Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Culture Clarity

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Cogent Conversation

During vacation, which ended this morning (sigh), I had a conversation with a former colleague and a new friend that reminded me that, as my colleague and friend Brad Salavich likes to say, "Other cultures are not better or worse; they're just different."

The former colleague praised Infidel as a great book that he had just finished reading.

The new friend brought up genital cutting, saying that the term has changed from "...mutilation" to "...cutting" in order to make the dialogue more possible and the label less judgmental.

I said, "Whenever I become perplexed by rituals or routines of other cultures, I remind myself that I come from a culture that circumcises baby-boys. I remember holding one of our twin-nephews immediately after his brit milah, and all of my family and I were proud to be witnesses at the ceremony."

Another colleague next to me, who's also Jewish, leaned over and said, "But I'm not sure that that is as intrusive as female genital cutting."

The new friend heard him and said, "Some would beg to differ."

Ideal vs. Actual Behavior

I have not yet gotten a copy of the book, but the discussion was instructive in any case. I really do try to help myself slow down my visceral reactions to other cultures' practices and attitudes by recalling that what's normative in my culture can disturb people of other cultures.

I'm also recalling an e-mail exchange I had with a friend, who challenged me when I spoke of the value of pluralism in connection with religion. He wrote that pluralism is not an ideal for some religions, including his.

His religion teaches that it is the one, true religion. Yikes. I meant no disrespect. To me, it was natural to be pluralistic, but to him, pluralism was offensive.

I needed to acknowledge that and realize that it was not a concept about which we could agree, and so I stopped speaking about it with him. We are as close as ever, and while I still don't understand his worldview, I don't need to. I just need to respect that it differs from mine in this instance.

Yet how quickly feelings can turn visceral...including my own. I'm thinking about a book that a friend of mine co-wrote, and my primitive, initial reaction to it.

While reading it, I was unhappy that my friend had invested her time, helping a former prisoner find his voice because I wasn't able to sympathize with him. I do not believe in the death penalty, and I do believe in second chances for prisoners, but something about this guy's story disturbed me: It was how I reacted to the connection of his harsh upbringing with his eventual, criminal activities.

My reaction was that plenty of us have extremely difficult trials as children and don't grow up to do crime, but it wasn't really my judgment to make. I see that now.

How do you manage to be diplomatic and even loving in response to activities to which you have a viscerally, negative response initially?

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