17 February 2011
Cross-Cultural Etiquette: Barriers to Understanding
When it comes to befriending people of other cultures and religious backgrounds, many barriers can arise. The barriers are inevitable and can either be viewed as an opportunity to learn or as a rift that makes friendship near impossible. It’s your choice.
Some of the following may be hard to swallow, but remember that I am an American writing to my fellow Americans. I am one of you. I’ve been there. I know how hard it can be to have your thinking challenged, your ideas about the world torn apart and your “understanding” of other people redefined as ignorance. As you read through, just remember that I learned this by trial and error and you can just learn from my mistakes. Bonus!
1. Our way is not always the right way
Many people have a tendency to be ethnocentric. If we haven’t ever considered the idea that we don’t know everything and our way of life and order of governance may not be preferred by the masses, now is the time to do so. Our way may not be the right way but that doesn’t mean it is wrong, either. Maybe it is just a “way.”
2. Don’t let politics play a role.
I cannot stress the importance of this lesson. Letting politics govern how we interact with and treat someone is one of the quickest ways toward bigotry. I am ashamed to say that I have spoken with people who condemned my interaction with Arabs because “they are the enemy” or “they’ll try and kill me” (coincidently, this kind of attitude is also the quickest way to lose my friendship). Or perhaps we all have encountered the old Vietnam veteran who refuses interaction with all Asians because of his experience in the war.
When we feel that our politics plays a role in how we view people, it is a good time to pick the brain of an international. I remember I had some solid footing on my stance on Iraq until I talked to an Iraqi friend of mine who, very solemnly, told us the story of how he has lost 24 of his immediate family members since the war started due to roadside bombs, RPGs and the like. Wow. If that doesn’t change the way we view the average Iraqi citizen, I don’t know what will. The average Arab is not the antagonist, they are the victim. If we survey the state of the world we find that is true for most areas of conflict across the globe.
3. We must leave our stereotypes at the door.
Not all Arabs are terrorists.
Not all Asian women suck at driving.
Not all Indians are computer programmers.
Not all Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab.
Not all Hindus do yoga.
Not all Mexicans are illegal.
Not all Asian kids are good at math.
Just like not all Americans are Christians, slutty, loud, violent, rich, and always chewing gum. (How do you like THEM stereotypes?)
4. Keeping an open mind doesn’t mean sacrificing our values.
This can really be an issue sometimes, especially for those who hold to a certain faith. Saying that we understand or can relate to something does not mean that we believe it or condone it. Accepting someone for who they are and what they believe and condoning their faith is not the same thing. I don’t expect a Muslim or Hindu to agree with me, but I always appreciate it when they nod and accept me and my faith and we still go on as friends.
5. The Hot Topics
Sometimes a barrier can come up by asking what seems like an innocent question. There are certain trigger topics that probably shouldn’t be broached until you really know someone well and know they will understand your intentions in asking and digging deep for understanding. You can’t discuss it without bringing in your own take, so you have to know that your take will be understood and not seen as a threat.
Sunni and Shia
The Chinese take on Taiwan, Tiananmen Square or Tibet
The caste system in India…this has been a hard topic of conversation in my experience
6. Learn to Laugh
This is hands down, the most important lesson. If we can’t laugh at ourselves and each other, there’s no hope for the world. Go ahead and laugh…it is OK!