What is Your Name?
Pragya Agarwal’s Sway provides a comprehensive understanding of the various biases we each have, how we utilize them in our interactions with others, and offers suggestions for how to combat those that result in negative outcomes for our self or others. Agarwal, a behavioral and data scientist, not only provides a research-based analysis of biases but also provides anecdotes throughout from her experiences living in India and the UK. Rooted in the social sciences, Sway offers significant contributions to how we understand our individual and societal contexts and how our processing of the world around us develops biases towards others. Simply from a syntopical reading and analysis of this book, I can imagine how valuable it will be in ‘de-bias’ conversations and trainings across all sectors.
I found myself connecting directly to much of what Agarwal wrote, both in personal experiences as well as the connections with the other readings we have had throughout this program. In regards to the other readings, here are the main similarities and differences I saw:
- Kahneman’s System 1 & 2 Thinking: Agarwal directly references Kahneman as she discusses the gut instinct and our rapid responses to people and situations.
- Chivers & Chivers: Interesting to compare the views of behavioral and data biases that can emerge. While Chivers’ more focus on statistical biases, there is crossover in terms of the types of biases and how those impact our decision making, worldview, and interactions with others.
- Steele: Agarwal’s anecdotes specifically focused on the questions or biases she has faced living in the UK while having origins in India made me question more of the fuel behind segregation in the US and inconsistencies of social capital.
- Lieberman: It was interesting to contrast these two and their views on the unknown in relationship to the functioning of our brains. While Lieberman discusses that the promise of the unknown can initiate dopamine hits, Agarwal points out that a bias and stereotype can be formed from the unknown due to fear or threat.
- Busch: For me, Agarwal’s discussion of biases produced through technological connection and dependence even more reinforces Busch’s emphasis on the importance of disconnection, being in nature, and embracing solitude.
One personal connection I made to this weeks’ reading revolve around Agarwal’s statement of “my reaction was to water down my ethnicity and avoid any reference to it.” Several years ago I had an employee who was a Korean American and during the interview process, she offered for me and the others on the hiring committee to call her “Sarah” as it was easier to pronounce than her given name. I was startled by her comment and instead asked her to clarify which name she prefers to go by and from there ensured I was pronouncing her name correctly. We worked together for several years, and I had to often encourage her not to give others the ‘out’ of calling her Sarah when that simply was not her name. It may seem an insignificant story on the surface, but it shaped several things for both of us:
- Allowed us to practice (and sometimes fumble through) cross-cultural communication.
- Reinforced that dignity often begins with a name. How many times in scripture do we see such emphasis and importance on a name or name change?
- Developed a foundation of understanding that, as Walker would encourage, leading out of who you are needs to encompass the whole of who you are.
- Affirmed that while our ethnic heritages are different, hers is not subordinate to mine simply because I am a Caucasian in an authority role.
A year ago, this former employee reached out to me to ask if she could share this same story in a book she was working on. She wrote to me that it had been the first time since her family came to the United States that someone reinforced human value in her by insisting on using (and pronouncing!) her given name correctly, and that it empowered her to discontinue offering for others to call her Sarah in the future.
Reading through the various biases Agarwal describes in this work, it encourages me to continue the incorporation of these topics into my trainings and conversations centered on cross-cultural competencies. Even as I think of my NPO, I am even more prompted to determine the best modes and timing to embed assessment and training on unconscious biases into the curriculum I am developing.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not point out that I also strongly resonate with the fact that “left-handedness has suffered from an unfavorable perception for a long time.” And all my fellow left-handers say amen!
 Agarwal, 29.
 Steele, 103.
 Agarwal, 119.
 Ibid., 21.
 Ibid., 14.
 Ibid., 19.
9 responses to “What is Your Name?”
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Kayli, my left-handed wife agree with you pointing out that challenge! I appreciate how well you connect the readings to the others that came before. In this post, you note the differences between Agarwal’s and Lieberman’s research on the brain. What do you see as the implications of both a positive and negative outcome related to brain chemistry? More specifically, how do we make the most of the positive and mitigate the negative?
Roy: I think while so much of brain chemistry can be understood in generalizations, individual experiences, traumas, substances, etc. impacts the practical functioning of that brain chemistry. I think to emphasize the positives, we learn what we can about areas of our brain like the amygdala and how it might function given our individual history. When we understand and know, we can then do better/differently. Often times I have seen going through a curriculum with others is helpful — I went through and have been a fan of skills curriculum/workshops through https://www.therelationshipresource.org/about-workshops.
Great post Kayli and a wonderful story about your employee, Sarah. “Little” things are big things and can have huge meaning and significance to us. I also enjoyed all your connections you made with this week’s book with the other readings we have read so far. I most clearly saw parallels with Kahneman and Lieberman and didn’t think about Steele and Busch. I liked the Busch connection you made. Do you get re-charged by being in nature? I used to, but not as much anymore. Perhaps I need to revisit this…
Troy: I do enjoy nature, but have realized how important it is to be intentional with it or I just don’t do it much. Since having our son, we’ve been engaging with the “1000 Outside” challenge — attempting to get at least 1000 hours spent outside in nature every year. It’s been a good tool for us and I have seen how much I’ve benefitted from it since we started. Even today, it’s beautiful here in sunny CA and I let myself sit outside in silence for just a few minutes longer before getting back inside and working on homework.
I always LOVE your bullet point summaries! Seriously, that was great, especially the syntypopical portion!
I also loved the story you used as an example. That is a powerful picture of overcoming bias. It is slow work, as you said it took years. Well done!
Kayli, much thanks for citing your experience with “Sarah,” and for helping her embrace her cultural identity with dignity. In what other ways can we affirm people’s ethnicity or diversity?
Hey Kayli…thank you so very much for your thoughtful and thought-provoking post on Agarwal’s writings. Like others, I appreciate your syntopical connections and your experience with your Korean-American colleague. I had a similar experience working with the woman from the funeral home while planning my father’s graveside service. She had ‘dumbed-down’ her Latina name to Lucy for white Americans who stumbled over her actual name. My mom and I asked for her given name (Lucia) and used her given name during all our interactions. She ‘glowed’ because of it and we had several marvelous and simultaneously disturbing conversations about her experience living as a Latina in a mostly white community!
I would love to hear more about the bias assessment tools you use.
I was also very intrigued by your comments on Steele’s book as it related to Agarwal’s work on bias. You wrote: “[it] made me question more of the fuel behind segregation in the US and inconsistencies of social capital.” I’d value hearing more detail on this statement. What do you see as the fuel behind segregation in light of Agarwal’s work? Behind inconsistencies in social capital?
Kayli your story about “Sarah” is so meaningful. It reminds me of this video: https://vimeo.com/299004600
This maybe random, but can you talk about the anxiety that is caused when there is a strong focus on pointing out biases/isms and how that may inform your approach in the context you are in?
Kayli, I appreciate how you tied in so many of our previous readings. I can also relate to you story of insisting on someone’s given name. Teaching English as a second language overseas, I always insist on their given names. I wonder if there are times that the current Caucasian individuals feel the need to “water down” their ethnicity or heritage to not come across as bias or worse. In your context how might you address this to not diminish any cultural but elevate?