Battle of the Biases
“Why do you have to be so PC?”
We’ve heard this complaint for decades now, often after someone makes a joke that reinforces harmful stereotypes.
What surprised me this time was the source of the comment: a longtime friend who I have never heard say anything inappropriate. He wouldn't call someone names or even make a joke. He’s a straight-laced, really nice guy.
And I hadn’t criticized anything he said. I’d just noted an outdated term in the middle of a conversation we were having over dinner at a double date with him and his wife. (Have dinner with me and you’ll find out this is not that rare an occurrence.)
So when I saw his face change and heard that reflexive phrase come out of his mouth, I immediately thought, “Oh boy, he’s been listening to talk radio again.”
My guess is that my friend has been hearing the “PC” complaint from exasperated pundits, and his brain had noticed the pattern and formed a shortcut: a bias. My comment triggered it, and the response popped out like a reflex.
Even though I know this happens, I was still a little surprised that he seemed so irritated.
It reminded me just how powerful those shortcuts are. If something happens that lines up with an existing pattern, our conscious, rational analysis gets preempted by this confirmation bias.
I paused and considered my options. I could assume the DEI consultant role and educate. The sentence starters on interrupting bias ran through my head. So did all the knee-jerk responses he might come up with.
I could see our double date night turning into a cable news debate night.
That’s when I realized: I was triggered too.
In an instant, my brain had handed me a script based on my past experiences. I assumed he made this comment because he was influenced by right-wing talk radio, but I didn’t know that for sure. Curiosity and patience were about to be drowned out by my confirmation bias.
I took a breath, looked at my friend, and smiled. “Well, I am a DEI consultant. It’s kind of my job.”
He let out a laugh and his shoulders relaxed.
Yes, we all have bias scripts that take over sometimes. But that’s because we’re human. Instead of lecturing the version of my friend I was picturing in my head, I decided to talk to the human being I know and care about.
When somebody’s bias shows up, we always have to decide how to respond. Has someone been harmed? Are there other explanations for the behavior that could be at play? Do we have the energy at that moment to engage with compassion and authenticity?
In this case, I chose to let it go. After all, the intent behind what critics call “PC policing” is just about treating people with respect. My friend does that, consistently. In other circumstances, my choice would have been different.