Using Our Perceptions to Discover Ourselves: Two Iconic Embraces

We often hear that feedback says as much about the person giving the feedback as it does about the subject of the evaluation.

Our perceptions can tell us loads about ourselves. Take a quick look at the photo below, and take a few notes on what you see.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Elena FriasKeep looking at the photo above. In case you do not already know, the photo was taken at the funeral of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez in March 2013. On the left is Chavez’s mother, Elena Frias de Chavez, and on the right is Iran’s President Ahmadinejad. Now, pause and take a few more notes on what you see in the photo.

Did your perceptions change between the first and second times you took notes? Before you proceed, take a moment to reflect on the values, assumptions, and beliefs that underly your perceptions.

Once you’ve done that, how about looking at another photo? Same instructions: take a look at this photo, and jot a few notes about what you see. Perhaps you have already seen both of these rather iconic photos.


Keep looking at the second photo. If you did not already know this, the photo was taken during the 30th anniversary celebrations of the Democratic Republic of Germany (East Germany) in 1979. On the left is Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the USSR, and on the right is East German President Erich Honecker. Now, take a few more notes on what you see in the photo.

Did your perceptions change between the first and second times you took notes? Before you proceed, take a moment to reflect on the values, assumptions, and beliefs that underly the perceptions you noted this second time around.

Finally, compare your perceptions, and your values, assumptions, and beliefs about both of these photos. In what ways did you respond similarly? In what ways differently? Why?

In fact, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was criticized for consoling Chavez’s mother in this way; she is not a member of his family, and thus, such touching is haram or forbidden. While my research shows the photo to be real, there are reports of the photo being doctored in order to cause problems. I personally find the actions captured in the photo quite believable: a man consoling a grieving mother and bridging cultures in the moment. Below are two sources for those of you curious to learn more about this photo and the response to it:

  1. Daily Mail article
  2. IranPulse English language news blog

It was quite commonplace for Communist leaders to kiss on the mouth as an expression of brotherhood and solidarity. This iconic photo was taken by Régis Bossu, a freelance photographer for European Stars and Stripes, Stern, Spiegel, and Sygma. Most observers of the time viewed this Brezhnev-Honecker kiss as more enthusiastic than usual. The photo was quickly and widely circulated.

Berlin, East Side GalleryIn 1989, during the euphoria following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dmitri Vrubel painted a replica of the kiss on the Eastern side of the Wall. If you wish to learn a bit more about the photo and the painting, here are a couple of links:

  1. Lite Strabo Stories from History blog
  2. Wikipedia

While we can learn much about history and politics from photos such as these, we can also learn about customs and values. And, perhaps most importantly, we can learn to see our own cultural filters and biases a bit more clearly. Exercises such as these can be used to complement the learning we gain about ourselves via the Cultural Detective Self Discovery.

Coincidentally, when she was proofreading this post for me, our editor, Kathryn Stillings, shared with me that she had just read this article, about our perceptions (socially constructed) of race: What Does “Black” and “White” Look Like, Anyway?: Obama and His Grandpa. I share it with you as it would seem to support, as well as build on, the point of this post. I particularly love the morphed photos at the bottom of the article.

Before I close, I’d like to thank a few of the members of SIETAR Argentina, who recently used the second photo above in a training, and reminded me of it after so many years.

And, in conclusion, I leave you today with a few quotes:

There is no truth. There is only perception.
—Gustave Flaubert

Science is nothing but perception.

Studies have shown that 90% of error in thinking is due to error in perception. If you can change your perception, you can change your emotion and this can lead to new ideas.
—Edward de Bono

Entre Dios y Alá

(English follows Spanish)

Si pudiera resumir las noticias de las últimas dos semanas, podría sin duda mencionar dos nombres: Benedicto XVI y Hugo Chávez.

El primero desafió toda una organización, un sistema, una tradición. Hoy que escribo esta nota los noticieros hablan del humo blanco saliendo de la Capilla Sixtina que anuncie que hay un nuevo Papa. No me alcanzo a imaginar todos los cambios organizacionales a los que se enfrenta la Iglesia Católica para adaptarse a este nuevo cambio de innegable impacto mundial.

Por otro lado, tenemos la muerte del presidente de Venezuela Hugo Chávez. Los análisis políticos por supuesto han sido los protagonistas de su partida. Pero no podemos dejar de lado ese aspecto que nos une en este espacio de comunicación.

En medio de la sobre-exposición de la noticia en los medios, incluyendo detalles de su vida, su gobierno, sus frases célebres, visitas a países socialistas etc, está una noticia que este lado del mundo apenas menciona.

La foto del presidente de Irán, Mahmud Ahmadineyad, expresando sus condolencias a la madre del presidente Chávez ha causado no menos que indignación en su país y los países que siguen los preceptos islámicos.

Lo que para nosotros puede parecer normal, entendible y simplemente humano al brindar consuelo en un abrazo a alguien que vive el dolor profundo del duelo, en otra latitud no es más que el irrespeto a lo que ordena su ley, la cual indica que no debe haber contacto físico entre un hombre y una mujer si no es de su círculo cercano.

No siempre podemos entonces actuar como actúan otros, es decir a la tierra que vamos hacer lo que vemos. No siempre podemos adaptarnos a otro entorno, a pesar que podamos sentir la inclinación natural a ello.

Las culturas abiertas podríamos describirlas como permeables a otras culturas, donde son fácilmente identificables y permitidos otros valores, costumbres, tradiciones siempre y cuando prevalezca el interés común sobre el particular. Por el contrario, las culturas cerradas son herméticas y poco o nada tolerantes a las demás. El caso que enfrenta al presidente Ahmadineyad es una muestra clara, y atizado además, por comparar al presidente Chávez con Jesucristo.

Se unen de nuevo alrededor de Dios, de nuestras creencias religiosas los dos hechos noticiosos que mantienen en vilo al mundo entero.

Católicos y no católicos pendientes del Vaticano. Entre tanto el mundo Islámico levantando su voz de protesta por un hecho a todas luces, para ellos totalmente inadmisible hasta para un jefe de Estado.

Entre Dios y Alá, entre Dios y Dios. Hasta la próxima.

Between God and Allah, translation by Dianne Hofner Saphiere

If I were to summarize the news of the last two weeks, I could without doubt mention two names: Benedict XVI and Hugo Chávez.

The first challenged an entire organization, a system, a tradition. Today as I write this note there is news in the white smoke coming out of the Sistine Chapel announcing that there is a new Pope.  I can’t begin to imagine all the organizational changes that confront the Catholic Church as it adapts to this new change of undeniable worldwide impact.

On the other hand, we have the death of Hugo Chávez, the President of Venezuela. The political analyses have of course been the protagonists of his departure. But we can not ignore that aspect which unites us in this communication space. Amid the over-exposure of the news media, including the details of his life, his government, his famous phrases, and his visits to socialist countries, etc., lies a story that this side of the world barely mentioned.

This photo of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, expressing his condolences to the mother of President Chávez, has caused no minor indignation in his country and in the countries of the world that follow Islamic principles. What to us may seem normal, understandable, and simply the human act of providing comfort with a hug to someone living the deep pain of grief, in another latitude is nothing more than disrespect to the order of law, which indicates there should be no physical contact between a man and a woman not within the same inner circle.

We cannot always behave as others do, that is to say, doing what we see in the land to which we travel. We cannot always adapt ourselves to another environment, although we might feel the natural inclination to do so.

Open cultures could be described as permeable to other cultures, those in which other values, customs, and traditions are easily identifiable and permitted as long as the common interest in the matter is maintained. By contrast, closed cultures are hermetic, and not so tolerant of others. The case facing President Ahmadinejad is a clear case in point, further stoked by comparisons of Hugo Chávez with Jesus Christ.

Our religious beliefs join again around God, in the two big news items that have captivated the world. Catholics and non-Catholics watching the Vatican. The Muslim world raising its voice in protest to an act committed openly, which for them is completely inadmissible for a Head of State.

Between God and Allah, between God and God. See you soon!