A strange encounter between a French king and several cannibals from South America sheds light on cultural bias, and what it takes for leaders to see past the limits of our own experience.
Are You Not Amazed?
Three cannibals stood before the boy king, and they were puzzled.
The natives were Tupinambá, from the mouth of the Amazon river in modern day Brazil. The year was 1562, and French explorers had brought them back to France so Europeans could see what these people of the “New World” looked like.
The king was Charles IX, all of 12 years old and recently ascended to the throne. As he sat, flanked by dozens of courtiers and his imposing Swiss guard, he questioned these natives to learn about their customs and way of life. He was curious about the inhabitants of lands he was exploring. He also hoped to impress them with French pomp and ceremony.
At the end of the interview the courtiers wanted to know what impression they had made. So they asked the natives: Of all the marvels they had seen, what did they admire the most?
Certainly, after traveling on great ships across a vast ocean, exploring the busy city of Rouen, seeing its people in their strange dress, and experiencing an audience with the King of France, they must have been amazed.
The Tupinambá were amazed, but not in the way the courtiers expected. They had questions about something entirely unexpected.
The Cannibals Have Questions
First, possibly referring to the Swiss Guard, the natives said that they found it unusual that “so many tall men, with long beards, strong, and well-armed…should submit themselves to obey a beardless child.”
Why, they wondered, didn’t these men seize control and name one of their own to be leader?
Second, having been shown the city, they found it very strange that a portion of the population was well-fed, well-clothed, and had everything it seemed they needed, while another part was “begging at their doors, lean and half-starved with hunger and poverty.”
They wanted to know why, in the face of such injustice, those in need did not “take the others by the throats or set fire to their houses.”
To the elite who peopled the room, these questions must have seemed amusing. How naive these savages were. How unsophisticated. The fact that they did not understand what they saw only proved how advanced modern society had become, and how backward these stone age natives were.
Their sense of superiority and self-satisfaction must have felt good.
But not everyone in the room saw it that way.
Standing within arm’s reach of the king, and witness to the exchange was a young courtier by the name of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. The cannibal’s questions that day planted a seed in his mind, the fruit of which affects us even now.
Nine years after the encounter, Montaigne retired from public life to write. From this experience he realized that the circumstances of our environment and upbringing are influences which can skew our thinking. He was talking about cultural bias.
As Joseph Kelly describes in his excellent “Marooned,” just as wagon wheels make ruts in the soft earth that become baked into hardened channels by the sun, habits of thought can form ruts in our minds. These thought-grooves can carry us along a pre-determined path and limit our ability to see and think beyond them.
Recognizing that these invisible channels may actually blind us to seeing our world more clearly, Montaigne set out to see if he could escape them.
Attempts: A Literary Invention
For almost ten years, he sequestered himself in his library and wrote, doing his best to follow dispassionate logic and reason wherever it led. He called these “Attempts” or Essais in French, marking the beginning of a new literary genre, the essay.
Published in 1580, his Essais re-examined everything from the profound to the prosaic. Whether it was the nature of the soul, the character of a good education, or the importance of the thumb, it seemed nothing was beyond his curiosity. The 30th of these is titled “On Cannibals” and recalls his meeting with the Tupinambá.
In this essay, Montaigne tried step beyond his cultural bias to see things as the Tupinambá saw them. In doing so, he recognized that our perceptions are influenced by things like race, class, education, religion, nationality, and personal habit.
“We have no other level of truth and reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live.”
In taking the familiar as “true” and civilized, “everyone gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country” he observed.
But everyone who is different is not necessarily a barbarian. They may just have a different way of looking at the world. And quite possibly, their way may be better than our own. In some ways, Montaigne seemed to envy the cannibals their simplicity, despite their eating habits.
Overcoming Cultural Bias
Montaigne’s ideas in On Cannibals romanticized the concept of the noble savage, perhaps taking his mental exercise a little too far. But the example here is what’s important, and we can all benefit from what he shows us. Here are three takeaways worth keeping in mind.
Beware the ruts. We are all on well-worn paths, and there’s nothing wrong with following them so long as we understand the limitations they impose. The challenge to us as leaders is to recognize when we are in danger of becoming trapped in a rut, and when we might be better served to move in a different direction.
A leader’s vision has to transcend convention and cultural bias to understand when to make the transition from path-follower to path-finder.
See through other eyes. As Montaigne tried to do with the Tupinambá, before making hasty judgements, consider how others must see things and how their circumstances might influence what they say or do.
Empathy is a vital leadership skill that helps us better understand the actions and meet the needs of those around us.
Look with “new” eyes. After we’ve been somewhere for a while, we tend to absorb the culture around us, assimilate into the environment, and adopt local patterns of thinking and behavior. This cultural fluency can be great for teamwork, but it can also subject us to the same kinds of blindness suffered by Charles IX, or people of any age and culture.
To combat this, tomorrow try walking in the door as if it was your first time there. Question what you see, hear, and do. Ask “Why” a lot. And if the answer is “that’s the way we’ve always done it” you might have discovered a rut that you didn’t know was there.
Cultural Bias – The Takeaway
Whether we see ourselves as kings, cannibals or something in between, as Montaigne has shown us we are all subject to the limitations of the cultural bias we have been exposed to. The challenge to us as leaders is to see beyond those limitations and keep our teams out of the ruts that can confine us.
And in doing so, we can take better care of the “people in the streets,” and worry less about them burnining down our houses.
See with “new eyes,” seek the right thing to do, and then do it.
In fact, look to the “barbarians.” They may have something to teach us.