Us vs. Them: The Problem with Treating Clients as The ‘Other’

What is the other?

I’m of the mind that the concept and practice of treating clients, in this case, as an other is exceptionally problematic. The idea of the other and processes of othering, called alterity, is a rich topic in anthropology. We’ve detailed time and again the many examples of what happens when people are led to believe or come to see other people as somehow different then them on a fundamental level and the results of this practice.

The Colonial Encounter

One of the most powerful examples that comes to mind rests at the heart of the colonial encounter. It’s hard for me to date the beginning of colonialism. Do I pin the beginning on British expansion or locate it with Portuguese exploration or venture further back to include the vast movement of groups of people into new territories, often by force for the exploitation and control of resources? I’m not going to linger on the perfect definition here. What we have come to understand is that seeing others (be they from another village or continent) as less important, less deserving, or even less human has resulted in a tremendous amount of suffering. Othering is this process of perceiving and treating people around you as though they less-than yourself. We call this alterity. This has manifested in programs to educate people using systems thought to be superior, to try to eradicate cultural practices and beliefs thought to be inferior, and to enforce new forms of political organization. This rationale has, in the most extreme circumstances, been used to incite the horrors of the genocide across a number of cultural contexts.

Agency Life

How does this relate to an agency context? Am I seriously comparing the colonial encounter to agency life? No. But I am suggesting that the process of othering occurs in variety of contexts, often with terrible results.

What’s going on here? We can see othering at work in the following statements.

“I think that clients need to know that they just can’t speak to anyone they want.”

Clients should have to pay if they take too long to make a decision.”

Clients need to be trained to not interrupt my day.”

“We need to set their expectations that this isn’t going to be done on their timetable.”

They need to understand that we just can’t drop everything every time they want something.”

“This business would be great if it weren’t for the clients.”

The Breakdown

Let me breakdown what’s happening here.

I can anticipate the criticism here: isn’t referring to the clients as they just a way of speaking, an innocent turn-of-phrase?

This is more than just a turn-of-phrase. Referring to clients as a collective group erases their uniqueness as individuals. This is one of the first steps in othering: failing or refusing to acknowledge the individuality of others.

This clearly establishes an us vs them relationship where we are at odds rather than on the same team. The them or they is set up as an distraction, a negative aspect of the work, as ignorant of agency process–as less deserving. This relationship is built on the beliefs that they need to be educated in our system; they need to have their behavior adjusted to match our expectations; they need to recognize that we’re doing them a favor working with them.

Instead of recognizing the humanity and individuality of clients they have been rendered as other. Empathy has been replaced by derision. What is the result of this process of othering? It’s possible to justify negative attitudes and behaviors towards clients as a group because they are no longer individuals; they are no longer part of our group. They have been set apart. It’s us vs them.

A Solution

What’s the solution? Let’s take a lesson from history and commit to keeping empathy front and center. Recognizing the humanity of clients is paramount. Often, We are driving towards the same goals: business growth and development. Recognizing what we share is, from my perspective, far more important than focussing on what divides us.

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