- Jai Morton
Celebrating diversity of thought
- with creator of The Outsights, Erika Brenner
Erika and I met recently at work. Starting a new job online has been interesting – I’ve been extra aware of how to ‘get to know’ people from behind a screen, and have slowly built a picture of my workplace and colleagues from our home office set up.
Online or not, you get vibes from people, and Erika was one of the first to reach out to me about more than onboarding. She was bubbly, warm, and struck me as approachable and ‘human’’ from the get go.
Born and raised in Brazil, as Erika puts it, like many Brazilian families, hers is “composed of immigrants from all over Europe.” She has European citizenship and close family in Austria, but for the last decade, she hasn’t been living in either location. Instead, opting for Shanghai, China for 8 years, and more recently, Oslo, Norway.
As anyone who has also lived abroad in a different country will tell you, it can be isolating and challenging in a number of ways. Especially one with a different language and culture. So for someone who has considered herself an ‘’outsider’ in different places and shifting cultures for a long time, Erika is incredibly warm, welcoming and confident. I figure it can go one of two ways – you can be timid about it all, or take the uncomfortable head on. And that’s been her approach, to embrace it.
So much so that, combined with her profession as an Insights Manager, Erika created The Outsights – a platform for people who want to broaden their horizons, even without living abroad. Her mission is to inspire others and open their minds with fresh perspectives, by connecting them with different cultures, knowledge and ideas – giving them a ‘peek outside their own bubble’.
Aside from having the shared experience of moving to Norway with partners to set up and navigate a life here, we connected further when Erika shared this mission. Because it isn’t unlike the unfoldment’s vision – rooted in the idea that we all have stories and experiences that, when shared, can inspire and educate, normalise feelings and varied points of view, and establish a sense of connection.
She also has a cat obsession and a deep love for tropical weather and sunshine. So, friendship solidified.
Once abroad, often abroad
You have lived in quite a few places and it's fair to say, have a lot of experience as an expat or an 'outsider'. Why did you move from Brazil to China?
Initially I moved because of my father’s job – he used to work for General Motors and he got the opportunity to be assigned to a role in China, in 2010. When that offer came I was about to graduate from university – and since my family was moving it seemed like a good opportunity for me to go explore China and spend 6 months studying Chinese.
My university had a unique bachelor’s degree program, where we had classes in the morning the first 2 years, and in the evenings the last 2 years, so the students could find internships or full-time jobs while still in university to get work experience before graduation. So, not only was I going to soon be done with my studies, I saw the move to China also as an opportunity to develop my career abroad.
So, I graduated one month after I turned 21, resigned from my role as marketing coordinator, and in March 2010 me and my family went East.
What was meant to be a 6 month experience ended up being an 8 year long journey in China, and I’ve lived abroad since.
And China to Norway?
So, in October 2012, during the week-long national holiday in China, I went out with some friends and met a Norwegian guy. He had arrived in China only a month before that, as an exchange student from his university in Norway to a partner university in Shanghai. We got talking, we started dating, moved-in together, then 6 years later he got a good job opportunity to move back to Norway – so we decided that it was the right move.
Also, because I have Austrian citizenship too (thanks to my Austrian grandfather), moving to Europe/inside a Schengen country was relatively hassle-free and visa-independent, which made the decision a bit easier.
But I told him I was only going to move once I had secured a job myself – so he went to Norway 6 months before me, while I stayed in China. When a position appeared in Olso, I was lucky to be coming to Norway to visit him already, so I was able to have face to face interviews. A few months after that, I got the job and moved!
What inspired you to start The Outsights? How and why did it begin?
Well, it was a long time coming really. When I decided to move to China, I knew I wanted to work in advertising and creative strategy, so understanding consumers is, of course, an important skill to have.
But how could I even begin to understand a consumer I had nothing in common with? I remember thinking, will this prevent me from coming up with creative insights about them? Would I even be able to talk to them?
I got these questions a lot when I was starting my career in China. And, while I did take the time to learn the language, even then I would be questioned about my ability to understand consumers – “you speak Chinese, but you are not Chinese”. So how would I be able to come up with advertising ideas that resonated?
I have always rejected those objections though. I mean, the whole point of an advertising agency is to bring new perspectives to business problems, right? And when everyone has the same background, you are in danger of falling into this cycle of looking at the consumer and the business problems from your own singular lense.
So, the reality was that being an “outsider”, rather than being a disadvantage, gave me the ability to look at the same situations, cultural influences, and consumer behaviors from a different perspective than someone who was a “local”.
As an outsider, we tend to sharpen our observation skills, and we not only listen more attentively in search of consumer understanding, but we are also very comfortable with asking more questions that could help us get our heads around whatever topic is at hand.
We start picking up small behaviors that, for someone who grew up with them are just “regular” – to an 'outsider' might be fascinating, which can inspire new ways of looking at consumers or the problems we are trying to solve creatively.
And I do strongly believe that having diversity of thought - a variety of references, backgrounds and experiences - is a massive advantage for anyone working in the creative industries. Or pretty much any industry. Plus many scientific studies show that diversity of thought increases problem-solving skills, decision-making and innovation.
I wrote a little bit about that on this post on The Outsights called “The Edge Effect”, which basically borrows the term “edge effect” from ecology to explain that when two different cultures collide, creativity multiplies. I share a range of references at the end that offer compelling proof as to why different perspectives not only help you boost creativity, but have a substantial impact on business performance.
So that got me thinking , while as an industry we obsess over INsights, perhaps we should be using OUTsights just as much. It’s not just about having a deep knowledge of the consumer, the business problem or the category, but also about having the ability to explore and see those from a different, broader, angle.
Lateral thinking and creativity are hugely dependent on us making connections that might not be obvious at first. When we are able to distance ourselves from a topic, just as much as we are able to immerse ourselves, we can look at it more objectively and make those connections more clearly.
It’s all about perspective – if everyone is looking at the problem from the same starting point, having someone bring a different angle can help the team as a whole unlock different creative routes.
So, I felt I needed to highlight that ability a bit more, as I don’t see many people talking about it. Break the prejudice and skepticism against “outsiders” and celebrate diversity of thought. I wanted to not only show creativity coming to life from unexpected places, but also share the references I’ve been collecting from around the world.
And so The Outsights was born.
Reflecting on my own reasons for moving abroad, I was focused a lot on the societal and cultural aspects, having wanted to immerse myself in something different for a while. My career tack was to save up and quit a job I no longer loved, and have a go at freelancing. I remember wondering whether or not speaking Dutch and being new to the culture with no other international experience would impact my success.
Erika's points ring true in a professional sense, but I also think they translate wholly to society and culture generally. Living abroad or not, being aware of our differences or our "outsider-ness" on a given topic or experience, and choosing to listen to different stories and points of view other than our own allow us to broaden our understanding of people or places.
Empathy in diversity
You talk about a range of topics on The Outsights, including the differences between cultures, specific traditions, and languages. What interests you about these topics? And do you think it stems from your environment, having been immersed in so many cultures and places, or was it something you were always drawn to?
I think this question of nurture vs nature is very interesting. I think it was a bit of both. We are a huge melting pot of cultures – Brazil, as a country, not only has the native influences, but we have immigrants from all over the world: we were a Portuguese colony, and a refuge for many immigrants during wars. We have huge Italian and German communities, as well as the biggest Japanese population outside of Japan. Throw all of that in a tropical environment with very fertile soil… you can imagine!
My family in particular comes from many different European countries, and we have always talked about different countries and cultural traditions, and different languages were spoken around me – not to mention the wander bug that seems to run in the family.
However, it was only when I went to live abroad myself that I started to truly understand that my “way of living” is not everyone else’s way of living. It sounds so obvious, and I knew it on some level before, but when I moved I suddenly understood. And I genuinely think it’s fascinating. Coming to this realization was also very humbling, and it’s a great way to develop empathy - I might not necessarily understand other cultures or other people’s behaviors, but I can still have deep respect for them.
More than just exploring the world for the sake of “knowing” the world, I think the key for me is to try to understand what’s behind the different cultures and behaviors, and how it’s all connected.
It’s almost an anthropological quest, boosted by an insatiable curiosity for the human psyche. And, of course, all aspects of society are then intertwined in that, so I can’t help but talk about a bit of everything.
Your point on empathy is key - I am a huge advocate for more empathy both in and outside of the workplace. I think in many situations it's lacking. Because broadly speaking, empathy and emotional intelligence aren't given much weight in the professional setting - brushed off as 'weak'or 'too personal'. But that is a whole other conversation. And outside of work, I think because engaging in conversations that present different points of view are largely avoided. Because they can be uncomfortable.
Absolutely. And that is one of the reasons outsights are so important. Society is composed of people from all walks of life and everyone, with their own personal baggage, will have a different point of view.
For us to understand ourselves, as a society, we need to be willing to step outside our box. We need to accept that “our way” of doing things is not the only way of doing things. If everyone could be more empathetic and understand that fact, half of the social problems and conflicts we have today wouldn’t exist.
Shifts and nuances
Can you tell me about a moment or experience where you had a shift in perspective?
Oh that happens all the time! One personal one a while ago was when I came across this fashion brand from Singapore that was developing really cool-looking clothes for people with physical disabilities.
I was impressed by them because, yes, I knew that functionality wise these garments needed to be constructed differently, but I never realized how plain and boring functional clothing often is. And the key shift was a quote from one of the consumers of that brand: she said that just like anyone else, people with disabilities also want to be able to express themselves through fashion – but the current functional clothes out there were plain and weren’t supporting them to do that.
And while so obvious, I had never thought about that. This opened my mind to so many different things. Not only was I inspired (I wrote about it here), but I also felt embarrassed for not having ever thought about that – and then I felt committed to being more inclusive with how I do things. Since then, I have started to use alt-text on pictures to facilitate description to those who use screen-readers, I subtitle all IG stories I do, and it changed even how I write my hashtags.
On a more mundane level, recently I had started to notice that in Norway, once the winter snow starts to melt, all sorts of accessories start to show up on the streets – hats, gloves, socks, beanies. The peculiarity here however, is that Norwegians, instead of ignoring those as most people probably would, have the habit of picking them up and placing them in a more visible spot – so if the owners of that lost item come back for it they can easily find it.
I think that is really considerate, and I’ve never seen it happening anywhere else. It’s also not something most Norwegians realize they are doing – I’ve asked many friends and their reactions is always “ah, never thought about it!”. So this is just another example of a behavioral observation that me, as an outsider, has noticed. And while not necessarily a change in perspective, it is a nuance of social behavior that I find really fascinating!
So much so that Erika starting taking snaps of forgotten items she found. It’s a gesture I’ve seen around Norway too – a tiny insight into the current culture I am immersed in, still learning. Sometimes with intrigue, other times deeply uncomfortable and trying to embrace it.
Thanks Erika for sharing, and for starting The Outsights to share those too.