A graceful exit?

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By Ray O’Reilly

Exit interviews are ‘in’, but how trustworthy are they in today’s tough market? Is it like forced confession or can it ensure knowledge transfer?

Thursday 15 August 2013

Contracts are harder to come by so companies are downsizing like they’ve got a wasting disease in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. In their haste to save the company’s arse – and often their own – managers are falling into the ‘restructuring trap’ … not securing knowledge transfer and not learning from their mistakes.

Sure, exit interviews come highly recommended to staunch the knowledge loss, but how reliable are they when you consider the person being interviewed has just been told to pack his bags? Isn’t it like a forced confession? Don’t psychologists say our instinct is to mentally burn what we leave to justify our onward journey? Surely that is why we have evolved so well.

And what does a company’s failure to implement exit interviews say about its attitude to staff… or indeed its overall management competence? Interviewing a departing colleague makes good business sense. You can learn what works and what doesn’t in the company; and perhaps more to the point who works well and who doesn’t. Because the chances are that someone left behind will have to pick up the work of the departing colleague – unless of course they really were useless or cruising.

But even then you can learn something: how did they manage to keep under the radar, and does this mask a systemic problem which could explain the drop-off in business? Is their supervisor really on the ball? Does management understand how to win business in tougher economic climes?

There are reasons why companies baulk at looking too closely in the mirror. They could argue the cost of exit interviews during a period of ‘restructuring’ can’t be justified. But this rationalisation most likely masks a deeper problem – failing to implement robust human resource management practices (hiring, training and firing) – which may also reflect on the ‘no-one is indispensable’ corporate culture.

Companies, or indeed their agents (the managers) are also shy about being exposed to criticism, especially during times when it seems almost everyone is under scrutiny. Like this, the ‘honest feedback’ may shine a light on some poor decision-making made at all levels of the company. The default reaction: “Let’s not look too closely, shall we?” or “Let’s blame this person because they’ve already gone, and leave it at that!”

But this attitude misses the point of restructuring, and failure to implement exit interviews misses an even more valuable opportunity not only to learn something new about the company to improve its performance, but also the chance to send out ‘peaceful emissaries’ to the business world. Retrenched or fired staff members may have unflattering things to say about their previous employer. An exit interview gives the employee an opportunity to air their views, to feel their contribution amounted to something. For the company, it’s the last chance to make peace with the departing member of the team, sending them away with more positive impressions.

There is also the matter of what goes around comes around. Many companies operate in a relatively small marketplace and the chances of coming across the employee in another company, as supplier (or even client) are quite high. This works both ways, too.

The writers at Businessballs.com put this quite well: “The adage about treating people well on your way up because you might meet them on the way down applies just as well to on your way out.” So they advise departing staff to approach an exit interview, if it is offered, in a positive way: “Recrimination, blame, revenge and spite are destructive feelings and behaviours so resist any temptation you might have to go out with all guns blazing.” Nice visual.

Talent out the door

There is also the risk that during a rather radical staff-letting exercise a company may have misread where its true strengths lie, or indeed who its true talents are. A decision to let a whole department go which is no longer considered critical to the business – i.e. only making a ‘non-billable’ contribution to the company – can be risky when individuals in that department are rising talents, or already very accomplished. What happens to these skills? The competitors get them.

Forbes writer Mike Myatt highlights the pitfalls of failing to identify and nurture top talent in a company. “Few things are as costly and disruptive as unexpected talent departures,” he says. He questions the culture of a company that doesn’t see the signs of disenfranchisement. And arguably worse still, actively pushes the talent out.

People leave a company (not sacked) mainly because they feel under-appreciated and disconnected. More than 40%, according to the Forbes story, don’t respect the person they report to and around half say their values are different to their employer’s. Some two-thirds don’t feel their career goals are aligned with the company’s plans, and more than 70% feel undervalued and under-appreciated.

Myatt provides a litany of reasons which could explain how talent slips away from a company including: a failure to fire up their passions, challenge their intellect and engage their creativity; not developing on their skills or giving them a voice; providing insufficient support and care; weak leadership and not recognising their contribution to the company; and not delegating responsibility or securing their commitment.

Even in tough economic times when lay-offs are unavoidable and perhaps justifiable, there is always a good case for carrying out what needs to be done with professionalism and respect. The benefits far outweigh the costs, regardless of what the balance sheets say in the short term. Business is – or at least should be – a long-term investment, and that goes for the handling of staff as well.

Equally, parting employees – regardless of their talent or whether they had a choice – also have a unique chance to exit with grace and dignity. Who knows, they may find themselves back in the same office when business picks up again.

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Gay pride (and prejudice) through the ages

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By Khaled Diab

Historical examples of homosexuality being tolerated by Judaism, Christianity and Islam can help overcome homophobia and reinvent these faiths.

Thursday 28 February 2013

Were the Christian martyrs Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus involved in a medieval "same-sex union"?

Were the Christian martyrs Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus involved in a medieval “same-sex union”?

It is almost spring, and love, of the gay variety, seems truly to be in the air. The last few weeks have brought a constant stream of good news for LGBT communities in Europe, not to mention encouraging developments in the United States and even within the Catholic Church.

British and French MPs spread the love in the run up to Valentine’s Day by giving non-heterosexual marriage a resounding vote of confidence, while Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled in favour of so-called “successive adoption” by same-sex couples.

Across the Atlantic, where same-sex marriage has faced stiff opposition from religious and social conservatives, a pro-gay marriage ad campaign featuring prominent Democrats and Republicans, including Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, has just been released, while there is talk that Barack Obama is planning to utilise the Supreme Court to push for same-sex matrimony.

Homosexuals, not to mention feminists, have toasted the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, who “made homophobia one of his battle cries”, according to one activist. This has left many in the LGBT community hopeful that the next and future popes will be more relaxed towards questions of sexuality, while activists have been urging the Vatican to wake up to reality.

“There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family,”  wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, the Holy Father’s previous incarnation, in an opinion he wrote for his predecessor Pope John Paul II in 2003 on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Why? Apparently, because “marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law”.

Although the argument that homosexuality is unnatural is contrary to the available scientific evidence and undoubtedly angers gay communities and their supporters, this idea is common not only in the Catholic Church, but in other branches of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

However, despite Ratzinger’s protestations, deep, deep inside Christianity’s historic closet, there was greater tolerance of homosexuality than appears at first sight. Although the medieval and pre-modern church, especially during the various inquisitions, was well-known for persecuting and killing homosexuals, it may, at least at times, have been rather gay-friendly.

For example, though the modern clergy, with the exception of some reformist churches, tends to reject the idea of gay marriage, it appears that two men – but not women – could sometimes be joined in holy union in the Middle Ages.

In a practice known as Adelphopoiesis, two men would be joined in what American history professor John Boswell has controversially described as “same-sex unions”, although his contention has been challenged by the clergy and other scholars who insist that, though the practice walked and talked rather like a church wedding, the union in question was actually a spiritual and celibate one and closer to the concept of “blood brotherhood”.

Although the practice of Adelphopoiesis may strike the modern reader as surprising, once it is placed in the context of Greco-Roman culture, which had a profound impact on early Christian and Muslim ideals, it is not. In the male-centric classical view, men’s affection for each other was the most sublime form of love, while women didn’t really count for much, as attested to by the absence or belittling of lesbianism in classical, Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions.

This idea of the superiority of male love, and the tolerance thereof, can be seen in the odes to homoerotic passion of the camp and irreverent Abu Nuwas, the Abbasid court laureate who was believed to be the greatest poet in Islam, and whose work was not censored, strangely enough, until the early 20th century.

Moreover, medieval Islamic scholars tended to hold that male homosexual acts did not merit worldly punishment, rather like how ancient Jewish legal practices upheld such strict rules of evidence in cases of “sodomy” that it was near impossible to prove and secure a death sentence. This is a far cry from the contemporary puritanical attitude towards homosexuality in much of the Muslim world, where gay people often potentially face the death penalty

The sublimation of mutual male affection has been (re-)interpreted by modern scholars, commentators and even clergy as a sign of homosexuality in the most unexpected quarters. Not only have many interpreted Jalal al-Din Rumi’s love poetry, or ghazal, dedicated to his older spiritual master Shams-e-Tabrizi, as a sign that the legendary Sufi poet had homosexual tendencies, there have even been suggestions that none other than Jesus Christ was gay.

That a man in his 30s apparently had no wife or girlfriend, even though Jewish law would have allowed him to marry, but was friends with a prostitute, hung out with a dozen other blokes, including one “Beloved Disciple”, in the words of the Gospel of John, could be interpreted as repressed homosexuality by the modern secular ear. Needless to say, the very suggestion is rejected as outrageous and insulting by the church and the majority of Christians.

Although early Christianity and medieval Islam seemed to have adopted some elements of the classical tolerance of certain aspects of homosexuality, at least the male variety of it, all the Abrahamic faiths have inherited the Old Testament tradition which condemns as sinful homosexual acts (the idea of homosexuality or sexual orientation did not really exist until modern times, or was at the very least more fluid).

For instance, both Christianity and Judaism draw on the Book of Leviticus (18:22) which commands the believer: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”

One reason why homosexuality elicits such a disproportionate reaction in all three religions is because of its powerful potential to subvert the traditional patriarchal order. Traditional models of marriage, after all, are more about procreation than recreation, and about prescribing and cementing a strict gender hierarchy, in which man sits on the throne and woman washes his royal feet. “Same-sex marriage fundamentally challenges the basic sexual premises of marriage as a contract,” writes Kecia Ali, a professor of religion, in her taboo-shaking book Sexual Ethics and Islam.

The most common justification for the prohibition on homosexual behaviour in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is, of course, the allegorical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, two Biblical cities which were destroyed by fire and brimstone for their sinfulness. Although none of the scriptures spell out homosexuality as the nature of the sins committed by the Sodomites, who wanted to rape God’s angels, sodomy, or liwat (i.e. pertaining to Lot’s people) to Muslims, has for centuries been assumed to relate to anal sex, or more broadly, homosexual male intercourse.

This is not a valid connection to make, many contemporary activists claim. “Reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an axe murderer as being about an axe,” writes Jay Michaelson, the American-Jewish academic and activist.

But is such revisionism honest? I believe that, in the balance of things, the Abrahamic tradition is homophobic, as was the Greco-Roman tradition, though to a lesser degree. Nevertheless, though such revisionism may not be honest, it is useful and perhaps even necessary, to bring religion into the 21st century.

While I personally reject religion because of its intrinsic contradictions and inherent unfairness, I accept that faith can give a structure to the world for believers, and a perceived higher purpose to their lives.

That is why religion has been invented and reinvented endlessly over the centuries. What we call Judaism, Christianity and Islam today, for instance, bears little resemblance to their original counterparts. And just as no modern believer seriously accepts their religions’ ancient attitudes towards, for example, slavery and warfare, people will one day hopefully look back on the current debate over homosexuality and faith as archaic.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 February 2013.

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No revolution for Egyptian women

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By Marwa Rakha

Despite the political earthquake that has rid Egypt of its patriarch-in-chief, attitudes to gender remain largely the same. Now women must stand up for their rights.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

As a woman, I would like to be realistic about my expectations after the revolution. Nothing changes overnight or over a few months. People’s perceptions, attitudes, and behaviour are very difficult to change.

Yes, we had an iconic revolution where a corrupt regime was toppled, but did that affect how men view women? No, it did not. Despite the fact that women stood next to men on Tahrir square chanting against corruption, men still do not see women as their partners – I do not like to use the word ‘equal’ to describe the ideal relationship between men and women.

Before the revolution, women were objectified and treated as things that should be covered up or eye-candy that should be exposed to please men.

Before the revolution, women were the victims of sexual harassment on the streets and on public transport. It is ironic how they were also blamed for it.

Before the revolution, your average Egyptian would not trust a political opinion voiced by a woman. “Women know nothing about politics and should stay out of the political arena,” they advocated.

Before the revolution, female political and public involvement was kept down to the bare minimum – in the parliament and in the judiciary system, for example.

Before the revolution, young girls were still subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) – even though there is a clear law against the practice.

Before the revolution, a mother’s most important concern was marrying off her daughter “before it is too late”.

Before the revolution, married women were subjected to emotional and physical abuse in the name of “obeying God”.

Economic factors cannot be ignored when talking about Egyptian women – many of them are dependent on ‘a man’. Social factors also play a role – no one wants to be the single spinster or the divorcee.

The secularists and the conservatives are two faces of the same coin when it comes to women. Most of the politicians in both currents objectify women – one side want to cover us and lock us up, while the other wants to strip us naked and show us off. Show me a party that does not focus on gender and I will listen to them with more interest.

During the revolution itself – those three weeks that made history – such points were eliminated. They just disappeared. Men and women stood together, hand in hand – as Egyptians regardless of their gender – and won the battle against corruption.

Now the revolution is over and everything is back to normal. Attitudes towards women have not been affected by the historic victory. After the revolution, how many girls decided to move out of their family homes and become fully independent? How many abused women ‘revolted’ against their abusive/negligent husbands? How many more women decided to pursue further education? How many additional women decided to join the workforce? How many men were able to link their personal revolution against a dictator in power and a potential revolution at home from their wives?

On 8 March 2011, many women’s rights activists marched through Tahrir Square – the same place where men and women stood together for three weeks – and demanded equality. They were attacked. Men chanted slogans against them like: “Men want to topple feminists” and “Since when did women have a voice?” They were asked to go home and obey God.

They were let down by the average Egyptian man and woman alike. Their demands simply did not ring any bells with the ‘submissive’ women who got used to being used and abused. Personally, I was against this march. I am against fighting for women who would not lift a finger to fight harassment or abuse.

As for sexual liberation, political and economic uprisings are in one box and social and cultural revolutions are in another box. The two boxes are so far apart that you can barely see one when you are standing on the other.

Patriarchal values, religion, and traditions are not as easy to topple. It was easier to break free from Mubarak’s regime than to break away from decades of preaching. Virtue, honour, and integrity lie between a woman’s legs – this is the subliminal message that propagates through sermons, movies, songs, novels, or shows. The woman who has premarital sex is doomed and we get to see her suffering in whatever medium that message is disseminated.

Men, on the other hand, are reprimanded gently for their promiscuity and when they repent, they are rewarded by getting married to the pure, untouched, innocent virgin. Such hypocrisy and duality is a fact of our society and it will take more than a revolution to bring about sexual liberation, autonomy, and freedom of choice.

For real change to come about, it must come from within … from a woman’s own self-respect and self-esteem. Change will only happen when women have more faith in themselves, get a better education, have goals and interests other than men, and become more involved in the community.

This article is based on an interview with Marwa Rakha. Published here with her consent. ©Marwa Rakha.

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Moving, not moving on?

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By Christian Nielsen

Moving house is a back-breaking master class in logistics. But it’s also an emotional rite – moving from what was to what will be, purging yourself of possessions and packing some away for good.

8 September 2010

I recently moved house. All things considered, it went smoothly. We shifted everything we owned from one place to another with military precision; boxes first, big stuff next, people in the car behind. It’s just logistics.

But so much of who we are or what we represent is embalmed in this stuff and the places where we ‘house’ it that this nomadic rite deserves closer inspection. Perhaps it’s not a simple logistics exercise, after all.

There are no shortage of websites and services offering advice on moving, from preformatted ‘to do’ checklists and stress exercises to formulaic messages to announce your new abode. Here’s a couple of classics:

“We’ve found what makes a house a home… Lots of love, plenty of laughter, and the presence of friends and family! Stop by our new house soon…  and often!”

“We’ve packed our things and moved to a new address, but all the friends we’ve left behind
are what we’ll really miss! Our new address is…”

“We’ve packed up boxes, lamps, and chairs… our home is somewhere new. We couldn’t leave and settle in without telling you.”

It’s wonderfully cheesy stuff. And if these soppy morsels didn’t mask more serious emotional issues associated with moving, I’d happily tear them apart. The fact that people need to build their very own yellow brick road from ‘what was’ to ‘what will be’ says a lot about the human desire to be rooted, or connected.

New research even suggests the act of frequent moving on children can carry emotional baggage right through to adulthood. Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, scientists took an established fact – that children who move house often tend to perform worse in school and can have behavioural problems – and looked more closely at what might be happening behind this.

Serial movers, the researchers say, tend to establish fewer so-called “quality” social relationships, and the more they moved as children, the less “happy” they tended to be as adults – scoring lower on the “well-being” and “life satisfaction” scales.

But not everyone is affected in the same way, the scientists caution. Certain personality types like introverts and more nervous or high-strung characters tended to be affected worse by regular moves. Of course, some people may enjoy the variety of experiences it throws up.

It’s your move

About 12 weeks ago we signed a contract saying that we would move our belongings – including two small human ones – across town. The preparations started then. I won’t go into the details, as I’m sure everyone knows the drill, but I will comment on some of the unexpected things that this transition threw up. As I ventured into the hidden recesses of the old house to perform stage one of the campaign – throwing away stuff – I came to realise with every load to the container park how suffocating all this stuff had become.

After a few weeks of this, I began to see pockets of light filter into the cellar once again. I discovered remnants of previous moves gone wrong – the unopened boxes of five years ago. Table tennis bats reappeared and I remembered how much I liked playing it. CD collections – relegated by iPod to the draws – got dusted off ready for a return to the good old days of having something to read while you listen to the tunes.

From my wardrobe I learnt that I tried (and failed) a couple of years ago to be more dapper. The growing collection of prams, scooters and bicycles in the garage bore witness to my growing and changing family. Each layer of stuff, once peeled, revealed something new, and yet entirely familiar.

To throw or not to throw? It transpired that my life – in and out of boxes –could be summed up with this basic tenet. Mostly, the decision was to throw. I threw and threw and threw. So much was thrown out that I sit today in my new – admittedly bigger, greener, nicer – house with a half empty wardrobe, a half full garage, a half empty garden shed and a draining fear that this new-found liberty can’t be sustained.

With each passing week, and each casual trip to IKEA, I dread the cycle of accumulation starting anew. I wonder if a new household regime will be needed, something like a nightclub policy of ‘one in one out’. One new pair of shoes, one old pair off to the op shop. One new children’s slide erected, one child fostered out… okay so perhaps that’s a bit extreme.

I’m a firm believer in keeping emotions out of logistics. And I approached the recent move as such. But the weeks of purging and packing kept reminding me of past moves and past times. Against my will, the ‘physical’ gradually ceded to the ‘psychological’ during this move. I recalled fondly moving house as a student, where everything could be packed into one car or on the back of a bike, and never looking back.

It’s not like that anymore. And I haven’t got a clue how I feel about this. Perhaps it’s inevitable, as I accumulate more stuff – mental and physical – I can’t expect it to all fit into a small Ford. No matter how hard I try to throw away the vestiges of the past they resist. I tell myself I’m moving on as well as moving away, but my heart and back are just not as hard as they used to be.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in Australia’s The Age newspaper on 5 September 2010. Published here with the author’s permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Good grief!

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By Christian Nielsen

There is something of an inner circle to mourning whose circumference varies from culture to culture. Knowing where you fit in takes some research.

4 November 2009

You never greet the ‘real mourners’ at a Jewish funeral. Only the closest family at a Swedish funeral wear a special white tie. And you bring condolence money in a special black and silver decorated envelope to a Japanese funeral.

The news of death is never easy to take but for those not in the inner circle it can also be confusing and awkward, from what to say on the card to what to wear at the funeral, or even if you should attend the funeral or send a card.

Attending funerals in a foreign country, with different traditions and mourning practices, is really a minefield. Do you send flowers? If so, what kind? Do you attend the ‘party’ afterwards – what do you call the party?

Grief seems to be a universal response to death or loss, but just how it is expressed – ritually and emotionally – differs between people, communities and cultures. The Encyclopaedia of Death and Dying – it really exists – even notes a scholarly distinction between grief and mourning on a cultural level.

“Grief is a subjective state, a set of feelings that arise spontaneously after a significant death,” it says, “whereas mourning is a set of rituals or behaviors prescribed by culture’s tradition.”

But the concept of grief is a modern construct, it goes on. “Grief as a real subjective state grows from a culture that prizes and cultivates individual experience.”

In Japan, for example, grief can be considered an expression of social harmony – within the family or community – not an individual expression. Hitan, the nearest equivalent word for grief in Japanese, doesn’t necessarily imply a response to death or loss – just sadness or sorrow.

The Irish, on the other hand, appear to embrace both grief and mourning for its individual and ritual significance, typified in the Irish wake where kin and community come from near and far to pay their respects to the departed and his family.

Outward expressions of grief like keening – a mix of wailing and chanting – are less common nowadays, but still form part of the Irish myth. The Catholic religion also obviously plays its role in traditional wakes, with mourners taking turns to kneel by the body to pray or offer a Rosary. After the funeral, people gather again at the deceased’s home or a venue to remember and celebrate his life.

“There’s grief and sadness, but there are also anecdotes and shared memories that collectively celebrate the person’s life, not his death,” an Irish friend tells me. “And then there’s the Guinness – the elixir mediating grief and gaiety,” he adds.

Protestant and private?

Now take the Swedes, whose mourning is more private and inward – more Protestant, dare I say. Only the closest of family and friends attend the funeral. It is altogether more discrete and sombre.

An Englishman recently posted a question on an online forum in Sweden to find out how he should respond to the death of a colleague’s father. The responses were mixed. Many said, yes, he should express sympathy to the colleague (a card, message of condolence) but that it would not be appropriate to attend the funeral or other arrangements.

A similar question was posed in which the person wanted to know how to behave when his girlfriend’s father died… what to say, wear, do, etc. He didn’t feel he could consult anyone close to the deceased, as it felt out of place. The answer he got speaks volumes about the different cultural responses and rituals even from one side of Europe to the other.

And I quote: “It is usual to ring the number on the press announcement to the funeral home and inform them you will be attending (catering). It is usual to take a single flower (like a rose or something) as well as any other flowers you might send to place on the coffin at a particular moment in the service where the vicar asks people to come forward and say their goodbyes.

“Sometimes there is a clue in the press announcement about whether the family want a donation to a charity instead of a funeral bouquet from relatives (although you should still take the single flower).

“There is usually a ‘do’ afterwards – often in the church hall or a nearby restaurant. Usually it is something simple like open sandwiches/salad [sic]. Close relatives and friend[s] make speeches.”

Grief, not all human

Just for interest’s sake, apparently grief is not strictly speaking a human preserve, according to the wonderful Death and Dying Encyclopedia.

“In every culture people cry or seem to want to cry after a death that is significant to them,” it says. Grief could also be an instinctive response shaped by evolutionary development. “Primates and birds display behaviours that seem similar to humans’ in response to death and separation. Instinctual response in this sense is a meta-interpretative scheme programmed into our genetic inheritance, much as nest building or migration is hard-wired into birds.”

It goes on: “Culture, of course, influences how people appraise situations, yet similar perceptions of events trigger similar instinctual responses. A significant death, then, might be regarded as a universal trigger of grieving emotions, although which death is significant enough [to] spark such a response depends on the value system of a particular culture. Universal instincts, then, might provide the basis for concepts that could explain behavior in all cultures.”

So, there you have it.

Published with the author’s permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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