The French. The Germans. The Spanish. The Refugees. The Other. THEM…
As we go about our daily life, we use labels to identify, categorize and make sense of the world around us, and our world vision is closely linked, indeed, depends upon, our cultural identity (or identities), the one imposed upon us at birth, by pure chance, by the luck – or otherwise – of the draw. Our identities are interwoven on so many differing levels, such as, for example, nationality, or region, religion, gender, social class, profession, school, generation etc.
In his research concerning cultural competence and intercultural communication, internationally renowned Dutch Professor Dr. Geert Hofstede listed five major barriers which can hinder our understanding of, and communication with, those whose backgrounds differ from ours.
The first of these is, of course, the language barrier, for cultural competence, or knowing not only what to say, why to say it and when to say it, are all included within this competence, and speaking another language relatively fluently is no guarantee of possessing this competence! Indeed, within this competence are included the moral taboos, the questions that must not be asked or, on the contrary, the expected response to information exchanged.
This is followed by our potential for (mis)interpreting non-verbal clues. Indeed, our culture has taught us to communicate through unspoken language, and this communication is so automatic that we are unaware we are even doing it. In addition, some gestures have differing meaning in various cultures, causing reactions ranging from mild amusement to deep offense when used.
Stereotypes are a major hindrance in our efforts to communicate across cultures, as we try to fit people into categories and patterns based on our previous experience. Within the Western world, there are several jokes based on the presumed stereotypical cultural characteristics, with visions of either Heaven or Hell, if Germans were mechanics or cops, Italians were lovers or mechanics, British were cops or cooks, and so on. This is how we divide the world up, on an a priori basis.
Evaluation, which is our tendency to judge The Other´s behavior as either good or evil, is based on our own cultural bias, and is so deeply ingrained, that we truly believe there is a “right” way of seeing the world. And finally, we need to acknowledge the high level of stress that we feel in unfamiliar situations and when faced with unfamiliar communication codes.
These same factors, these barriers, came into play when the world was stunned recently by the images of Hungarian camera operator Petra László deliberately, and, apparently, gratuitously, felling fleeing Syrian refugee father Osama al-Abd al-Mohsen as he tried to escape a makeshift camp in Hungary, cradling his young son – and, poignantly, a small plastic bag – in his arms. He was, to Petra László, The Other, and as such, was to be feared. A fear that is deeply rooted within her cultural identity, which she perceived to be threatened by these fleeing humans, and it is this difference which was the source of her fear-fueled kick.
Her reaction, however, struck a chord, and incited many comments. The images went viral. And, by the same token, this nameless and random refugee became a person of interest. His story became known; we learned he was a former football trainer in a Syrian premier football league, that he was fleeing an untenable situation – not, as many claim, for pecuniary reasons, but just to survive, and to ensure his little son would have the opportunity to grow up safely. This prompted Spaniard Miguel Ángel Galán to act. To see the similarities between this Syrian man and his involvement with football, and, ultimately, to offer him a position in his own football training school, going the extra mile and obtaining as well his transportation and housing.
Two reactions to the same man; fear, on the one hand, and acceptance on the other.
We need to learn compassion, to stifle our apparent “gut” instinct of the fear of The Other, but more importantly, we need to learn, to discover, and to teach how we can relate on multiple levels with those who differ from us, so that we may see the human within, rather than The Other…
While it would be simplistic to ignore the vastness of differing cultures and perhaps naïve to say that we are all one, under the skin, nonetheless, when discussions of “race” and ethnicity arise, we need to remember that we are all Homo sapiens sapiens and when you cut us…..we bleed.
To conclude, when reflecting upon The French or The Germans or The Refugees, I quote the famous English bard who, when referring to the feuding Capulet and Montague families in the play “Romeo and Juliet,” proclaimed: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Is then the same not true of our brothers and sisters on earth?
Author: Naomi Sidaway Sollinger