Before we go any further, I would like to be the first to congratulate you. By having clicked on this link or gotten here however you may have, you have taken the first step to becoming more aware of the world around you. It’s our world, and we live here, so it makes total sense that we should at least make an effort to strive to be fully aware of what is going on around us. This shouldn’t even be hard work. It should be fun. We’ve been gifted with this giant playground that we call Earth, with all sorts of different people, landscapes, and terrain on it. Why shouldn’t we be fascinated by it and want to explore it? Unfortunately, many people do not see it this way, and this is a prevailing issue that has plenty of negative consequences.
For many people in this world, these kinds of thoughts never seem to cross their minds. They seem content living within the geographical boundaries of their daily lives, only wondering what’s happening beyond that mountain range, across the river, or over that hillside. Curiosity is an integral part of human nature. However it seems that that’s as far as people will go; they only casually wonder what it’s like on the other side. They don’t seem to care enough to research or learn about what is going on over there.
The Roots of Apathy
When people go through school, they’ve usually taken a few classes on geography, and if not, it’s somehow been interwoven into their history curricula. Most people wonder why they have to learn this. They think it’s useless, not going to benefit them in their lives, and is generally taken as a joke. This phenomenon occurs in all countries in the world, and is nobody’s fault. In fact, it can be said that this sort of mentality is innate in human behavior. When you’ve grown up in a society where you’re surrounded by the same people, speaking the same language, and practicing the same culture, why care what somebody else is doing? This becomes more evident in larger and more powerful countries.
Let’s take the United States of America, for example, arguably the most powerful country in the world, to watch this phenomenon unfold. According to a 2006 National Geographic/Roper study looking at adults ages 18-24, 63% of Americans could not find Iraq on a map and 90% could not find Afghanistan, despite the fact that many of the nation’s men and women were over there fighting at the time and the nonstop news coverage about the events occurring in Iraq. 70% percent could not find either Iran, a country that has consistently been posing a threat to international security with their alleged nuclear program, or Israel, a conflict hotbed. What’s even more alarming than the lack of knowledge is the apathy toward learning about the rest of the world. In the same study, under 30% of Americans believed that it was absolutely necessary to know where countries in the news are located. Even fewer Americans, at around 14%, think it’s a necessary skill to learn a foreign language.
People from most other countries like to point fingers at Americans and label them as ignorant, self-centered, and egotistical. Americans themselves criticize the education system, saying that it has failed the American youth and has not truly produced citizens of the world. And with numbers such as those shown above, these accusations are not without evidence. What they fail to realize is, however, that most of the Americans who show a lack of knowledge or empathy for the rest of the world do not do so deliberately. They do not go out of their way to be ignorant. Think about it. If you lived in the most powerful country in the world, are a native speaker of a language that virtually everybody in the world understands to some degree, and lived in a country so geographically and culturally vast and diverse, you wouldn’t feel the need to educate yourself about other countries and cultures. Russians have a similar reputation for misbehaving abroad, as they perceive themselves as a powerful, resource-rich, geographically vast and culturally diverse country.
The point being made here with the discussion of the United States and Russia is that it’s just natural for people to live in their own state of being and not be concerned with the affairs of others. It goes along with the observation that humans naturally prefer a state of comfort, and in this context, that refers to staying and living within their own borders without worrying about what is happening elsewhere. The reason why this occurs in larger, more powerful countries is because people in smaller countries are forced to interact more often with other cultures and people and are therefore brought out of their comfort zones to learn and sympathize with other people. Sure, there are truly ignorant people out there in the world, just as not every person is a good person, and many poorer countries do not have the educational infrastructure to educate their masses, which is also problematic. However, by the comparison shown between smaller and larger countries, hopefully it is now clear why there are larger proportions of “ignorant” people in some countries compared to others.
The Consequences of Apathy
As a result, this leads to hard feelings between different groups of people. People can get offended that others don’t understand their culture and misjudge their ways of life. They harbor resentment that their culture is looked upon as malicious, insignificant, or inferior. In extreme cases, this leads to conflict. Think about it for a minute. Could it not be argued that a significant amount of wars and battles were fought because of a misunderstanding, or a lack of willingness to understand, between two different parties? Sure, you could counter this argument by saying that they were fought for economic reasons such as resources or to further political agendas. However the root cause of all these matters boils down to a misunderstanding between cultures. The Crusades were fought because the Christians did not understand the Muslim way of life. The American Revolutionary War was fought because after over 150 years of having colonized in North America, the British did not understand that America at that time was a separate entity with a totally unique culture different than that of Britain. Civil wars happen because there are cultural misunderstandings even within countries!
Without having gone into too much unnecessary detail, hopefully it is now understandable why many of the conflicts that have happened throughout history have happened. Understanding of different cultures and different ways of life on a large-scale really can have an impact and can even possible avert conflict and bloodshed.
You’re probably thinking that this sounds like a Utopian dream. That we’ll all read this article and realize that we will all of a sudden realize that we shouldn’t be so closed-minded and we will automatically open up to the rest of the world around us and that we will all start to love each other and become friends and no more wars will occur. Nobody said this would be easy. In fact, will this happen in any of our lifetimes? Highly doubtful. However, by taking small steps, and understanding how this will benefit us personally and then benefit our posterity, and then going about educating ourselves, we can consistently breed more and more tolerant generations of children. So how does this increased awareness affect us personally? And how do we go about becoming more aware?
How do we Benefit on an Individual Level?
1. Person to Person
Nobody wants to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with somebody who doesn’t properly acknowledge his or her background. By both parties being aware of one another, they can develop a powerful relationship that is mutually beneficial. This could be a deep friendship, a business relationship, a mentor-mentee dynamic, or even romance. One of the most valuable things in life is the number of meaningful relationships you develop; you don’t know what you could be missing out on if you stay closed-minded.
2. Person to Group
Your job sends you to another country to give a presentation to a group of clients from that country. You don’t know anything about that country, but you assume the business practices are the same and you go over with this mentality. You then find out that the business environment is completely different, botch the presentation, offend the clients, and come home empty-handed to an angry boss who fires you on the spot for wasting the company’s time, money, and resources. Yes, it’s a sad story. But the even more sad part is that it could have been avoided by doing a bit of research and that this happens more often than you think. In a situation like this where you want to reach out to a group of people and gain their trust and their business, it is essential that you educate yourself on societal norms and customs.
3. Group to Person
Many of the misconceptions that occur in the world are because of mass media. Now while it is understood that nobody can be 100% impartial in reporting news, efforts should be made to present all sides of the stories and to properly cover a certain group of people. The half-truths and half-coverage that the media propagate lead to false perceptions and incomplete understanding, promoting the misjudging and lack of sympathy which leads to the aforementioned resentment which can eventually lead to conflict. This will benefit you personally because you will seriously be informed of what is happening in the world and can make more informed judgement calls.
4. Group to Group
If you’re working in a group environment and are negotiating with another group, having an understanding of where they’re coming from will allow negotiations to go more smoothly and will end in a goal that both parties will be content with. Yes, this will require compromise. However if you have a truly genuine understanding of the other group, compromise will not be a bad thing. This style of negotiations will generally lead to a faster pace of things getting done, something that everybody wants, no matter where you’re from.
Okay, so now that you’ve understood how being more culturally aware can benefit you on an individual level, you’re ready to take the first step in doing so. But how do you go about doing so?
Being more Culturally Aware
1. Being Open-Minded
This is probably the hardest mindset to develop. You only know what’s true to you, and your current environment is your most dominant reality. But that’s exactly what it is. It’s YOUR most dominant reality. It doesn’t belong to anybody else. Everybody has a different story, and if you want to jive well with others and develop deeper relationships, being open-minded is the way to go. If you meet somebody from another country, be genuinely interested in what he or she believes in and attempt to sympathize with them. They WILL return the favor. This kind of open-mindedness is irresistible to people and meets the one basic human need: the need to feel important.
2. Expand Your Horizons
This goes off of the previous point. Being open-minded is the first step. However, this is simply a reactionary step to the changes in your environment. To be proactive is to expand your horizons. This way, you WANT to learn about the world. It’s not something you grudgingly do or something that chances upon you. You go out of your way to become a more educated citizen of Earth. This way, you learn at a faster rate and reap the benefits of doing so faster.
3. Read Books and Stay on top of Current Events
This is especially crucial, and is a major tenet of the previous point about being proactive. It’s not within normal human experiences to be aware of what is going on in the world without making an attempt to do so. By doing so, you will put yourself out there and understand what is going on, how people are being affected, and the consequences. As mentioned before, it is true that no media source is 100% unbiased. This also applies to textbooks and historical texts. As a result, when you first start educating yourself, you WILL make judgement mistakes on which sources are more reliable than others. However, just as with any skill, you will learn from your mistakes and begin to exercise discretion and caution on which sources to trust more than others.
Being culturally literate is simply a better way of being, because of the benefits that it brings to each individual. When this way of being has been reached multiple times at the individual level, it translates into increased productivity in a group environment. When multiple groups are culturally aware, it goes up one more level and will continue to follow this pattern until eventually significant proportions of the world population are in harmony because of the mutual understanding of one another. This kind of understanding has always been important, but now it is more important than ever because of the globalized nature of the world, with all parts of the world interacting with other parts.
Images courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net via ponsulak, Ambro, stockimages, Idea go, and Feelart (respectively).