The discussion on human cultures will take forever for all of us to have the full grasp of it. What we should do to understand it is to keep a very open mind, be empathetic and take it one issue at a time.
Let me share various experiences I gathered from my journeys on a miniscule portion of diversity. I had an interesting conversation with my Supervisor while working in Europe some years ago. I got into the office on a Monday morning, met my Supervisor and we exchanged pleasantries. We then went on to speak about the fact that I had noticed that few people asked the question: How are you or how was your weekend or how is your family doing?
“Where I come from, that’s normal. When you see your colleague on a Monday morning, you ask them how well they are faring and how their family is doing” I said. My Supervisor went on to explain to me that for most Europeans, it becomes a “bother” when you start asking probing questions; exchange basic pleasantries and move on. That felt a bit unusual for me; I have lived my life asking “probing questions” about people and also answering same too.
About one hour after the conversation with my Supervisor, who was a really great guy, I had a feel of what he just explained to me. In the hallway, I met Julien, he is French, a jolly good fellow, a colleague from another department. We exchanged pleasantries and without taking the advice from my Supervisor, I asked Julien about his family.
I noticed that he initially took a deep breath and possibly felt a little uncomfortable with my probing question; yet he composed himself enough to give me an answer with a smiling face. “I am recently divorced, my wife left me. For now, there is no family” he said, forcing a smile.
I felt bad for asking the question; I probably should have heeded my Supervisor’s advice. If I had asked the same question of an African, especially in Nigeria, the fellow will probably start by smilingly thanking me for asking, then will go on to tell me how they are doing. Over in Nigeria, it’s not a “probing” question, it’s a “caring” question.
The respect for culture, diversity and people’s boundaries is the beginning of humans’ coexistence in peaceful order. If you desire peace, learn to understand cultures and their uniqueness and make effort to respect them.
My wife once sent me a quote: “Don’t ask a woman about her age”. Hmmm, I once got into trouble with a friend for doing exactly that. But I was told that it’s a normal thing with the Chinese to ask you about your age; it’s a friendly thing and they mean well when they ask. For them, it’s also not “probing”, it’s caring.
A friend told me about a married European lady who once went to work in Lagos Nigeria as a technical Subject Matter Expert. The lady got to the office one morning and a female colleague asked her: “How was your night?”. The lady was flabbergasted that a person will intrude into another human’s affair by asking that kind of question.
She told my friend that she did not know how to answer; if she said her night was great, she would be giving away private information and if she said it was not great, the other lady would think her husband did not “perform” very well (lol). But to most Nigerians, that’s a caring question to which they will gladly answer: “my night was great”.
For peace to reign, each of us need to give and take. The understanding of diversity is important but tolerance from all parties is equally important. If we judge everything as “probing”, we might miss the “caring” ones too. In life, we probably need a bit of both.