The Return of eLf ideas

ideas of an eLven being in Canada

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

We Are Not the Same

(On Acknowledging and Understanding Cultural Differences)

[This article was published in the local community newspaper circulated here in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in my cultures-and-lifestyles column, "Sa Madaling Salita."

One day during breaktime at work, a coworker and I had a small chat about racial discrimination. She said that we should not think about different colors or things like that because we are all the same.

I boldly responded, "Of course not—we're not the same."

She was surprised and dumbfounded.

I supported my response with "We're not the same—you have a whiter complexion; I have tan complexion. You have curly hair; I don't. You most likely prefer Italian food because you are a Canadian Italian, and I eat usually Filipino food. I may be an excellent user of the English language—even better than many Canadians, but you cannot expect me to speak English 100% all of the time simply because this is not my natural language."

My point was, to insist that we are all the same is to deny our differences and our personal preferences—by doing so, we become more prone to misunderstanding other people. 
In a multiculturally oriented workplace, the management's striking a balance between enforcing the concept of legal work responsibility and upholding and respecting the cultural rights of its staff members is really crucial and challenging.

There's nothing wrong in recognizing such differences—skin color, food preferences, favorite music, cultural gestures, etc.—because by knowing all these—especially the how and the why behind all these—we get to understand more other people especially of other cultures.

Customary Gestures Are Not Always Universal
I know a fellow Filipino who told me that he once got into a fistfight with an Eritrean because apparently the latter, a coworker of his, called him using a pointy finger. The Filipino got offended right away; he assumed that the Eritrean was belittling him. It turned out that the Eritrean did not mean to degrade him; he was merely calling him in a manner common in his culture. Clearly, the misunderstanding originated from the Filipino's assumption that to call a person using a waving finger is automatically rude and offensive, failing to realize that while the gesture is usually offensive in the Filipino culture, it is not in the cultures of many African peoples.

If the Filipino was familiar with that particular customary gesture of many African peoples—calling someone with the aid of the pointy finger—then he would have not interpreted this as a rude action which made him react in a violent way. (In the Filipino culture, calling someone with the use of the pointy finger is often taken as derogatory and oppressive because the action is interpreted as the caller's expression of arrogant authority.)

Speaking in One's Own Language Is Not Always Equal to Rudeness
One coworker of mine hates how many Filipinos at work couldn't help talking among each other (fellow Filipinos) in Filipino despite the rule that only English should be used at work. While it is the responsibility of all non-English-as-first-language speakers to use English at work, there would always be moments when they would unintentionally slip in some portions of their respective native language in their conversations for the basic reason that it's their natural language. If an English speaker couldn't understand this, then she would always assume that speaking in another language is always rude, which is not the case—because there would always be unguarded moments when a person, engaged in a conversation with a fellow compatriot or a fellow native speaker, will and will always switch in her naturally spoken language once in a while—and this is not rudeness—this is simply a case of acting and talking in her natural state.

To speak in the official language of the place where one works is one's responsibility, but to expect a non-English speaker to be able to speak in English with 100% fluency, competency, and compliancy at all times is unrealistic; in fact, this may be countercomplained as cultural discrimination.

Therefore, if for Example
1) At the hospital where I'm working, a non-Filipino heard two Filipino coworkers conversing in their native language discreetly in one corner of the facility, could she report them and accuse them of disrespectful behavior for speaking a non-official language?
No. Because while they were in the workplace, and even during work hours, the two Filipinos were discreetly and privately conversing to themselves. No legal nor ethical company guideline is being broken.

2) If the case is, the two Filipinos were conversing in their native language while feeding or tending to their patients or residents, should they be reported at once or be accused with disrespectful behavior?

Not automatically. The non-Filipino coworker should give them the benefit of the doubt (the two might have just forgotten that they were already using their native language); she must simply remind the two that they are in the presence of a patient or a resident, and so they should show courtesy and respect by speaking English (the official language). In short, the two Filipinos should simply be reminded that they were forgetting to use the official language. It now becomes the responsibility of the two Filipinos--both ethically and legally--to switch back to English. If the two Filipinos reacted to the reminder of their coworker by ignoring her and continuing to speak in their native language, then this very action is the one that may be considered rude and disrespectful--not the unintentional use of their native language.

3) What if the Filipino conversation occurred during breaktime?

If there are non-Filipino coworkers with them at the dining table, then it's simply a matter of courtesy and ethics; but it remains their choice if they would like to switch to English out of courtesy) or continue in Filipino (as their cultural right). But, the two cannot be reported or threatened with a legal sanction because of disrespectful behavior because it is breaktime, a private and personal time for them, a sort of an off-work period; thus they should be free at that moment from any work responsibility.

Sa Madaling Salita
Kung palagi na lang nating hindi tatanggapin na ang bawat tao o lahi ay magkakaiba-iba sa maraming aspeto ng kanilang pagkatao e mas hindi natin maiintindihan o mauunawaan ang mga intensyon o ikinikilos ng ibang tao. Ang pagpipilit na pare-pareho lang naman ang lahat ng tao e katumbas ng pagtutol na tanggapin ang kanya-kanyang pagkatao, na lalong karaniwang nauuwi sa hindi pagkakaunawaan at pagpapatuloy ng diskriminasyon.

Or, in Simple Words
If we keep on denying that we are different from each other, we actually become more inclined to misunderstand or misinterpret the words and actions of other people. To insist that we are all the same is tantamount to the unwillingness to accept the individuality and idiosyncrasies of other people, causing the unwilling person unable to understand or even accept such differences.

The key to understanding is not only to celebrate our similarities but more so to acknowledge and understand our differences.


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