I was lucky enough to see a wonderfully inspiring man speak last year at a conference, you may remember – I talk about it HERE . “Normal?” He pleaded, “who wants to be normal?” His presentation began with a slide picturing three upside-down bats. “Look outside the box, what do hanging bats look like if you flip over the picture?” “They look like some saucy vampire dance scene set in New York City.” The man giving the presentation was Seth Godin.
“Show up different, treat different people differently, you will get a different response.”
If you have ever applied for a position at a university or college, you are familiar with the request to make a “diversity statement. As humans, we are programmed to band together. Humans are taught from childhood to do what everybody else does, we learn to move with the flow – not to go against the grain. Going against the grain often results in some sort of correction. Going against the grain results in trouble-makers. But what if that wasn’t the case?
Godin’s ideas go along the theme of my master’s thesis, simply put – we can’t expect everyone to fit into the same box because we are not all the same. Nor should we want to be, if everyone had the same weaknesses, beliefs or ideas as the next person, there would be no progress. Besides, people will pay attention to those who do what others will not. As mentors, advisors, and teachers it is crucial for us to embrace this exchange of “weird”, or “different,” in order to progress. A simple way to do so is to welcome change and differences around us, including other cultures.
During my undergraduate studies as an International Studies student at Colorado State University I volunteered as a conversation partner at the Intensive English Program (IEP) within the university. Initially I volunteered for no other reason than to learn about cultures completely different than my own. There I sat for a few hours every week with a group of students from around the world. Our topics began simply; about the the book they were reading in class and throughout the semester progressed to bigger questions like women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, to the question of many wives, to driving, as a woman, in the United States. At the beginning of the semester, the students were shy, afraid of being laughed at or made fun of for their mistakes. For some of them, it was also the first time they had talked with an American woman who wasn’t their teacher.
I tried to hide my confusion at some of the concepts that existed in their culture. Our dialogue was not for disagreements, but rather discussion and learning. I listened to both the men and the women’s views on the subjects. We even had discussions that included mindsets that men were clearly superior to women. I heard their opinions out. We never spoke in anger. As I encouraged the students each week to ask questions to try and practice their new language with me, a student just as they were, without fear of making a mistake, I found that they were actually very eager to share their culture with me. The concern of being wrong when speaking wasn’t really a concept to me until years later when I studied abroad in Germany (I’ll save that for another blog.). I learned that fear of being wrong when speaking up is a fear that students from many other countries face. I came across it again when working with students from many underdeveloped countries at a community college. It is a fear I am glad I didn’t growing up knowing. Luckily, during these discussions we formed a sort of playground for equal exchange where ideas, questions and opinions could be tossed around, both expanding our knowledge of language and culture and abolishing fear of being wrong or speaking.
A few years later during my graduate studies and while taking courses in the TESL/TEFL department at CSU, I was required to observe the same courses, this time taking notes on language development. I observed the courses, rather than just participating in discussion time. Here I was able to observe the change these students go through from beginners to advanced language learners. I was able to watch how their confidence grew as they moved through the program. Because of great teachers and the encouraging environment that the language center offered, often these students developed an entirely new confidence during the program with their newfound voice and freedom of speech.
It was during my undergraduate years also that I assisted in events at the Global Community Village, an apartment complex where I lived with the students from abroad. I was constantly immersed in the cultures of others who were reaching out to share their lifestyle with others. A lot of it involved sharing food, and customs. One of my favorite quotes, “We fear that which we do not understand” stayed constantly at the forefront of my mind. People are afraid of these different cultures because they do not understand them. Who are we to say who is right, or wrong in someone else’s culture? Through seeking out new knowledge and ideas in places that are so foreign to us, from concepts that our brain can barely grasp, we are able to grow. We should never stop expanding our minds. I was reminded in one of Aliza Sherman’s recent blogs – “Complacency can be the enemy of purpose.” These experiences with students in America who were traveling were only the beginning of the inclusion of ways into my own life, that were different than what I had learned growing up in America.
After my own travels and exploration of new cultures, I now:
- Unplug appliances I am not using because I now know that they suck energy while being plugged in, even when not in use.
- Try to use a drying rack as much as possible to conserve the energy the dryer puts out. I’d never seen anybody use a drying rack until I moved to Germany and saw the huge rows of them in the student dorm basement. No, my clothes were never stolen.
- Let my hair air-dry more often to save on energy used by the blowdryer.
- Shut off the water in my shower while scrubbing and shaving to conserve energy,
- Go out of my way for “bio” things, “bee-oh” as the Germans say, aka – organic, local and fair-trade.
- Regularly use a “Frühstücksbrettchen” (a tiny breakfast board for serving parts of breakfast, like toast. Genius!).
- Use wooden spoons with all of my pots and pans and “stehe nicht auk Plastik“.
- Appreciate butter (thanks to my friends from the South.)
- Appreciate olive oil.
- Have a strong appreciation for French, Spanish and Argentinian wines, and the culture that goes along with them.
- Learned to love stinky French cheese. Thank you, Fabien from Paris.
- Use a small water heater to make my tea. “Why do you boil the entire kettle of water, when you are only making one cup?” My roommate Erkan asked once while I was studying in Germany.”I have absolutely no idea,” I answered. I now only boil enough water to fill my cup.
- Collect spices and use them all, too. After seeing the elaborate collection of shared spices my four other roommates in Germany, I gathered my own collection.
- Note: Not that I ever cruised in the left lane of the interstate before, but that left lane takes on a completely different meaning after seeing a car fly by at 160 mph in Germany.
- Enjoy the simple pleasure of taking time out of my day enjoy a single scoop of ice cream. Germans are always eating ice cream.
- Am a chocolate snob, and after tasting the fine delicacies that are French, Swiss and Belgian chocolate, I do not like American chocolates, they taste like plastic.
- Have became a beer snob. I spent a good portion of my time learning about German beer making policies (after many many German brewery tours) and what caused one of my professors to tell me, “I find it hard to believe, that what you Americans drinks, can be called beer”. I did a presentation to that class on American craft beer and made him think otherwise. American beer is certainly catching up to the old and magical ways of European beer.
- Have become a coffee snob. After tasting Columbian, Brazilian and French coffee…. I find it hard to call many cheap coffee varities, real coffee. I also learned to embrace the time spend amongst friends while drinking, real, rich, creamy and lightly frothy coffee I can drink without cream.
- Say croissant properly and get slightly giddy with excitement at the thought of dipping a perfectly baked butterey French croissant into a tiny cup of morning espresso.
- Never rush eating. Eating amongst friends is not a time simply for nourishment, or gobbling down food. Eating is for enjoying food and being thankful for the food I am putting into my body and the good company I spend that time with. I do not believe in fast food. I chew my food slowly.
- Often have afternoon tea, around 4:00 PM. If it is a dark tea, I usually pair it with cream and sugar. Thank you England and Ireland.
- Rest when I am tired. Spain taught me the beauty of rest, and the occasional necessity of a Siesta.
- Use a French Press to make my coffee. I learned this from a Englishman. (The French don’t know why we call it the French Press, and they also don’t know why we call French Bulldogs, French Bulldogs… *Funny story, it’s because they are named by the English for looking like frogs, or so the story goes.
- Believe that there are times when fighting for beliefs is the right thing to do. If you want something badly enough, you MUST fight for it! I learned about continuous strikes and protests from the Germans.
- Believe in the vegetarian diet, after meeting a very healthy and thoughtful vegetarian for the first time in Germany. I met many more during my European travels.
- Have learned that a person can very comfortably live a modest life in a home built of straw, and sustain his/herself on rainwater, conservative living, a generator and garden. Life doesn’t have to be so complicated. Thank you Trevor from England, who shared his straw home with me in Ireland.
- Use coconut oil on everything and curry and spice as much as possible (thanks to friends from India.)
- Envy the students from Belgium who don’t have to pay for their college, the government and their taxes invest in their education. I envy the students from Germany who only pay €250 Euro a semester, or less, for college.
- Have decided that public transportation really is a necessity to a well functioning infrastructure, and wonderful for meeting new people, reading, or seeing the countryside. Thank you Europe.
- Realize the importance of filling my diet with as much fresh greens and salmon as I can. Thank you Iceland and Northern Germany.
- Have decided that sometimes it’s handy to be able to put all 3 – 4+ words in your sentence together into one long word.
I took on all of these habits or ways of thinking because I believe that other cultures just have a better way of doing things, or I like their way better, and this is just a short list. Why not pick up a habit that might work better than the way we learned?
I embrace cultures and new ways of thinking that I have experienced through travel every day, and I am ever grateful for the opportunities I had to travel, which shaped who I am today.