the way they do. We overestimate our knowledge and competence for something we don’t know much about. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. When we have limited knowledge about topics or people, we convince ourselves that we are more competent than we are. With topics where we have a lot of expertise, we tend to underestimate our abilities and be more self-critical.
When liberals and conservatives become separated - physically and online - we cease to understand each other’s positions and make up answers that we believe to be true. We convince ourselves that we know the “other side,” whichever side that is, and confidently write them off based on our limited knowledge and interactions, further amplifying divisiveness.
When you study your customers through a red and blue lens, you learn the worldviews and perspectives of both sides in a dispassionate manner. You will still disagree with whatever the other side is, but you will be able to step outside of each group and understand how they think about your business. You temporarily step out of the fray to look at the situation more structurally. You have to because you are studying your customers, your market - the people that buy your stuff.
When you study customers this way, you may find yourself stepping outside of your own thoughts to consider how you think, what cognitive scientists refer to as metacognition. You start to think about how you formed your own beliefs. You might think about where you grew up, your friends, family, neighbors, teachers, and other people and places that have influenced how you think.
Studying red and blue perspectives doesn't mean you will "switch sides" or become less conservative or liberal. You may, however, come away with a greater appreciation of the differences, similarities, and contradictions within each of the two worldviews. As a result, you will feel more comfortable engaging in being red or blue with people on all sides.
This is where business can play an active role in returning to a more healthy tension between liberals and conservatives - by thinking about how markets think from a worldview perspective. Call it meta-market cognition. You put customer data on the table and look at it through a worldview lens to see what you have - who’s buying your products. You then look at your organization and consider its strategies, products, communications, merchandising, and more to determine if there is any misalignment with your market. You discuss it internally as a pure business exercise without any need to talk about anything to do with politics.
You will see ample opportunity to improve product-market fit that requires no additional investment. You’ll think about alignment with your market in an interesting new way. The result is an ability to unlock growth and efficiency with the resources you have today. And along the way, everyone will learn something about the other side, possibly making a small dent in divisiveness.
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