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Issue 81. Differences October 3, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Communication.
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As a small child, I often wished that I had a twin sister. The fantasies were vague, but the general idea was that she would be someone just like me in every way. We of course would always get along, share our toys, and be best of friends. With a little more experience, I began to grasp the point: Being with someone exactly like me is about as interesting as being alone. The joy in life comes from being with people who are different than I am. This is good because of course I never found anyone exactly like me.

But at the same time, it’s not always easy. Building relationships across differences means that sometimes — even frequently — we might disagree. Even if this is someone from our own culture, who has lived through more or less the same experiences, listened to the same radio stations, watched the same movies, read or watched the same news, we might still disagree. In such cases, we tend to feel very free to judge the other person. We see this especially across divides of political opinion. How, we wonder, do they see all the same facts and come up with such an illogical conclusion? We may try to persuade them to rethink their logic — usually a futile exercise — or we may “agree to disagree,” a common solution in the USA when people want to maintain relationships. Typically this means that we tend to avoid these problem topics where we see things differently, and focus instead on all those things we have in common. Very rarely, and mostly with those we love the most, we might try harder to understand the other person’s point of view, and allow that other point of view to be part of how we also see the world.

Building relationships across cultures means navigating even more differences. Of course, there will be similarities and that can be helpful. But we usually recognize right away that there are many differences; whether it’s the food, the language, the climate, the religion, or the political system. There may also be visible physical differences. Even dressed in a salwar kameez, I could never pass for a native in India and so I was often greeted by shouts from children: “Hello! What country are you from?” If we have a generous soul, these very noticeable differences tend to make us reticent to judge the other person or the other culture, though of course in some ways we often do judge, and that is why we may tread lightly around some of the differences we find. We may avoid mentioning the differences we find because in fact they do sound like judgments in our ear. We may worry that we will offend or embarrass the other person. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

On my first visit to Japan, I stayed with a lovely family who generously gave me meals and a place to stay while I worked and explored Tokyo. I remember the dinner when my hosts first served me a miso soup that was oishi — that is, it was delicious! But my hosts couldn’t tell that from my behavior; they were the ones to comment: “How funny that you eat the soup silently.” That would be how I was trained to eat soup in the USA, so I did it quite naturally, but now that this differences was called to my attention, I realized that everyone else at the table has been slurping the soup. Far from being embarrassed or offended, I was glad that they brought this up. It was another aspect of the Japanese culture I could try out.

Many differences are less visible (or audible) as whether or not you slurp your soup. Generally differences in non-verbal behaviors are much easier to accept and adapt to than differences in what we believe to be true in life, religion, or in politics. I remain the same person if I decide to slurp my soup when in Japan and eat it silently in the USA, but my identity may feel more vulnerable if I decide to explore other religious or even political beliefs. And yet, even that doesn’t have to be true if I think of my self as a growing and evolving person. Years ago when I was traveling alone in Montreal, I had time to spare and was willing to fill out a survey. I had thought it was a marketing survey but it turned out to be a Scientology personal assessment. When I discovered this afterwards, I closed up. I was coaxed into the debriefing but determined that I would leave immediately afterwards. Though I still wanted to be polite, my defenses were in high alert. I did not want to be converted. I never joined the Scientology church and still have no intention of doing so. However, in the intervening years, I have come to understand that the debriefing did offer a particular insight into my personality that I now recognize to be true, and it’s been helpful to me to know about it and to have a label for it, to embrace it and to compensate for it. It’s also given me an understanding about the value that other belief systems may hold.

I was reminded of this in August when I attended the IAIR conference and heard the keynote address by Min-Sum Kim. (See “Research and Relevant Bits” for more on the IAIR conference.) She was humorously self-critical about her resistance to religious missionaries who saw her as a “worthy target” for conversion, and challenged us all to be more open to, and less fearful of differences.

It is a big challenge, and I know I have a long way to go.