There is a great talk on Ted about the importance of listening to global voices and interacting with people outside your country of origin. Although this talk was from three years ago and I was only able to watch today, the content contained in the video is now more relevant than ever. It’s about the importance of going beyond the surface fascination of a globally connected world, but knowing the consequences of that, and identifying ways to participate by thinking of the specific connecting thread that enables us to relate to others outside of the country we live in. What is the “common language” you share with people from other parts of the world, that which connects you to those who are wildly distant and different from you?
This question hearkens back to the presentation made by Deborah Alden and Lawrence Abramson during the Design Research Conference hosted by the Illinois Institute of Technology. They made the case for why “third culture” kids are some of the best creative professionals to hire: they can speak another language (literally), they are adaptable, they have a different perspective– all because they are used to straddling different cultures while they were growing up. The benefits of being a third culture kid has been on the pop culture lately too.
Many people think they have a global perspective. They’ve traveled to more than few countries, did study abroad, and get along with the French or Italian they met at work or through social gatherings. But are these experiences enough to say one is culturally adaptable or even sensitive to cultures different from their own? I think that in order to truly have a global perspective, some criteria must be met, especially for Americans.
Understand your position in the global society.
Generally speaking, news around the world revolve around America. If we live in the most powerful country in the world, and people watch our every move, it seems like there is a tendency to ignore what people in other countries are dealing with. It’s like we’re the celebrity and everyone else is a fan– they need to know about us, but we don’t need to know about them, right? (Who cares anyway? We only care about us!) This creates a country with people who are mostly concerned with local news, and stops there. And these people are those who read the news to begin with. This is part of a much bigger problem: the lack of general interest in news, let alone news from another part of the world. I suggest that we pay attention to how you are perceived by others when you travel to another country, and take interest in news around the world, not just our own.
Knowing that you don’t own the world.
For Americans who haven’t spent a lot of time outside the country, there is an assumption that the world outside is just like America, with the same rules and cultural norms, just a different country with a different language with people who look different. What is not apparently seen is that the everyday liberties that Americans enjoy at home are not carried in another country. We can’t act like we do at home, when we are not at home. I see my friends and peers going to another country and acting exactly the same way they do at home, at the expense of following cultural norms in the destination country. To locals in those countries, what they see is rudeness or disregard to their culture– the way of living they have set in their own country.
Think about the environments you grew up in, and how your experiences with other cultures changed the way you think.
If you grow up in a community where people around you looked, acted and thought in the same way you did, chances are your worldview is quite ethnocentric. All of us are ethnocentric to a certain extent, since we each have our own cultural identity, but those who have not been exposed to other cultures are prone to think that their own culture are more important or superior than others. Ethnocentric people tend to judge others based on how they deviate from the ethnocentric’s culture. This does not only apply to the majority (Caucasians), but to anyone who grew up in a neighborhood whose predominant residents are people like you. Take a trip around other neighborhood whose demographic makeup is different from yours, and see how the people there see things differently. Put yourself in others’ shoes by having a companion and engaging in conversation to understand how he or she sees his or her world.
Being “culturally” minded goes beyond having friends with a different skin color or country of origin.
Many people who have grown up in the States are proud of the fact that America is a diverse country. Taken as a whole, yes, America is a diverse, multicultural country. You see people from different parts of the world coming together in this country and interacting with each other. Yet, this feature is concentrated in major cities and the coasts. There are neighborhood pockets where diversity is not present. It could also be the case that people may be from other parts of the world but otherwise are still exactly like you. When I studied at Stanford in the summer of 2009, a lot of my classmates hailed from different countries, and it was this beautiful, multicultural group. Yet when looking closely at the class profile, we were the same people: raised in comfortable environments, went to the best schools, and have been given the resources to get a leg up in the work force that we will soon be entering. We looked like a diverse group, comprised of all races, but we had the relatively the same student profiles.
Developing a global perspective is not just a luxury or a convenience, but it is necessary in a connected world. This will afford us an advantage in navigating the new era that we will inevitably be living in. It cannot be any more true even for us, third culture kids who have spent our every day trying to adapt to various environments. It is something we have to continuously develop, and we will become richer with the experience.