Why is it important to learn about and engage with people different from us? Especially those from different cultural, ethnic, racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds? How does it benefit us personally? And how does it impact the world?
First Obstacle Americans Face
Americans are notorious around the world for being clueless about the customs, language, even geography of other places.
Why is this? For one thing, America is a large country bordering only two other nations, one of which also speaks English for the most part and has a culture that, on the surface, may seem familiar to Americans.
Because of this relative lack of neighboring cultural diversity, there is no pressing need to learn another language, learn how others live or do business, and really engage with someone different from ourselves.
Now, you might argue, "But America is a melting pot!" Well, yes. But only if you choose to engage with that melting pot diversity!
Consider the contrast with Switzerland. Small country with people who speak French, German, and Italian as well as Swiss Deutsch because they rub shoulders with people from all those countries every day.
A Second Obstacle
Another reason, perhaps, is American hubris. Americans are taught from childhood that “America is the best country. Americans have freedoms that people in no other country have. America is the strongest, richest, most developed country.”
Americans tend to grow up believing everyone else in the world learns English because it’s the best language. But ask any native speaker of another language, and they will extol the virtues of their own mother tongue.
True, English has ascended to become the (current) top international language. But the reality is, just over 90% of our world’s 7.5B people do not speak nor understand English – and this takes into account a huge number of second/third-language learners of English.
Because Americans live with a (false) sense of the superiority and widespread use of English, they often don’t feel the need to learn other languages. “After all, everyone in the world wishes they could live in America,” we reason. But is it true?
While it’s true that America is, at present, the world’s richest country in terms of GDP and is a global superpower, it’s not true that everyone wants to come to America.
In fact, many Americans would be surprised to know that a good percentage of the people of the world view Americans as immoral.
Many non-Americans believe that Hollywood movies are an accurate representation of life in America and reflect America’s true values. In the movies people sleep with each other without any commitment, blow up things for no reason, and place no value in family or the elderly. Is it any wonder that Iran once labeled America “the great Satan”?
As this example illustrates, people from other countries have as many false assumptions about Americans as Americans have about them. This leads to huge misunderstandings between people.
An Indian student I once talked with in our home was astounded to discover that my wife and I were committed to be faithful to each other for life. He had been a big fan of the TV series Friends and thought that all Americans held the same values as those of the characters in that sitcom.
By getting to know and engage with one another, however, he and I learned a lot. He was quite relieved to find most Americans weren’t as immoral as TV shows made them appear.
And I learned that Indians who are of high caste don’t necessarily hate all those of lower castes, something I had heard related to the caste system in Hindu.
A Cure for War?
So why learn about culture? Why learn other languages? Why engage with people we may at first not understand?
Because lack of cultural knowledge leads to stereotyping and misunderstandings. In the extreme case, they can even to conflicts and wars.
The best cure for the plague of war is to get to know the person who is fighting against you.
Erich Marie Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front contains a scene where the main character, Paul Bäumer, a German fighting in World War I, finds himself in a foxhole in hand to hand combat with a Frenchman. He kills the Frenchman, but then examines his pocketbook and discovers he is a man just like many of his friends with a family and a profession. This epiphany helps him understand the stupidity of war.
How You Can Benefit from the CultureWeave Blog
Both Americans and people from other countries need to know each other. We need to engage with one another more, not become more isolationist and cut off from the world. Truth is, America – as a multicultural, multiethnic nation – needs to know itself better. The 2016 presidential election bore this lesson out. It exposed how very little we know about ourselves – and how much we have to learn!
You see, when people know each other,it’s much harder to form stereotypes. And it becomes easier to appreciate one another. When people appreciate one another, they develop respect for each other. And when people respect one another, it’s hard to go to war against the other. Can you hold a gun to the head of someone you deeply love and respect?
By regularly reading this blog, you will develop more cultural understanding and will make the acquaintance of real people from many countries. You will engage with their stories. Our aim is that through knowing these people, you will grow in your appreciation and understanding of, and respect for, other people and perspectives.
And doesn’t the world need a little more of that?
One last benefit we shouldn't miss. It may be challenging and awkward to get to know and engage with someone from a different culture. But the truth is, doing so is also a lot of fun! So, are you ready to engage?
What steps will you take this week to get outside of your comfort zone to learn about and engage with people different from yourself?