Respect cultural differences

The idea of cultural sensitivity is now a well-established one, but my experience has taught me that many people do not fully understand the implications of that. For example, many times I have come across people who assume that it applies only when dealing with somebody whose skin colour is different from one’s own. In reality, it is much more complex than this, as there will generally be cultural differences that relate to class, region, profession or vocation, linguistic group and so on. Culture is a much broader and more inclusive concept than it is generally given credit for. Our own cultural backgrounds and experiences will have been a profound influence on who we are (our identity), our sense of where we fit in the world and where we are going (our spirituality). So often breakdowns of communication and other problems have their roots in one person seeing the situation from their own cultural standpoint, while one or more others see it from different cultural standpoints.


Acknowledge problems, but focus on solutions

There tends to be a strong emphasis these days on ‘positive thinking’ and optimism. While there is much to be said for the benefits of such an approach, we also need to be aware of some of the dangers associated with it. One is for problems to be swept under the carpet in our desire to focus on the positive elements of a situation and thereby de-emphasize the negative or problematic aspects. What can be much more fruitful is to ensure that we acknowledge the problems we come across, but then adopt a positive approach by focusing on solutions. This is a matter of finding a constructive balance. On the one hand, it is dangerous to ignore problems in some misguided sense of positivity, but on the other it can make problems worse if people allow concerns about such problems to predominate – that is, if they wallow in the negativity problems can produce. Being positive about problem solving can give us the best of both worlds: we are not naively ignoring problems, but nor are we allowing their negativity to undermine us. Indeed, such a positive approach to problem solving is an important basis for empowerment, for supporting other people in resolving their own difficulties.

Try Garfinkeling

Harold Garfinkel made a name for himself as a sociologist by changing certain aspects of a social situation and seeing what the consequences would be. In this way, he was able to identify implicit social rules by breaking them. This process became known as Garfinkeling. An example would be to change the gender of a person in a certain situation (in order to highlight the gender role assumptions being made) and seeing what difference that makes. Changing age group can also be enlightening in terms of highlighting ageist assumptions. For example, I once came across a geriatrician who would challenge ageist statements by saying: ‘Would you have made that comment if this person had been 30 years younger?’. Garfinkeling, then, is a useful tool for highlighting discriminatory assumptions by reversing some aspect of the situation so that previously taken-for-granted assumptions become apparent. Try it. It can be fun as well as enlightening.