Embracing cultural difference

Over the past few decades, better education, new technology, cheap airline travel, EU membership and the reduction in red tape for travellers has resulted in the world becoming noticeably smaller.  For my grandmother, the prospect of visiting my father in Aden during his military service was a once in a lifetime event, taking a lot of time and planning to achieve (as well as considerable cost.) And yet for me, popping over to Athens for the weekend, or planing a trip to Singapore for the night (I kid you not!) seems as simple as my commute to work or a day trip to a neighbouring city.

The opportunities afforded to many of us with the opening up of long distance travel is incredibly enriching.  It broadens horizons, raises cultural awareness, exposes us to exciting new foods, architectural styles, climates and people.  As I reflect on my last 2 weeks in the UK before me and husband start our new life in Portugal, I considered where we still might some catching up to do, and my thoughts landed on cultural differences.

Compared to 5, 10, 20 years ago, we are exposed to so many more cultures, languages and religions in our daily lives.  Living in large cities in most European countries, you will rub shoulders with plenty of nationalities before you even get to work on a morning.  We travel abroad more than ever, experiencing other cultures first hand.  TV, cinema, restaurants, bars and social clubs further expose us to more facets of this complex world.  So it would seem logical that we should all become culturally empathetic polyglots who celebrate diversity.

And yet Britain is leaving the EU, right wing parties across Europe have surging support and major super powers are lurching further to the right with their immigration policies. It doesn’t feel like our attitude to cultural enrichment quite matches the wonderfully diverse lifestyles we live.  Moving abroad (again), I reminded that it IS difficult and complicated to adjust and understand another culture, language or or way of life.  So as my husband and I make the adjustment, here’s 4 little tips I’m following, that are just as useful in our multi-cultural workplaces, schools and social circles.

Language and culture: Just because you speak a foreign language, doesn’t mean that you can communicate well, because culture is more complicated than that. What’s funny to one nation may be insulting to another, so balance a little humility with a receptiveness to learn! That said, a little effort goes a long way, so show some empathy and show a little understanding about other cultures.

Time and patience: Our opportunity to travel the world has happened so quickly, and perhaps our brains’ ability to understand so many different cultures hasn’t quite kept pace.  Accept that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and that it won’t always be easy or obvious how to communicate with people from different cultures.  But with time and patience, a level of clarity and comfort can be achieved.

Mutual respect: Whether it’s a visible difference (eg Muslim women wearing a hijab) or a behavioural difference (eg bull fighting in Spain), it’s sometimes very difficult to reconcile very different views between cultures.  This can be particularly uncomfortable when it impinges on our belief system, or our attitude towards diversity and inclusion.  One thing’s for sure – if we criticise and ostracise someone for their cultural difference, we marginalise that group, creating greater division and increased risk of misunderstanding.  Instead, endeavour to understand the reason behind the difference and establish a level of mutual respect between both cultures to move forward.

Learning is enriching: The net benefits of living in such diverse cities far outweigh any of the disadvantages.  Our dinner plates would be far duller, our holidays much less exotic, our social circles less interesting and our workplaces less dynamic.  Despite the complexity, occasional misunderstanding, frustration, confusion and crossed wires, a diverse and culturally rich society makes for a lot more fun in life!

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