In this increasingly sensitized world we live in, we find ourselves in a place of wondering. Wondering, how what we say will be interpreted.

And on the receiving end, we may be offended by comments from others and wonder at a minimum, how could this person have been so insensitive.

Layer on to this, differences in cultures and while some may hear a comment as a big deal, the sender may be left scratching their head. For me the solution lies in dialogue and seeking first to understand. Understand what others are sensitive to and what life experience may have led them to feel as they do and understand why others may be left scratching their heads.

Sometimes, it seems so obvious, and yet it isn’t. By way example, Trevor Noah shares this story in his recent autobiography.

According to Noah, in South Africa, where he is from, children are taught that Hitler was a powerful man, the atrocities he committed are left out of the history lesson. He goes on to say, black South Africans often name their children after “great leaders”, emphasizing that great does not necessarily mean good. With this background in mind, Noah shares a story of a friend of his named Hitler. Yes, that is his given name, not a nickname.

As young adults, Trevor and Hitler are entertainers, Trevor is a DJ and Hitler is a dancer. The two of them are invited to perform at a school in a white neighborhood that turns out to also be a Jewish neighborhood. When Trevor introduces Hitler to the stage to dance, the room falls silent. Trevor doesn’t understand why and carries on with his spiel using Hitler’s name over and over.

Finally a teacher comes on stage and demands they leave. An argument ensures, the teacher is horrified that “you people” had the indecency to come here. Trevor hears “you people” as black people, and both are horrified and offended. Trevor and Hitler leave and it isn’t until years later when Trevor travels outside of South Africa that he understands what happened that day.

When I read this, I was struck by the absurdity and was reminded that we must always assume positive intent, hard to do, and so important especially today.

Why Vistage Works

Elisa K. Spain

Share this story