Most of us probably think we are open-minded. The irony should not be lost here in that we should be open to the possibility that we are wrong, or that there is simply another way to see this situation. I was raised in the U.S., in the Midwest, in a small town of about 248 people. Actually, official state data refers to my home place as a village – not even given the right to be called a legit town. So you can imagine how much I considered the larger world around me while growing up. I thought the world did not extend far beyond the dirt road in front of my house and surely didn’t expand much further than the St. Louis Arch, hours away from my home. As you might expect, I honestly believed, and for a long time, that English was the world’s most popular and commonly-used language because of us. It was not until years later, while reading about world historical events, I realized the English language was less about me than it was about the British Empire’s influence. What a bummer!
As a university professor for 14 years, you might imagine that I have heard some very interesting things from the youth of day and the leaders of tomorrow. And, you would be right. Interesting. What continually surprised me was how ethnocentric my students could be in the most obvious of ways. This should not have surprised me because I was, and likely still am, guilty of that same kind of thinking that places my homeland at the center for the universe. A great, or not so great, example of this ethnocentrism came regularly in a course on Intercultural Communication, an upper-level undergraduate course at a state university in Texas. In an effort to get students realizing the depth of their family lineage and the melting pot that is our respective heritage, I asked them to create a collage of images that tell the story of their people. Some would collect images of beer mugs and four-leaf clovers to display their Irish heritage while others displayed pictures of traditional Chinese dishes while telling 800 year-old narratives passed down from grandparents. This was always a fun and enlightening exercise where we learned together that we all come from a vast array of world cultures so that we can more genuinely approach the topic of communication across cultures.
Then, there was the Texas student. The one born and raised in Texas and proud of it. Did his heritage stretch beyond the borders of that great state. Not according to him or his dad. He would show images of horses, beer bottles, country music, guns, the Texas flag and capital building, and his favorite Texas college football team. And that was it. Oh, and maybe a picture of him wearing his cowboy hat back home. There is nothing wrong with this heritage, but what continually disturbed me in these situations was the lack of understanding that our past goes back further and that we embody a cultural heritage beyond state borders. The truth is that I really can’t blame the student, completely. These images would typically be preempted by a statement like, “So, I asked my dad where we came from. And he said he didn’t know, but that it probably was just Texas”.
The danger in this kind of thinking is that if we are unwilling or unable to think beyond a narrow cultural scope, we are likely less apt to graciously consider the worldview of an “outsider”. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we should always simply agree with someone, anyone for that matter, just because they are from another culture and if we disagree we are to be labeled a bigot. No, what I mean is that if we don’t at least allow ourselves to realize the connection between ourselves and the world around us, we are not likely to at least consider another’s point of view.
In certain parts of the world, governments collect a relatively high tax from working individuals in order to fund state-run healthcare, education, and housing initiatives. In the U.S. we aggressively debate the collection of more taxes that would mitigate any such expenses, opting to keep our money and spend it where we choose. Is one way right and the other wrong? Maybe. Maybe not. We could debate this subject all day, all week, or all month, but what I want you to hear is that if we are unwilling to at least openly and genuinely consider the position of another person, we are simply going to struggle in a cross-cultural experience. You don’t have to believe the same as someone else or even agree with him or her on any given subject. Cross-cultural success instead requires an ability, often-times practiced, to listen genuinely, ask non-combative questions, and end a conversation without requiring your viewpoint to be master of all.
To be honest, there are things my culture taught me as a kid that I believed until just years ago. Actually, I seem to be constantly discovering areas of life where I just have to stop and laugh when I allow myself to genuinely examine what I was taught, ask myself questions, and consider that I might have been wrong, sometimes ridiculously wrong. Or am I? Not to get too deep for a short blog post, but one of cross-cultural adaptation’s most bizarre happenings is that we sometimes move from thinking our home culture is best to over-accepting the host culture to the point of despising our home culture. We see this happen when an affluent American visits an impoverished country for six weeks of missions or humanitarian service, returning home disgusted with America’s materialism. Neither extreme is healthy.
Open-mindedness requires that we be willing to listen to and consider another’s viewpoint while not running as fast as we can from our own. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who once wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” You are of first-rate intelligence. You can do this. It takes practice, but the benefits far out-weight the consequences when traversing the globe.