In my last post, I discussed food and culture. From a small difference in viewing food, I’ve recognised how my ‘Western’ culture is not normal.
Two people can see the same thing very differently – this can be related to your age, gender, lived experiences, nationality, or culture. Unlike personal interests and worldview, culture is shared among a group of people.
When we are surrounded by people who share the same culture, it’s easy to think that our way of doing things is common and standard. Whether it is the way we share food, greet another person, or show respect to our superiors (if we do)… we generally follow the norms of our culture.
So it’s great to learn and talk about other ways of doing things
I started learning about ‘cultural differences’ early in school – from past cultures, like Ancient Egypt, to different traditions, beliefs, and foods in countries such as Italy and China.
Fast track to adulthood and I am still learning so much about other societies. Before coming to Fiji, I did a ‘cultural awareness’ training in late 2016 that explored different approaches to work, play, and rest in the region.
But I have always struggled to talk about my own culture.
I’ve never been able to confidently define my own traditions and cultural identity. I’m not alone in feeling uncertainty and unease – but I can only speak for myself.
I feel there are some things that connect me to other ‘Australians’: like cooking up a BBQ for a sunny Christmas, Kath & Kim references, enjoying the outdoors, and taking the piss out of my friends for sarcastic fun.
BUT these are general trends, and also very ‘surface level’ in the cultural iceberg. Being an English / settler Australian, I feel like I don’t have thousands of years of tradition, language, and values to draw upon like others might. Or at least, I don’t consciously connect my worldview with the cultures of Europe.
My dad’s father is English and his mother was English/French – they moved to Australia when Dad was a baby. My mum’s parents were Australian and we don’t know a lot about the history before that – they came from Scotland I think. Regardless, I don’t feel a connection with France or Scotland and I struggle to define English culture beyond drinking tea with scones.
In the absence of clear traditions, I’ve never been able to define my own culture. Instead, I accepted that my worldview was the universal way of seeing the world.
I’m having to ‘unravel’ the idea that my way of life is normal.
I feel like I’ve been raised to think that my way of living is normal and other people’s is…weird. Here’s a really simple example: I used to think it was standard to say please, excuse me, sorry, thank you and always wait in an orderly queue. I thought other people who didn’t do these things were being actively rude and behaving wrong.
I didn’t recognise that my way of showing respect came from my culture. Since being away from Australia, I realise how much Aussies say excuse me and sorry in a day. The cultural difference goes both ways; it’s not normal in Fiji to say excuse me when you move past on the bus, but it is normal to say tulo when you lean or move across someone (pronounced a bit like chu-low).
We can’t avoid differences in worldview, but issues arise when we don’t acknowledge our own cultural lens.
I don’t like admitting it, but I’ve caught myself subconsciously thinking I was better than other people – more polite and kind – because I thought my way of viewing the world was normal. I say ‘subconsciously’ because these are not direct thoughts.
It could be a comment like…
In this situation, the midnight rant might not be overtly prejudiced. Maybe I was just hangry and maybe the waiter actually was rude or having a bad day.
BUT you can see how I called the staff rude…which implies that I think they are less kind than myself or Australian hospitality workers. In this case, I’m judging the situation through my cultural lens (i.e. what I think is rude). Where I’m having dinner in another country, where etiquette may be different, I am judging people’s behaviour and values using the wrong criteria.
Assessing someone else’s behaviour based on my cultural norms is dangerous and it has a dark past.
Moments of confusion and miscommunication often arise between people with different worldviews – this is unavoidable sometimes. But it’s not cool for this confusion to turn into judging and othering.
Othering is when you mentally classify someone else as “not one of us”. You could say I ‘othered’ the Fijian waiter by calling them rude and not like Australians. Because I didn’t understand why the waiter would not say sorry, it was easier for me to dismiss that person as being rude and therefore less worthy of dignity than I am.
It’s a small example, but ‘othering’ of one person can turn quickly into othering of an entire ethnicity of people. If I had a few experiences like the example above, you might imagine me complaining “Fijians are so rude” etc. etc.
It doesn’t make logical sense to do that, and yet stereotyping people based on their nationality or ethnicity happens all the time. That’s racism; but othering can also happen to people based on gender, sexuality, age, ability, appearance and many other factors. (Read more about that here)
Some say that “othering” is a psychological tactic that humans have evolved with.
In the early days of human civilisation, group cohesion was crucially important. To survive, we needed to belong to a close-knit tribe who would look out for us, knowing that we would suppot them out in exchange. There was a big difference between our allies and our enemies. People in your tribe are more likely to be closely related to you and consequently, share your genes.
“As a result, there’s a powerful evolutionary drive to identify in some way with a tribe of people who are “like you”, and to feel a stronger connection and allegiance to them than to anyone else. Today, this tribe might not be a local and insular community you grew up with, but can be, for instance, fellow supporters of a sports team or political party.” – Paula GarrettRucks, 2016
It may be common to try and put people into categories – “us” and “them”. But we can do better than that.
No single person is to ‘blame’ for the problem of othering. We must each take steps to unravel this harmful behaviour.
When we come across difference, we must remember that every person is a “complex bundle of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, and many other subtle aspects.”
In this post, I’ve centred on ethnicity and culture because I’ve recently focused on confronting my own sub-conscious bigotry and racism. But othering can occur between all different cultures and people, intersecting with factors such as physical ability, mental ability, gender, sexuality, and more.
Having said that, structural inequality means that some people’s othering has a more damaging impact than others.
When you’re in a position of privilege, it is even more important to self-reflect and be aware of potential biases.
The ideas of “structural inequality” and “privilege” are big and important so I want to dive into that in a separate post. For now, we can reflect on how my way of life and your way of life are not normal. When we accept that we can be more open-minded and develop empathy – the enemy of ‘othering’.
I’m feeling cheesy today, so I’ll end with a quote 🙂
“Empathy is finding echoes of another person in yourself” ~ Mohsin Hamid