Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Disinterested or Excluded? Two Very Different Forms of Non-Participation

"I hate museums."

Imagine two people saying this.

For one of them, the statement is grounded in disinterest. She's visited museums, she didn't enjoy them, she's more of a sports person, it's not part of her life, it's not her thing.

For the other, the statement is grounded in exclusion. He didn't feel welcome in museums, feels like they aren't for him, he wasn't invited, it isn't comfortable.

How can you tell the difference between these two people?

It's almost impossible to do so. They are likely to use similar language--language of disinterest--in describing what turns them off. It's safer to say "I'm not into it" than "I feel excluded." Sometimes the difference isn't even apparent to the person speaking. People can mask exclusion as disinterest unconsciously as a protective measure against what they are really experiencing.

From the institutional standpoint, this difference matters. It matters when we think about who our organizations are for and what we are willing to do to invite those people to participate. It may be ridiculous for an institution to be "for everyone." But how do we decide who it's ok to disregard?

I think it's ok to strategically disregard people who have disinterest in the content or format of your work. It's not ok to ignore people who have interest but feel excluded.

It's not only politically problematic to ignore them--it's also a bad business practice. Excluded yet interested people are potential participants who can and will be engaged if the organization is more open to them.

I fear that too often, professionals mis-identify exclusion as disinterest. It's easy to do. We mirror what we hear from non-participants about "not liking it." We stick with those who like it and feel included. We perpetuate the exclusion. And then we wonder why some people don't show up.

What's the alternative? We can probe deeper. We can start looking for signs of interest and building on them. We can start identifying the code words that turn "it's not for me" into "I choose to spend my time elsewhere" versus "you made me feel unwelcome." We can be ok with disinterest. We can work on inclusion. We can make a change where it will matter.

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