Experiential Blindness and Social Engagement

A few years ago, someone emailed me a question. We had an active project that we were getting ready to release publicly, but it wasn’t ready to be shared that day. I replied to the email. In my response, I told her that we were working on an answer to her question, but that I couldn’t give her a specific answer right then. Like many businesses, we don’t share details of projects in motion.

Around that time, a thread was created in a Facebook group about me. There were hundreds of posts in that thread. Memes were made using my face and my name. Some of the people that I would have expected to defend me were, instead, holding the coats of the people who were throwing rocks. Someone from that thread sent me an email telling me they wished I was dead. And it changed me. Not long later, the truth was known and that mama sent me a heartfelt apology.  It’s been years now, but that day was truly life-altering.  My mental health had been impacted in a way that nobody really knew. Business owners are supposed to have thick skin, but we aren’t robots. I was forever changed.

The experience made me aware of how empathy and curiosity impacts the social learning experience. Experiential blindness creates an interesting blindspot for individuals as they socially interact with and around media. With that premise in mind, here a story:

Remember the woman who was shaving her legs in the swimming pool?

How can we forget? Every time I see this video, I cringe. The social judgement being made by The View is that the pool is full of dirty people doing dirty things. Yes, it’s gross to shave your legs at the pool, but I’m not cringing because she’s shaving her legs in the pool. I’m

What might have happened.

The kids wanted to go to the pool. For hours, they have hollered at their mama until she was on the verge of losing her mind. She put a swimsuit on her body, packed those kids up and went to the pool. On the way out the door, her verbally abusive husband said something awful about the hair on her legs.  Shaving is a luxury because she’s working full-time and just trying to keep everyone alive.  There is a locker room at the pool, so she grabbed her razor and planned to shave there. Then her autistic five-year-old ran out of the locker room before she could finish.  She chased him out of the locker room and now she’s sitting on the edge of the pool so he doesn’t drown. Someone grabbed video and posted it to Reddit. Now she insta-shamed on The View by women who never asked any questions.

That’s not a real story.

We have no idea who that woman is or why she was shaving her legs in the pool that morning.  As far as I can tell, nobody ever asked her, so that video is what I’m going to use to challenge you today.

Did you know the whole story about the woman in that video?  You thought you did. So did everyone else who shared the video. Did you actually know the story? Of course, you didn’t. Like me, you were just grossed out by someone shaving their legs in a swimming pool.

What if you had an unfortunate moment shared on Reddit?  What questions would you wish had been asked? If someone had asked her more questions, what might have happened next? What if we’d known more about her story? How might more information have changed the tone of the conversation?

Our experiences blind us as much as they inform us.

According to Harvard Business Review, we are, in fact, fooled by our own experience. “We persist in believing that we have gleaned the correct insights from our own experience and from the accounts of other people.”

How are we experientially blind?

As a business person, perhaps there’s a problem that we need to resolve. The situation seems familiar. Based on our experience, the correct answer might be XXXX. A good leader informs their solution with instinct, experience, advice from a team, data, research, and thoughtful reflection. Yet even good leaders make overly confident and bad decisions based on a lack of experience and over-confidence. That leader has been “fooled by their own experience”.  If they’d slowed down to ask a few more questions to gain more experiential insight from more diverse leaders, they would have made a different decision.

Apply that scenario to a single sentence and the internet’s quick rush to judgment about a single person.  Is it possible that online, our limited perspective plays out at the cost of real reputations? How might this storyline have played out differently if the mom was interviewed by major media?

A similar storyline plays out in social feeds every day. One sentence. Someone jumps. Entertainment is created. Everyone shares. Questions aren’t asked. The entertainment plays out in front of thousands. People are labeled.  The internet gets bored. Life moves on… and the “entertainment value” has to figure out how to pick up the pieces.

People are watching.

Perhaps, we should consider “lack of social trust” as one reason why Generation Y  is so disconnected. A view is a metric of engagement measured by brands. This is a metric because, public social engagement rates (likes, comments) have changed. That lack of social trust may also be reflected in the epidemic of loneliness in our culture.

According to a recent study by Cigna, loneliness is at epidemic levels in Generation Y.  Almost half of Generation Y reports that they don’t have friends.  These are the people in your online communities, and they aren’t engaging publicly. They are engaging in groups that they chose to join full of people they know.

In groups where they don’t know people, they tend to watch and gather information rather than participate.

There are many other interconnected issues behind why our society is so lonely. I’m sure we will see other studies published soon, each claiming to have explained one small piece of that puzzle. As we wait for the research, those of us who are leaders can make some small changes that will make a difference.

As you lead, do people see you as a friend, an amplifier, a rock thrower, or a coat holder?  

  1. Be open to new friends and experiences.
  2. Judge slowly.
  3. Learn quickly.
  4. Recognize experiential blindness.
  5. Words build people and become bridges over differences.
  6. Offense is an opportunity to become curious.
  7. Use your power to learn, lead, and teach.
  8. How are you amplifying those around you?

I want to spend the rest of my life bringing out the best in the people around me. Let’s go…

Pressing on,

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Jenn is the Founder and CEO of Cotton Babies. She holds an Executive MBA from Washington University. She was awarded Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in the Emerging Category for the Central Midwest Region in 2011. Among many other awards, she recently received a 2017 YWCA Leader of Distinction Award for Entrepreneurship. Jenn holds many patents on various inventions in a number of different countries and is listed as one of 50 Missourians You Should Know. She is particularly fascinated by languages, chickens, and children (she has four) when she’s not reading economics journals. Jenn offers mentorship to product developers at any stage in the journey from idea to shelf.

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2 thoughts on “Experiential Blindness and Social Engagement

  1. Well written Jenn. Continue to love and pray for you, your family and Cotton Babies.

    Would love to reconnect sometime when you have time.