I’m studying intercultural communication for one of my university units this semester. Lately, we’ve been learning about two big theories relating to culture – essentialism and non-essentialism. Essentialism is the idea that our culture is defined by set rules, and that these set rules therefore define us as individuals. Apparently you can classify what specific culture I belong to by knowing where I was born and/or where I live and what language I speak. Further, my culture, once determined, is unchanging, and will always define my behaviour. If you want to know how to effectively communicate with me, you just need to know what culture I belong to.
I’m not sure how you feel about this idea, but something in me instinctively rejects this idea in favour of non-essentialism – which is essentially the opposite theory. Non-essentialism is the idea that our culture can never be easily defined, as it is based on so many variables. Non-essentialists believe that I can belong to several different cultures at once, depending on my viewpoint. I like the idea that culture is more about what I say, than it is about the language that I speak. Maybe I just don’t want to be pigeonholed into a stereotype. After all, I’m not stereotypical!
I was born in the UK, raised in Australia, lived long enough in NZ to become a citizen (because I love NZ!) and am currently living back in Australia (not forever). I speak English – but with a mix of accents both inherited from my parents and picked up in the course of my life, I don’t sound like your typical Australian. Lots of travel and customer service work means I seldom struggle with communicating with people from all different cultures.
I’ve understood for years that people come in all shapes, sizes and backgrounds. The one thing I like to think people tend to have in common is their inherent goodness. Yes, I do believe that there are people out there in the world who are “bad” people. Some are bad as a result of upbringing and circumstance, with a rare few who just seem to be born bad. However, I think the overwhelming majority of people are good people who are just trying to do the best they can. If you are sincerely willing to try, you can find common ground with almost anyone you meet – no matter what their background or culture. It’s mainly a matter of being interested in who they are!
Long before I heard of essentialism and non-essentialism, I started teaching this idea to my son. Children are so inherently innocent, that any concepts of stereotyping and prejudice are picked up from their parents (or other role models). My son is already great at understanding people, for all that he is only eight. I want him to judge people on their words and actions, rather than where they were born or the colour of their skin. It was some years ago now that I first dropped into conversation that all people are worthy of respect. We talked about how people in the past have treated others badly just because they are born somewhere else, or speak differently, or look different – and how awful that was. We are all people and we are all important. This is a theme we return to regularly.
We are all people and we are all important.
Othering is a concept that stems from essentialism. It is a viewpoint which focuses on the differences between people. If we believe someone is “Other” we effectively limit how much we identify with them, which seems to give us permission to treat them worse than we treat those we can identify with. History has some lessons for us about the horrendous things that people can do to someone else when they believe that someone is “Other”. No doubt you can immediately think of some examples!
I want my son to grow into a man who understands that it is not okay to hurt another person, unless in self-defence. I want him to seek out the similarities he shares with people, rather than the differences. With understanding, comes empathy, patience and kindness – qualities the 99.9% of us who are “good” people can all appreciate. I truly believe that if every parent did this, the world would be a significantly better place.
So… who’s with me???