Posts Tagged ‘crossing cultures; political extremes’

Across the Lines

July 16, 2017

Over the years I’ve heard complaints from different people about other different people, that the Italians are so noisy, or the Greeks are loud, that Blacks are impossible when they get together in groups because of their noise level and lately, particularly, that Africans congregating make a constant racket. The speakers are, obviously, not Italians or Greeks or Black Americans nor Africans. The speakers are more likely of northern European or Asian backgrounds, from cultures where restraint, quiet voices, and minimizing confrontation are deeply embedded values.

I’m not out to compare the benefits of restraint versus airing one’s mind, not to suggest that one way of interacting is better than another; all are equally effective for the members of the defined groups. My interest is in a more personal appreciation of how the same action can feel very different when experienced by members of different cultures.

Specifically, I engaged with my spouse in a process of clarifying an assignment. Together we successfully sorted out what was required and he completed his work well before the deadline. The sorting out process went rather more by his cultural norms than my own, feeling to me like an argument with raised voices, almost shouting and bordering on anger, whereas he thought our volume was merely that of a beneficial discussion.

In a similar vein, as I’m making new friends among the Africans attending school near my home, I find I’m having to explain my quietness as “just my nature” and not the result of feeling ill or ill at ease. I speak up when I have something to say, but have never learned to put energy into debate for its own sake, nor to chat casually about non-essentials. I used to think this a failing on my part, this inability to make “social chitchat” as my mother scornfully called it. I used to wish I had acquired that skill, and tried to do so but without success. My efforts were perceived for what they were, a stilted pretense of interest. Only when I had/have a role, like hostess at a party, or instructor, or guide, am I able to talk easily to or in a group. Thankfully, I’ve finally reached a point where I can accept this way that I am, and not feel badly about it.

With that acceptance has come the ability to observe different cultural patterns of communication and even to learn how to participate in unfamiliar ones without too much stress. Not so very long ago, the assignment discussion with my husband would very possibly have turned into a genuine argument, not because we disagreed but because the feeling tone of the way we expressed our understanding of it was so very different. I would have gotten hung up on the sense that he wasn’t listening to me, or giving consideration to my opinion, and he might have given up trying to convince me that I didn’t understand the assignment. Instead of a successful solution, we would have been left with frustration.

In a larger social context it seems to me that our nation is expressing constant frustration these days, arising from lack of ability to communicate across a deep cultural divide. The intolerance on both sides of that divide gets translated into a false belief that trying to understand “the opposition” is a sign of weakness and a betrayal of values. I’m far from the first to point out that “my way or the highway” has replaced finding grounds for “meeting in the middle” to the detriment of civility and increasingly to the detriment of our civil institutions.

I’m old enough to remember my parents glued to the radio listening to the Army-McCarthy hearings that brought about the end of the ugly extremism of the early 1950s. I therefore have a degree of confidence, based on past history, that the present accusatory public debate will also resolve itself and allow us to move forward in a more civil and civilized manner as a society. We won’t get there by each side trying to out-shout the other. Rather, both sides need to find the bases for having sufficient confidence in themselves and their values that they can tolerate listening to a different opinion without feeling attacked.

If we each start with a one on one encounter with someone from another part of the political spectrum, what progress we as a whole might achieve!

 


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