“Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart.” Psalm 119:34 (NIV)
As we have served our neighbors over the years, we have learned a few things about seen and unseen differences between folks. Some of our visible differences are age, ethnicity, gender, etc. But there are unseen differences not discussed as much. One difference is socioeconomic cultures of those raised in poverty, middle class and wealthy influence. When we recognize these influential differences, we increase understanding our neighbors' obstacles and reduce frustration within our communication.
I would like to share some of these hidden rules with you. For this purpose, I will refer to Dr. Ruby Payne’s Hidden Rules Among Classes from her book A Framework for Understanding Poverty
. Dr. Payne discusses “hidden language” that exists between poverty, middle class and wealth. She outlines the understanding/purpose of specific subjects as they relate to three socioeconomic environments
It’s easy to assume that everyone relates to a subject matter in the same fashion. But in reality, the socioeconomic environment in which we were raised potentially influences us all. This developmental influence affects how we respond to everyday challenges. At The Salvation Army of Pickens County, we believe our better understanding of these hidden rules helps us meet our neighbors where they are and speak a language they are more apt to receive.
Please take a look at this chart below. Spend a little time with it. The subject matter is listed on the far-left column. The next three columns highlight the three socioeconomic understandings and/or perceived purposes of the stated subject matter.
Now, are these understandings 100% accurate, 100% of the time? No, as you will see from my personal example below. There are exceptions to every rule, even hidden rules. But this chart gives insight into these hidden rules and helps us communicate more effectively with one another. If we completely ignore these influences, we create barriers around effective communication and, ultimately, increase frustration in serving others.
Let me give you an example. I was raised middle class. But every day at my job at The Salvation Army, I speak with neighbors who are experiencing homelessness and have been raised in poverty. I want to help them start a sustainable budget. How might this chart help me be more effective in my initial communication?
For someone raised in poverty, the entire concept of a budget may be foreign. Money is spent today on what is needed for immediate survival. Please refer to the “Money” and “Time” subjects above. When I understand these hidden rules, I can adjust my initial communication strategy with our neighbors. Before anything else, I need to discuss why a budget is necessary in the first place. If I dive right into my handy-dandy Excel spreadsheet, I am actually speaking a foreign language to my audience. My audience might be hearing what I'm saying, but they most likely are not understanding or owning the thought.
As another example, someone walks through our office door. I greet them and ask how we can help today. In response, they begin to tell me a story. I then interrupt and say, “May I ask what specifically you’re here for today?” By cutting off the story, I take away a key component of comfort for someone influenced by a poverty culture. Please refer to Personality and Driving Forces above, and see entertainment is a key component for those experiencing poverty. The story along with its entertainment value is a key ingredient. By taking this away, I alienate and frustrate my audience right from the start.
When we don't try to understand one another, we increase our mutual frustration. Many times, this frustration is not because our audience is irresponsible, lazy or uncooperative. This frustration may be because we are speaking different languages formed from different experiences and influenced by socioeconomic cultures. By increasing our understanding of our audience, we reduce frustration and create a more compassionate mindset in serving our neighbors.
Thoughts are reality within our minds and within the minds of those we serve. Our challenge involves transforming thought patterns to change choices. These new choices ultimately produce new, and hopefully more favorable, results. But it starts with step one: understanding our neighbor’s thoughts. As we increase understanding of others, we can more effectively engage to empower new choices. New choices produce new results.
I do want to share what I learned about myself as I read Dr. Payne’s book “Bridges Out of Poverty.” I learned I am actually an exception to the hidden rules above.
I was raised middle class. As I grew into a young man at the ripe old age of 15, I began feeling challenged by differences between my father and myself. In some ways, we were very much alike; we were both stubborn, opinionated and decisive. But in choices about foundational issues, we were different. So, while sharing similar characteristics and making different choices, we began to butt heads. Imagine that?
Years later, I read Dr. Payne’s book and came across the chart provided above. For the first time in my life, I could see why my father and I butted heads; our hidden rules were different. I don’t know why, but I tend towards having a heart of poverty. My father, in his younger life, was a poster child for middle class influence. We struggled to communicate. We became frustrated by socioeconomic differences in our choices. But no one had ever explained socioeconomic differences with me before! I didn't know.
Was I right and he wrong? Was he right and I wrong? Neither. We are different; that’s all. And different is okay. God purposefully created a diverse world full of various cultures, languages and experiences. We think differently for a reason, but we have responsibility to love one another, nonetheless. So perhaps increasing our understanding of socioeconomic influence might help us love and understand each other more? Think about it.
Yours in Christ,
Jim Abbott, Service Center Director
The Salvation Army of Pickens County