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Dealing With Difference and the New Year

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Recently, a  Congressman demanded that the influx of Muslims into this country be stopped, that illegal immigration be completely halted and that legal immigration be extremely limited. His concern is that there is a danger of more Muslims being elected to Congress. Another Congressman who is a practicing Muslim and newly elected asked that, in being sworn in, he be allowed to swear on the Koran and not on the bible. It seems that this issue has many Americans riled.

A recent study done at the University of Maryland revealed that white children attending white schools and living in white neighborhoods attributed dangerous intentions to black children. Another study showed that children coming from a diverse number of racial and ethnic groups in the United States held negative attitudes towards children who did not come from their group.

This is a troubling issue because, with the revolution in travel, cell phone communication and Internet communication, the world has become a very small place. News about events in distant areas of the globe becomes instantly known due to the Internet and rapid communications. People travel easily from one part of the globe to another in a way that is unique to the present world and never existed in history.

For example, one person E. Mailed me from Moscow about having a consultation. When I informed him that I do not do E.Mail therapy he responded that he would be in the United States later in the week. In fact, the appointment was made and we had the consultation in my office within the week. By the way, this Russian man spoke perfect English and told me he was fluent in five or six languages.

Under these circumstance, what are we saying when we want to limit immigration and require that oaths be taken only on the Bible and not the Koran? In fact, is an oath binding if an individual is Muslim and swears on the Bible? Are Muslim- American values less important than Christian-American values? Should John F. Kennedy not have been elected President of the United States in 1960 because he was Catholic instead of Protestant (Christian)?

There are other questions that this issue raises:

1. Should white men be our only political leaders and not African American leaders?

2. Should men, white or black, be the only political leaders and not women?

3. Should baseball be played by Americans only without the involvement of Japanese players? What about Dominican and Cuban baseball players?

4. Should we Americans eat only apple pie and hot dogs and eliminate such items as pizza, egg rolls, and Greek salads?

5. What music should we listen to: Classical music from Europe, Jazz with its roots in the African American experience?

These questions might seem silly and petty but they go to the concepts of cultural diversity and assimilation versus fear of foreigners, hatred and prejudice. Ethnocentrism is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “judging other cultures by the standards of one’s own culture.” In the web log posting entitled “Hatred, Terrorism and Trauma,” the word xenophobia was defined as the irrational fear and dislike of people from other counties.” Both ethnocentrism and xenophobia are a result of misinterpreting and misunderstanding the behaviors of people from cultures other than our own. The reverse holds true whereby people from foreign nations misunderstand and misinterpret the behaviors of Americans.

How does this happen and how can it change?”

As Psychologist Robert Kegan points out in his book, In Over Our Heads, all of us give meanings to life events. Very often these meanings are in terms of attributions. Attributions are viewing things as being caused by someone or something else. For example, the bombing of the World Trade Center on 9/11 was attributed to Arab fundamentalists. Now, however, many people attribute that tragic day to all Muslims. The result of this attribution is to feed the xenophobia that now exists with regard to Arabs, whether they are Muslim, Christian or any other religion. In fact, it is probably safe to say that many Americans mistakenly view all Arabs as Muslim and all Arab Muslims as fundamentalist radicals who advocate terrorism.

The fact is that Cultural Diffusion, which is the process of learning about other cultures,  intermingling with other people,  and assimilating some of the practices and tastes of other cultures helps, civilizations grow and prosper. Even in biology, whenever people have inter-married for long periods of time there are negative consequences for the off spring. For example, Italians whose roots are from Southern Italy who marry other Southern Italians run a risk of having children with a disease called Cooly’s Anemia (Thalassemia).  Jews whose ancestry is from Eastern Europe and who marry other Jews with roots in Eastern Europe run a risk of having children with a disease called Tay-Sachs disease. Both of these diseases are genetic in nature and the problem is not restricted to Jews and Italians. The bottom line is that when we learn more about one another we grow, we improve and we change in ways that are positive.

As Kegan points out, there is enormous positive growth when we are able to recognize that people are different and we are able to accept those differences.

Kegan makes it clear that in discussing being able to accept differences, he is including everything from accepting people from other culture to accepting our spouses because, in point of fact, we are all different. Men and women have different styles of thinking and doing things. This is true for people from other cultures, ethnic groups and races. Difference does not mean that one is better than the other. Therein lays the cognitive trick: to understand that people are different without putting judgment in the way.

And What About Male-Female Relationships?

How many married couples would this help in that, instead of reacting to something in a way that is judgmental because they have attributed some nasty intent, they could suspend judgment, remind themselves that their partner is different and consider the meaning of what the other is attempting to say.

As my medical doctor, a female Internist jokingly said to me, “never mind what I said, understand what I meant.” What she meant is that men and women communicate differently and husbands should pay more attention to what their wives mean rather than what they said. If men and women have different ways of communicating, and all the evidence point to the fact that this is true, then a lot of work is necessary for us to understand one another. The same principle applies to people of other cultures and ethnic groups.

A recent study involving men and women viewing human faces with vague facial expressions examined how men and women would interpret what they saw in those facial expressions. On the theory that women are viewed as more emotional than men and men as less emotional and angrier, people were than asked to report what they saw in the faces being viewed. The results were fascinating because even though the faces were vague, everyone tended to interpret the female expressions as being emotional and the male facial expressions as being intensely angry. In other words, gender expectations deeply influenced the way in which the subjects interpreted the pictures.

When the study was replicated using an androgynous face for a man and woman, also showing vague expressions the results held true. Gender role expectations held true in the way subjects interpreted the expressions in the photographs even though they were identical faces but disguised to make them look vaguely male or female.

The point is that if we have gender role expectations and they influence how we interpret what someone is saying then it does not take a great leap in thinking to realize that we do the same with regard to people of different cultures with different customs and means of communicating.

One last example of how different are the people around the world has to do with proximity. Americans are most comfortable when there is a wide space between themselves and others to whom they are speaking. However, people from other cultures, particularly those that are non Western, prefer to stand extremely close to those with whom they are communicating. Under these conditions it is easy for a non western person to view the American way of communicating as distant and unfriendly while the American can easily experience the non western person as intrusive and suffocating.

As we enter the New Year of 2007 we need to find new ways of knowing and understanding one another. This is true on a national and international level. However, it is also true on a personal and family level in which men and women, parents and children, the young and the elderly can come to understand and accept one another and their differences.

 Differences in people are viewed as a threat only if we do not take the time to become familiar with others. There was a time when Irish immigrants were viewed with hostility by the Americans already settled here. There was a time, no long ago, when women were not allowed to vote. There was a time when children were treated as small versions of adults and were executed (in 19th century London) for the pettiest of crimes.  We have come a long way since those early days but we still tend to cling stubbornly to old attitudes, even as we try to relate to our wives and families.

Lets hope for a year of improved relating.

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