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I am a localization manager/translator and intercultural consultant living in Berlin (Germany), passionate about languages, cultures, diversity management, body art, dancing, self-empowerment, coaching, effective communication and, last but not least, vegan gluten-free food and good movies.

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Sunday, October 1, 2017

The art of not being clueless, or how to train your cultural sensitivity muscles, while starting with your next "funny and innocent" question

How about those stunning people that could be displayed on the cover of a fashion magazine and keep saying that being beautiful doesn't matter, and you ask yourself if they are not able to look in the mirror in the morning?

Or those people that grew up in a rich family and got spoiled, and taken care of for an entire life, and yet keep saying that being financially successful is not important, and you wonder why they don't give all their money to charity, then?

Or the ones that have never spent one single day at the hospital and don't know how does it feel to experience chronic pain for years and keep saying that being healthy could be boring and one should "walk on the wild side" instead... and you know that you are too nice for wishing them to discover how much being ill sucks?

[Alicia Silverstone and Stacey Dash in Clueless (1995)
by Amy Heckerling, a great tribute to Jane Austen's Emma
with rich, beautiful, spoiled and clueless young adults...
that need an entire movie plot to understand how lucky they are]

If you ask me, they are not bad people.
They are just people without the slightest clue. Because they don't know how it would be not having an asset that is incredibly important in life and that they are lucky enough to be able to take for granted, because it has always been there, and that for most people is not granted at all:  

I met a man a couple of years ago who had grown up with a huge amount of money. And he said to me in passing, 'You know, money is not the most important thing.' Which is both true, and profoundly ignorant. Because when you have no money, it is absolutely the most important thing. Only someone who has never had to worry can make a statement like that.
J.K. Rowling

The same applies when you think about diversity and how to deal with people different from you.
Let me give you another example.

Some months ago, someone I worked with for over five years approached me during a meeting, while asking me if I heard about that old couple of Italian pensioners in their seventies that apparently created a complete mess at one of Berlin's airports during their holiday, just one or two days earlier.
The couple should have refused to fasten their safety belts and discussed with the airplane flight attendants instead.

I didn't know anything about this since it is not the type of news I usually follow. 
So I looked at the person and with a very polite smile, I said that I had no clue. And that I was not interested, to be honest.

[Can you really "see" and listen to the people around you?
Famous developer John Messer 
plays with the nerd/geek stereotype
for Judging America photo series (2014) by Joel Parés]

My colleague completely ignored my answer, didn't listen to what I said and she kept talking about the fact, expecting me to say something.
So I said something. 
"Well, I don't know anything about this, but it could be that like a lot of older people from non-native English-speaking countries, they didn't speak English fluently, that they didn't get what they were supposed to do and got annoyed when a complete stranger tried to force them to do something".
Still, just a hypothesis about a petty occurrence that will be forgotten within two days or so from everybody not directly involved in that episode at the airport.

And yet, the question lingered in the air during the whole meeting, back then, and I still remember it months after the fact. Because I found the situation both pleasant and unpleasant.
Pleasant, because I am able to see that I am getting better at this: just a couple of years ago, a question like this would have just got me incredibly annoyed. And I would have then put immediately my defenses up for further "friendly & funny innocent questions" of that kind.

Lately? Not that much. Now I am able to stay calm, smile, reply in a very diplomatic way. And to let go. Well, at least sort of.
Unpleasant, because the question is not as neutral as it would appear or as my colleague thought that it was.

beautifully portrayed by Pastor Jack Johnson in
Judging America photo series (2014) by Joel Parés]

Why did she ask me about this?
Because the couple was Italian and I am Italian myself? So what? 
What could the question imply? That since I am Italian myself, I would totally get what happened or I would be able to relate to the aggressive behavior of the couple?

Would she have asked me about this event if the couple would have been from Japan, Mexico or Morocco?
Of course, I can't read other people's mind, and yet I am somehow sure that not, she would not have asked.

Why do I bother?
I don't. And at the same time, I do. Because of the larger picture.
It doesn't matter that a person I have been knowing for over five years bothered to ask me something silly about two Italian people during our only short weekly interaction. I know who I am, she knew who am I, and I know who she is.
Funny enough, among the two of us, she would be the one more prone to react like the old Italian couple, even if she's not Italian...

And yet, while asking me that question, the person has been rude without realizing it.
And while implying that I should pay attention to stuff like this just because I am Italian, she has unconsciously typecasted me.
Just because of my nationality.

[Typecasting?! The entrepreneur Edgar Gonzales
embodies stereotypes about Mexican people living in the US,
powerfully debunked in 
Judging America photo series (2014) by Joel Parés]

This is not a big deal, per se: I am a grown-up, I can take it and, after almost eight years abroad, I am used to it, because stuff like this happens every single day.
It is indeed a big deal in the bigger picture, though. 
How often do we fail to realize that we are acting in a way that could offend someone else? How often do we act without noticing our blind spots?
How often do we assume to know something about someone else based on her nationality, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, way of life, and so on?

When we’re talking about diversity, it’s not a box to check. It is a reality that should be deeply felt and held and valued by all of us.
Ava DuVernay

I've been researching intercultural communication and diversity topics for over six years now, I am getting more and more sick at the whole press coverage about the topic itself because it seems that, in order to get diversity right, one should just put diverse people together and the magic should happen by itself. Almost all the latest incredibly expensive diversity-incubators created in different countries with a top-down mentality proof that it's not the case.

And to me, it is very clear why: those "diverse" people are just that, people. With a unique mix of strengths, weaknesses, preferences, bias, values, memories, personality traits.
They are people, and just because they are considered from the outside as part of a "minority" (or even more than one at the same time), this doesn't make them representative of that minority per se. They could embrace their "minority" status and point of view or not. They could be proud of it or not. They could be representative of that "niche", or not.

They are people. And nobody should think that they know a lot about them just because they consider them being part of "something".

[And here we are again, with other stereotypes:
young mother Jane Nguyen
knows what some clueless people erroneously think of her
and goes all in for 
Judging America photo series (2014) by Joel Parés]

While asking your next casual question about something "funny" that just popped up in your mind and that "for sure" relates to someone else's background, think twice.
And ask yourself first: "How would I react if someone would ask me this question just because I am [put your personal X here]?".
If you feel that this would not upset you, go for it.

Otherwise, take it as a great chance to train your cultural sensitivity muscles, and consider letting it be without asking as an option.
Because depending on their background and their personal belief system, people would maybe not tell you openly that you are being a j*rk and that the question is offensive, and they would even answer, out of politeness, and yet you would never know how you just affected and possibly even hurt them.

Don't be like the rich guy in the room that brags in front of less wealthy people about how being rich is not that cool. You would just look condescending, awkward or even worse... just totally clueless.

Tags: Stereotypes, Risk of Typecasting, Cultural sensitivity, Diversity, Judging America photo series

What to read next: 
How Halloween costumes, rented bikes and Gina Lollobrigida can help you lowering your cultural blindness score (Yes, you have one and it is better to know that)

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