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Issue 83. Respect October 19, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Intercultural Education.
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ORANGE_BOOKOne of my current projects involves looking at language use in the context of describing a school’s goals related to intercultural education. This started with a small case study I was inventing for a workshop, but blossomed into a fledgling research project. “Respect” is a word that comes up frequently as a value to cultivate in the students in both the US and French cases I selected, and it becomes particularly relevant in dealing with differences: cultural, social, economic, intellectual, or physical. Some type of respect can be commanded through fear, and we also say that someone “earns” respect. If we want to improve the way we deal with differences, we are talking more about giving respect, about respecting as an action. It’s absolutely necessary and sometimes surprisingly difficult.

I recently received a message from someone in reaction to a comment I made on another blog. It was a breezy comment, not terribly well considered, in which I was dismissing the importance of another person’s point of view — a person I didn’t even know. But that was the person who chose to write me to complain about my comment. After offering him an apology and exchanging some emails back and forth, we still do not agree, though now on friendly terms, and we have done some work on respecting each other by connecting with stories of our parents. But respect is still difficult.

Respect isn’t a skill or a body of knowledge; it’s an attitude, an approach, and an action that describes a connection to someone or something. Respect is recognizing and believing in the importance and value of another being, or even of ourselves, and communicating that recognition through our behavior. The absence of respect may be more noted by others than its presence because respect is often quiet. English uses the convention of nouns and verbs, but like many words in the English language, respect is both a noun and a verb, and it always takes an object. I thought of the exercises that I was taught in school so many years ago, in which we diagrammed sentences to give a visual structure showing the relationship of each word to the whole. But words themselves are complex things and contain many concepts and relationships.
I often feel overly academic when I draw a model of a concept like this. Am I taking something simple and making it way too complex? That’s possible. But here’s what I discovered in putting this together: For me, believing is the sticking point. It’s the gut reaction. Intellectually or philosophically, it’s straight forward. Of course every person is valuable and necessary and important!

What happens, though, when I believe my way of doing things is more efficient? Or that my opinions are supported better by the facts? How can I respect when I really believe I have the better idea?

Years ago, my daughter came to me crying because a friend told her that she had given a stupid name to her doll. “Why did you say that and hurt her feelings?” I asked the friend, who answered, “Because I really believe that Kimie is a stupid name for a doll.” Honest, perhaps, but certainly lacking in respect.

I found an interesting discussion of the difficulty of teaching respect in The Journal of General Internal Medicine in an article by Doctors Carla L. Spagnoletti and Robert M. Arnold. Doctors also may find it hard to “feel” respect at times for their patients, but it may be helpful, the authors argue, to start with learning the behaviors, the language, and the symbols of respect that are culturally appropriate, and to practice them even when the feeling of respect isn’t there yet.

I believe this can also be approached from the intention to respect: to suspend your beliefs, to decide to assume that another way may be better than yours, and just to explore what that might mean. This is also an intention to develop your relationship with another person.


Issue 68. Challenging your Conclusions May 25, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Reflections.
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PURPLE_BOOKMy years in school in the USA pushed me to think quickly. From spelling bees to timed essay exams, it was always important to form your thoughts as quickly as possible, to “think on your feet” as we sometimes say. An unforgettable approach came from Sister Helen Marie, my 7th grade English teacher at a Catholic girls school. She used a stack of yellow response cards, each with a name on it and spaces for recording grades. At the beginning of class every day, Sister would shuffle these cards and begin quizing us on our homework, calling on the person whose card appeared on top and grading that response then and there. In spite of the random order, I always had a strange premonition just before I was going to be called. One night I even dreamed of the yellow cards and the next day, my card was on top of the stack and I had to write my outline on the blackboard. Just as it happened in my dream, after I completed writing it on the board, Sister Helen Marie told me it was too long and detailed, and she wrote down a grade.

I can’t deny this training has been exteremely useful in many ways, but it also leads me to quickly form opinions and draw conclusions on the basis of what I already know, or, I might say, on just what I know so far. When this becomes a problem is in the context of studying, working, or just being in another culture. I don’t always notice the most relevant information, or sometimes worse, I do notice it but misinterpret it.

What’s needed at these times is to slow down. While I can’t stop my self from making my quick judgment of the situation, what I can do is to delay announcing it. If pressed, I can state my ideas as tentative; as beginnings of thought, rather than as conclusions. I can include the doubt as part of what I know.

In 1991 and 92 I was doing research in India, conducting in-depth interviews with 49 Indians who had studied abroad in the USA and had returned to India. Most had been back just a few years, and they were mostly younger than I was at the time. I wanted to learn about their re-entry adjustment to India, but before long, I had two or three, then four, then five people whose re-entry experience included the death of a parent either while they were away or shortly after they returned to India. I started to consider how this was affecting my sample and how the loss of a parent would have implications for the re-entry experience.  Both of my parents were still alive then, living a nice retirement life in Florida, both in good health. I thought of the experience of the Indians as I thought of my own experience. How sad for them to lose a parent so young; and how strange that so many had this experience.

It wasn’t until I was back in the US finalizing my report and going over all my interview notes again that I discovered a pattern. Nearly everyone I interviewed talked about how their parents were now getting old and that they were taking on more of the family responsibilities since they returned. I began to realize that there was a transition going on at this stage in their lives. They were becoming the adults in the family, assuming new roles, and with an awareness that their parents would not always be there, and that they would need to look after their parents now. While this probably means that their readjustment is much different from the pattern I knew in the USA, where coming home involved increased independence, it was not inconsistent to assume that some of the aging parents of Indian students would succumb earlier than others.

I realize that I still must challenge my conclusions. I may still have missed something else that would be key to my understanding of the experience of these students. There is always more to learn.

Speaking of Learning . . . I’m leaving tomorrow morning for the NAFSA conference in Los Angeles. Watch for “Eyes on NAFSA” next week with highlights of what I learned.

Issue 64. Coming to Doubt. April 26, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Reflections.
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blue book“And so you see I have come to doubt
All that I once held as true
I stand alone without beliefs
The only truth I know is you.”

Kathy’s Song. Paul Simon.


I often marvel at how young Paul Simon was when he wrote this song, but it has haunted me for years, particularly these lines, with the stark emptiness of doubt in everything except for the one person for whom the song is written: Kathy, I presume. What impressed me most was the possibility of such a complete emotional upheaval that would leave a person clinging desperately to one other person, with no other bearings. The intensity fit my teenage years, but not too closely, because at that point in my life I did believe I could change the world, or that young people would change the world. Much of that optimism stays with me, but now also much of the doubt.

My first real encounter with another culture was my exchange experience in France at 17. I am rather amused to remember my efforts to connect with a street corner revolutionary just across the border in Germany where I traveled with my host family. He was handing out some kind leaflet, and I knew immediately that we both belonged to the same worldwide youth movement. My French was reasonable enough, but I still don’t speak German. My host family stood patiently by while I tried to make this important connection in a pigeon English. We traded revolutionary leaflets as one might now exchange business cards. My host family ushered me back into the car and of course I never saw that guy again.

The complete confidence I had in whatever it was that I believed at age 17 served me well in some ways, but it did not leave me very open to the cultural differences I encountered. I held my views a bit too strongly, and judged quickly. Openness requires some doubt about your own perspective, and at that age I didn’t see the value of doubting what seemed self-evident to me.

I needed very much to balance my certainty about the world with some serious doubt: to have a willingness to explore the possibility that what I know from my own perspective may simply not be true. Where certainty brings strength, doubt brings vulnerability, but it can also yield to openness, wonder, curiosity, and the realization that there is so much more to learn.

Next week as I leave the daily contact with my colleagues at AFS and start on a new journey, I welcome the doubt that is creeping in as a counterweight to the confidence in what I have learned so far and where I am heading, and I welcome the new and renewed relationships that bring me new perspectives to ponder.