A True Tale of a Simple Circumstance
She tells me of a female American friend of hers in the military. Let’s call her Robin. Robin is now studying at a prestigious graduate school in the U.S. Her area focus is “South Asia and the ‘-Stans,’” and many of her classmates hail from that region of the world. As expected, almost all are male.
So this group of officers attended an event for their program not long ago. Robin sat with some of her classmates, chatting away on the side of the room. She got up to get more food, got distracted and didn’t return for awhile.
When she did, a rather imposing Pakistani male officer had taken the seat next to hers. Robin sat down to resume her conversation with one of the other classmates. Within seconds, the Pakistani officer stood up and went somewhere else.
Seeing Situations from the Other’s Perspective
Subtle moves. You might not even notice them. But stuff was happening.
When Lina told me this story she also told me of a conversation she had about this situation with one of the other Pakistani wives, Khirad.
Khirad exclaimed, “Well, that Pakistani officer was doing the respectful thing! He should not remain sitting there because he is married and she is not.”
Lina responded, “Really? Are you kidding? That action conveyed the wrong message to my friend, Robin. It communicated to her gender discrimination. It offended her that he was unwilling to sit next to her because she is a woman.”
Khirad would have no part of this thinking. “In our culture, the respectful thing to do in such a case is to stand up and move elsewhere. Not doing that would be an offense!”
Finally, Lina suggested, “What would be best is if Robin and this officer could have talked about what was going on, don’t you think? I feel as if a valuable lesson could have been learned.” Khirad nodded in agreement.
Subtleties Not to be Lost
Without doubt, this was a subtle, nuanced situation. But it reveals how easily it can be to navigate cultural waters. It demonstrates how what is the respectful action differs – sometimes 180 degrees – depending upon the cultural backgrounds, and the cultural contexts. And how much we need to better understand others.
What are steps you can take to first, become more aware of subtle cultural differences, and second, to find ways to bridge them well?
(1) Understand You Cannot Judge at Face Value
There may be more to a situation than meets the eye.
As in our story above, neither Robin nor the Pakistani officer were aiming to be rude or discriminatory. They simply behaved and interpreted the situation through their own cultural lenses.
Would it have been reasonable for the Pakistani officer to think to himself, “Oh, I should remain sitting here so I do not offend her sense of gender equality?” Or for Robin to think to herself, “Wow, I’m sure he left like that because he wanted to show me respect as a single woman, and that is the proper thing to do?”
Of course not! Unless they learn how the other thinks.
(2) Get into the Shoes (or Mindset) of Others
Had they been trained in these cultural nuances, the officer could have turned to Robin and said, politely, “I’m sorry, Miss, but in my country the respectful thing is to not remain seated by a single woman. It is part of our cultural and religious practice. I hope you understand.”
If he had said that, do you think Robin would have continued to be offended? Maybe, maybe not. In such case, though, she would not have jumped to the gender-discrimination conclusion, as so many Westerners tend to do.
And, if Robin had been aware of this cultural and religious norm, she may have chosen not to go back to that seat. Just to make things less awkward. Clearly she would not die if she sat elsewhere.
(3) Leave Judgment at the Door…Unless the Action Hurts Another
On subtle differences like the story we’ve shared above, it pays to learn and move on. These are not life-changing issues. Simply, things work differently in different cultures.
When harm to (usually more innocent) members of a society are at stake, this is the place to get outraged and to stand up for what’s right. It’s always a fine line. Meddling from “outsiders” is usually not appreciated.
Change is best when it comes from the inside. From members of a society – often women, racial minorities, those with disabilities and so on – where blatant discrimination has caused deep harm.
When women or children experience sexual abuse, there is reason to speak out. LOUD!
When a racial group experiences continual mistreatment, their voices must rise from within their ranks in order to gain credence and incentive for change.
This Malawian woman is a clear case of this at work.
(4) Seek to Bring a Situation Out in the Open
Often the issue is simply a lack of dialogue. If people can discuss the differences, an intriguing sense of camaraderie arises. It’s almost as if the people involved get a mirror shined on each of them. In most instances, it produces a greater sense of self-reflection.
Understanding why we think the way we think and do what we do can be a powerful path towards greater sensitivity to the ways of others, as well as towards mutual understanding and peace.
So Robin, Lina and Khirad learned a valuable lesson through this situation. So have we. Unfortunately, our male Pakistani officer still does not know, unless of course Khirad shares it with her husband and it gets back to him.
Fortunately, indirect communication like this fits well within the Pakistani cultural context. So that officer – yeah, he’ll probably learn the lesson, too.