Reduce the sodium? No!

Some of you know that my spouse and I are providing live-in care for my 91-year-old mother. She is our last living parent so this time together is very special, even if it is also very challenging. We are fortunate that we can bring in a caregiver at night so that Janis and I can get some rest.

A few days ago, I happened to overhear Janis as she was briefing a new caregiver on Mom’s dietary requirements. They were talking about sodium and the conversation went something like this: “We have to watch Mom’s sodium intake.” “Oh, so we have to control it, got it.” “Yes, we have to reduce it.”

And that sounds exactly right, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what we’ve heard most of our lives, that too much salt is bad?

The problem with this exchange is this is exactly opposite to what Mom needs. Mom doesn’t metabolize sodium well so she needs more sodium, not less. We salt all of her food to help maintain the sodium level her brain needs to function well.

My spouse was, out of habit, repeating the mantra we have all heard during our lifetimes: too much salt is bad. That mindset surfaced at that moment with the new caregiver and it was exactly opposite the outcome we need to work toward.

I know that Janis was tired in that moment, and that factor weighed on my mind as I thought about why she said the opposite of what we needed to do. When we are tired or stressed, we fall back on old routines. In this case, it was the “salt is bad” theme that came out instead of the newer knowledge specific to Mom that salt is good!

What does this have to do with our work in conservation? Bear with me a moment, please.


From a very early age, we are presented with tons of labels about people and situations and things. These labels become embedded as beliefs as our preferred behaviors are molded by those who raise us and teach us.

It often seems very innocent but when you pause to think about it, those labels can have long-lasting effects on how we choose to live our lives. For example, consider this childhood nursery rhyme:

What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails
And puppy-dogs’ tails
That’s what little boys are made of

What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And everything nice
That’s what little girls are made of

Boys are rambunctious and happy-go-lucky. Girls are sweetness and light. As adults looking back at our childhoods, I’ll bet that we can think of boys and girls who didn’t actually fit those molds, but when we were children, that nursery rhyme created expectations of what a boy should be like and what a girl should be like.

Those expectations and labels are part of the tapestry of things that we do to socialize our children to become just like us. Why just like us? Because from our individual center-of-the-universe point of view, we’re okay, so our children should grow up to be okay, too: just like us.

Labels are powerful

Fast forward several decades to the time I was the senior mine geologist at a gold mine in Washington State. I also functioned as the long-range business planner for the operation, and as my workload expanded, we realized that we needed to add another geologist.

We embarked on a long recruitment process to try to find the best candidates. We needed someone who could step in and take over if something happened to me. Eventually, we narrowed the field to three great candidates. Two were men and one was a woman.

In my judgment, the female geologist was the best candidate. Her work experience was more directly applicable to the geologic conditions we faced. She had a master’s degree from a university with a strong reputation for producing quality geologists. Her attitude combined a take-no-guff approach to how she was treated in an almost all-male operation along with a great sense of humor.

I pushed very hard for the company to select her but I was overruled. The mining company hired one of the men, even though he was less qualified in the kind of mining and the type of rock we dealt with.

Why would the company knowingly select a weaker candidate? My bosses acknowledged that the woman was the best choice but said it was a cost issue. Not understanding, I asked for more information. Well, they said, if we hire her, we would have to build an entirely separate shower and bathroom facility. That would cost a lot of money so we’re going to avoid that by hiring the man. Plus, they said, this way they would avoid any of “those” kinds of problems that can occur when men and women work together.

I was floored. I’m still in a state of disbelief that they would make a hiring judgment based solely on gender rather than on qualifications. (Clearly, my sense of equitable treatment was different than theirs, so it will not come as a surprise that I eventually left their employ!)

Girls are different than boys. Girls are sugar and spice and everything nice, while boys are somehow tougher. Girls are emotional; boys shouldn’t cry. It goes on and on. Each of us can probably think back to our childhood and remember being told we are good or bad, that girls aren’t good at math, the boys can be firefighters or warriors, etc.

We are still labeling each other

And because we learned how to use labels – and how impactful they truly are – at a very early age, we continue with that behavior to the present day. For example:

  • Good farmers, bad farmers
  • Clean till, no-till
  • Eastside, westside
  • Urban, rural
  • Conservative, liberal
  • Good student (smart), bad student (stupid)
  • Sinner, saint
  • Blue collar, white collar
  • Strong, weak
  • Leader, follower
  • Included, underrepresented

Labels get in the way of actually seeing the people and the situation. Labels are the easy way out. They let us cast an entire category of people or things into one box, and when we do that, whoever or whatever is in that box gets valued identically.

But we’re not identical. Each of us is wonderfully different. Just as Margaret Mead said, “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”

We are not cans of beans. Those are labeled to show a particular brand so that you know you are buying exactly the same beans this week as you enjoyed last month and last year. The label means the contents are always the same, conforming to our experience and expectations. If the quality of those beans varied from batch to batch, you would probably stop buying them because it’s important to know that you are getting what you expect. Labels are one way that we create an expectation of something that should never change.

As we express ourselves in our own unique ways, we delight and offend others because their view of the world is naturally different than ours. In my experience, most people like to associate with people they perceive to be a lot like they are. Unfortunately, that can also feed the habit of labeling others who are different, and in a society where conformity seems to be the desired outcome, different can mean bad or wrong.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion

Labeling others is a habit that is embedded in us because that’s how we were raised. We continue to use labels to put people into simplistic groups. It’s easier to think of a bunch of people as being the same, but when we do that, we lose sight of the richness of differences present within that group. Sometimes, labeling a particular group is our way of simply saying they are not like us, that is, they are different. And like cans of beans, if that labeled group is different, well, they will always be different. That’s how labels work.

As WACD forms the DEI Committee called for in resolutions 2020-05 and 2020-06, I will strive to remember that when we talk about particular groups of people, we are really talking about collections of incredibly different people. They may look similar to us or they may look different. They could be of the same gender or political persuasion. Maybe they live in a particular area, or they are rich or poor. Perhaps they are well educated, perhaps they are not.

As we work on trying to unpack a lifetime of conditioning and labeling of others, I also encourage us to consider that we may not have all the answers. That we could learn some new things about ourselves and others. And that as we learn more about each other and our individual stories, we might discover that we actually like some of those folks who at first seemed very different. We might actually begin to see that they could have a more valued place in the conservation work that brings us together as we work toward a strong, vibrant future for our customers and communities.

Finally, talking about a topic that is uncomfortable is a stressor. When we are stressed, we tend to fall back on habits, routines, and behaviors that may have worked well for us in the past. This is something for each of us to be aware of because our old habits may not work well for us in this particular set of conversations.

I’ll close with some meanings of the word hubris as presented by Wikipedia.

  • Hubris describes a personality quality of extreme or foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence, often in combination with arrogance.
  • The term arrogance means to feel that one has a right to demand certain attitudes and behaviors from other people.
  • Hubris, arrogance, and pretension are related to the need for victory instead of reconciliation.
  • Hubris often indicates an overestimation of one’s own competence, accomplishments, or capabilities.

As we work together on diversity, equity, and inclusion, I hope that we can avoid the trap of hubris. I hope that we can be big enough to admit that we may not have all the answers. I hope that we can be more forgiving of ourselves and of others. I hope that we can seek not to win but instead strive for our community to grow and thrive together.

Tom Salzer, Executive Director