Years ago I was stopped at a red light on Weber Street in Kitchener, Ontario. I was in the right lane, beside me in the left lane was a police cruiser. There were no other vehicles in sight. Then I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw an old black car coming around the curve and I knew he was coming too fast to stop. I yelled a warning to my wife and daughter just before the crunch. I glanced to my left in time to see the police officer roll his eyes. He turned on his flashing light and got out of his car.
The other driver was charged and decided to plead not guilty. I was called to appear in court as a witness. The driver’s defence? He had been trying so hard to avoid hitting the police car that he didn’t even see my car. The judge found him guilty.
We all make decisions based on what we see, and we are sure that we see things exactly as they really are. Or we catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of our eye and were sure we know what is happening. That is point of view. Sometimes reality intervenes to inform us that we missed seeing something that was there, or saw something that wasn’t there. An old adage says “Don’t believe anything you hear, and only half of what you see.”
The way we understand things that others do is influenced by the experiences of our life. A young lady grew up in a middle eastern culture where it was considered rude to immediately accept if someone offered you a coffee. You said no the first three times and then it was fine to accept the coffee, sit down and visit. She moved to North America and got an office job. Her co-workers asked her a couple of times if she wanted to come with them for lunch and she said no, to be polite. They accepted the no and quit asking. She thought they didn’t want her company, they thought she didn’t want their company.
We develop mental patterns of what normal behaviour looks like and they help us to instantly understand the meaning of what the people around us are doing and saying. Those patterns can be called paradigms and they help us cope smoothly with social life–as long as we are with people who have the same paradigms, people of our own culture.
When we mix with people of other cultural backgrounds we are apt to feel disoriented, frustrated, or perhaps frightened. If we understand why this is happening, we can begin to learn and adapt and get to know these other people, who really are not a whole lot different from us.
If we are unaware that our misunderstanding is due to a difference in cultural paradigms, we are apt to judge other people as unfriendly, ill-mannered and untrustworthy. Now we have slipped into prejudice. We judge people’s conduct without understanding how they think. We decide that they are ignorant, uncaring, probably dishonest and even immoral.
Some of us do our best to avoid contact with such people and go through life in a protective bubble where we only have to do with people who think just like we do. That confirms and hardens our prejudices. I don’t believe those prejudices can be educated out of us. We might learn to say the right words, but our inner feelings will be the same. The only solution is to step our of the bubble and get to know people who are different from us.