Melting Pot, Salad Bowl, or Fruit Tray?

N Gautam
4 min readJan 17, 2023
Photo by David Trinks on Unsplash

This article is not about the fabulous Swiss dish Fondue where cheese or chocolate melts in a pot, into which a long skewer-like fork is used to dip bread or fruit respectively, and then eaten. This is more about the metaphorical melting pot commonly used to describe cultures that come together, apparently like metals that are mixed together to form alloys to create compounds with better properties. In other words, “the whole is better than the sum of the parts”. The melting-pot metaphor is frequently used to describe the US societal landscape. My focus of this article is on organizations comprised of people from different nationalities, cultures, and ethnicities.

By organization, one could think of a company, a university, or a society. Whether it is your workplace, classroom, or your neighborhood, chances are there are people from various countries, speaking different languages, and relishing a wide spectrum of foods (yes, we are back to food as the rest of the title is also food-related!). This heterogeneity that is apparent in the organization calls for many to consider this not as a melting pot, but a salad bowl! In other words, each element of the salad bowl retains its identity while the salad dressing integrates them together. In other words, instead of creating a common identity like an alloy in a melting pot (or cheeses/chocolates in a fondue), we retain the individual cultural identity while also forming a collective identity in a salad bowl.

In my opinion, although physically things may look like a salad bowl, from an interactions standpoint they end up looking like a lightly-shaken fruit tray (like the picture above). Most of our interactions are with people similar to us, not necessarily just from an ethnic or cultural standpoint (which happens a lot), but also from similar social, economic, or educational backgrounds. I feel the need to make that distinction because not always (although often) it is about ethnic or cultural identities since we all change over time. As a personal anecdote, when I came to the US nearly 30 years ago and taught a course, none of the students used to laugh at my jokes in class! And guess what? I recently gave a seminar to a bunch of students in India, and nobody laughed! My style of jokes has adapted to the society I live in.

In a nutshell, we seek out individuals that are similar to us ethnically, culturally, socially, economically, or educationally. But why does that happen? I would attribute that to the notion of familiarity bias. Matthew Royse wrote a wonderful article about cognitive biases where one of the biases is Familiarity Bias. Matthew Royse says:

Familiarity bias is about your tendency to prefer people who look like you, dress like you, or have a similar social-economic background. This bias is about liking the familiar place, people, or things over something a new place, people, or things. Familiarity bias is a shortcut that gives more weight to trusted sources of information over non-trusted sources. It is about giving a preference to familiar details and experiences.

However, in an inter-connected world with global organizations, it is important to be able to interact and thrive with people of different cultures and ethnicities. Several authors have written about their experiences abroad. Tim Rettig writes about cognitive biases and inter-cultural communication skills. There Tim Rettig introduces to a wonderful book I read recently. It is a book by Joseph Shaules (Amazon link here): “The Intercultural Mind: Connecting Culture, Cognition, and Global Living”. Joseph Shaules uses cultural psychology and neuroscience to explain our behaviors in unfamiliar settings.

An important emerging leadership skill is the notion of cultural intelligence. Upon asking ChatGPT what exactly that means and how that is useful, it said:

Cultural intelligence is the ability to understand and effectively navigate cultural differences in the workplace. This includes skills such as intercultural communication, awareness of cultural norms and values, and the ability to adapt one’s behavior to different cultural contexts. Leaders who are culturally intelligent are able to effectively lead diverse teams and navigate global business environments.”

Once again, this could be extended beyond cultural intelligence to include diversity in all forms.

It is a lot of fun to learn about different perspectives and cultures. People do this differently. Some traveling to various places in their countries and abroad; some invite exchange students into their homes; some interact with a variety of individuals; some cook foods from different ethnic recipes; some pick up different languages; some try out different games; some read books and novels from various lands; some watch shows (possibly using closed-caption) in other languages; and the list goes on. As The Doors song goes (in a completely different context), “Variety Is the Spice of Life”!

I do sincerely hope that as a world, we go from a fruit tray to a nicely mixed fruit salad.