Words by Kaila Lariviere
“Why do Americans drink so much coffee?”
Intercultural competence is loosely defined as the ability to understand individuals of various cultures on a level that goes beyond recognizing how we contrast and into the realm of appreciating those differences and recognizing commonalities. Though we as a society participate in countless debates and discussions on internet forums, we rarely take physical steps towards increasing our own intercultural competence.
On April 13th, I had the pleasure of engaging with students from the Center for Intensive English Studies here at Florida State on topics of stereotypes and generalizations within our respective cultures. I met wonderful people from Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Kuwait, and even Burkina Faso. The individuals we met with were advanced English speakers. Other students from the College of Social Sciences paired up with these students with the purpose of exchanging each other’s cultures.
We began with casual greetings; who we perceive ourselves to be based on our cultural identity or activities that are central to our beings. I introduced myself as Kaila, a senior student pursuing a triple major in International Affairs, Political Science, and Religion, but also a dancer, a writer, and lover of food and cooking. I then met an extremely sweet individual from Saudi Arabia who identified himself as a Muslim who was passionate about nature and science fiction, with a particular interest in Game of Thrones..I knew that he and I were destined to be friends due to my immense love for Game of Thrones. I then met a lovely woman from Colombia who described herself as coming from a large Christian family and having a great interest in traveling. Before long, we were all discussing where we had traveled, our experiences and things we shared in common. The Colombian woman and I bonded over our shared enjoyment of dancing, ranging from Salsa to Egyptian Belly dancing.
I was quite surprised at how easily my personal boundaries broke down and the extent to which I shared commonalities with these two individuals alone. Too often, people are quick to judge those with whom they are different from. Yet through simple conversation, the amount of similarities between the three of us showed me how prone to hasty judgements and rigid guards one can be. Through this introductory activity, we were able to talk freely as humans, rather than individuals. Together we were humans who just happen to have different backgrounds. The shared thread of sameness between us was more pronounced than our differences were. It was quite fascinating.
After our first activity, we started on the next- addressing stereotypes within our respective countries. The funniest stereotype of Americans that I was asked was from a woman from Burkina Faso who inquired, “why do Americans drink so much coffee?” I laughed because I happened to have a coffee thermos with me. I answered honestly: that I wished I wasn’t as addicted to caffeine as I am because it’s not healthy. However, I made it clear that not all Americans fall under that stereotype and that many have other beverages of choice. It can be easy for us to stereotype ourselves. I could have replied with a smile and an affirmation of how we as Americans are work-crazed and we use caffeine to sustain ourselves. But the thing is, that isn’t entirely true.
Though it could be fair to generalize ourselves as having an inclination to obsess over coffee, this isn’t the case for everyone. Similarly, when an example of a stereotype was read aloud that, “all Asians are good at math and science,” a Vietnamese participant at the exchange muttered, “but I am not good at math and science,” with a tinge of disappointment and confusion. Oftentimes, stereotypes are based on an observed characteristic. Problems emerge when we begin assuming a characteristic of some is a characteristic of all. This is a theme we continue to see occur not only between cultures but also as a result of self-legitimized stereotypes.
The Saudi Arabian man I met said that his parents warned him of the high crime rate in the United States. He told me that he did not even step outside at night for nearly a week when he first arrived in the states. I asked him if he agreed with his parent’s criticism of our crime rates and he said yes; to an extent, the crime rate in the United States is much more apparent than in Saudi Arabia because the latter practices the old tradition of “An eye for an eye.” He said quite blandly that if you kill someone, than you get killed- just like that.
Perhaps due to dramatized media, I had mistakenly perceived the Saudi Arabian state to be more unsafe than the United States due to differing ideologies, traditions, and the perception presented in our media that Saudi Arabia is a hotbed for religious terrorists. This activity in particular made me realize that I need to be more conscious of what I absorb through media or daily conversation and then carelessly claim to be fact. Until we actually meet someone from another culture, it isn’t fair to judge or believe anything someone says about them.
I met another student, a woman from Saudi Arabia, who was dressed in traditional Islamic garb, a hijab and a beautiful loose-fitting ensemble that covered the majority of her skin. She also happened to be married. She retold her first few experiences in America, and they seem appalling. People would stare at her and judge her automatically because of her traditional clothes and her outward expression of her Islamic faith. She said that she would be afraid to walk outside for fear that someone would be hateful towards her. I found this personally upsetting because she seemed like such a sweet and brilliant young woman.
The association of a woman in traditional Islamic attire with images of “oppression” or “radical extremism” may come to mind to someone who only relies on media or prejudice rhetoric. However, she was an accomplished individual with an impressive resume showcasing her talents and goals, which included obtaining a PhD. She is not the picture we assume of hopelessly abused women with no chance for success due to their geographic placement, religion, or culture. She is not a radical. She is just like the majority of Muslims who preach peace and condemn extremist actions.
Failure to see someone for themselves and separate perceived ideas of cultures and traditions from the reality of a person’s individualized cultural makeup facilitates a depreciation of knowledge and empathy among our human race. In order to promote peace, we must begin to proactively engage with others and contribute towards the shared goal of deeper understanding. Recognizing that accepted and willful ignorance only stagnates progress, it is our responsibility to learn from and understand all that humanity has to offer.
If you are at all curious about other cultures, wish to participate in the CIES Conversation Partner Program, or are interested in traveling abroad to teach English, please check out the Center for Intensive English Studies at cies.fsu.edu or call (850) 644-4797.