Category Archives: culture

Giving and receiving

How was your holiday? Ours what unusual and unexpected. We planned to spend Christmas in London, where our first son lives. In mid-December, London was on tier/level 4 lockdown (residents were strictly housebound); therefore, we thought of taking the train or bus to Oxford where it was level 2 (restaurants and shops were opened). We would then meet up with our second son, who lives in Canley in the southwest of Coventry near Warwick University. It was a blessing in disguise that our flight was cancelled the night before our scheduled departure because the next day the British Government included Oxford on its tier 4 list. We would have been stuck in London quarantined in a low-budget hotel without the certainty of returning to France by the first week of January 2021. Instead, we had a virtual family Christmas party on the 25th with carols and quizzes.

We’re still in the period of giving and receiving gifts. So far, what have you given and/or received?

My husband is a football enthusiast and enjoys watching the English Premier and European League; a ticket to one of their matches would have been an easy choice. As sports were televised only due to COVID-19 restrictions, it was more realistic to accompany him in our attic and watch from our bedroom’s skylight the pigeons compete over grains and worms.

What’s the perfect gift for me from him? I wanted to see purple (my favourite colour) candles on the hallway leading up to our bedroom and find our bed covered with red roses and heart-shaped white chocolates. After all, red and white were the colour motifs during our church wedding. Everyone was in red and white apparel, including the pastor. There was a five-layer white cake with red cupcakes as giveaways.

I appreciate any gift from friends. If I don’t fancy it, I’ll pass this on to my family who wants it or to my favourite charity. Such action is good for my pockets and planet. Unwanted gifts that are not regifted or do not end up in charity shops find a home in landfills and tips that contributes to environmental problems. In developing countries, regifting is a welcomed necessity; of course, it has nay-sayers. Some people think that those who regift are stingy and disrespectful. Charities sell donated items, and the money is used to help the needy.

Gift-giving during the December-January period is cultural. It can be a way of showing affection, fondness or gratefulness. It does not need to involve a big amount. Research studies and surveys show that expensive gifts are not always appreciated; for instance, many receivers associate handmade items with kindness and positivism.

There is a social pressure to reciprocate; when we receive a gift, we give one in return. Does this equate with happiness? What is the best present? Isn’t it time that family and friends spend with us (talking on the phone or online when it is impossible to do so physically)?

In 2020, we lurched from pandemic and insecurity to division and isolation. In 2021, let us take stock of our lives and find the gift of wonder and joy in our personal, social and professional relationships safely. Happy New Year!

Meanings are in people, not in words?

With globalisation and digitalisation, employees of one organisation often come from many places and cultures. They can have the same mentality driven by their company’s goals and values; however, not all of them automatically think, communicate and behave in the same manner due to such diversity.

Culture is knowledge and characteristics of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, arts, music, cuisine, and social habits. Although language is often the least difficult issue to confront, it can be a source of misunderstanding and unpleasantness at work.

What and how we speak are developed through cultural values and norms we learn directly and indirectly, which is called socialisation. In my recent English language class, a Polish student mentioned that for them “collaboration” is a negative word, i.e. siding with the Nazis – “the collaborators”. So, I suggested the use of “cooperation” or “working with” to avoid offending them.

An acquaintance gets upset every time she hears her colleagues use the word “execute”. These are the online dictionaries’ explanations of execute: a) to carry out fully or do what is required, b) to put to death in compliance with a legal sentence, c) to perform what is required giving validity to it, and d) to make or produce something – such as a work of art –  by carrying out a plan or design.

Why do they dislike the words “collaborate” and “execute”? They grew up in eastern and central Europe where their relatives and compatriots had been victims of collaboration and execution during the Second World War. Exposure to cultural cues and group narratives have contributed to their communication sensitivity.

We all associate words with various things related to our experience and environment. Unintentionally, we bring these moulds to our meeting rooms, offices and social functions that can make communication challenging or awkward.

How should we deal with misunderstanding due to elements of culture and socialisation? What about adapting our words and actions to these differences? Shall we stick to our patterns of behaviour without conflicting with those different from us? We can avoid miscommunication and ambiguity if we understand our history and culture and those of others.

During our first lesson that included a personal introduction, my student said, “I’m what others call a gipsy, but I prefer to be called a Romany”. (This is also spelt “Romani”).  We should ask questions, listen and respect others.

When I was young, my mother used the word “mulatto” to describe those whose one parent is black and the other is white. It was only when I was at university that I realised “mulatto” is offensive to some people.  Similarly, it is politically incorrect to use “half-breed” and “half-caste” to describe those whose parents have different skin colours and national origins. An acceptable phrase is “person of mixed cultures”.

Ethnicity (Cambridge Dictionary’s definition – “a particular race of people, or the fact of being from a particular race of people”), or its adjective “ethnic”, is quite all right for many people; however, it is often considered derogatory in the UK.  Ask the person which term they prefer (some people disapprove the phrase “person of colour”).

I use “foreign” to describe policies, something that comes from another country, or idea that I am not familiar with (strictly for non-human). I frown when a European calls me a “foreigner” because I am not an alien and do not feel and behave as an outsider (have lived longer in France than in my country of origin and been married to a local for nearly four decades).

We have to be open-minded and sensitive in our choice of words. Otherwise, consciously or unconsciously, we make our workplace and global village less desirable.

Ethnic and race profiling, unconscious bias

On 29 July 2020, while promenading, my son and I were stopped by French Police asking for our IDs. Unlike in Australia and other western countries, in France, we are legally obliged to show our photo identification if we are stopped and asked to by a police officer. This is called the identity check “Contrôle d’Identité’”. Pretending to be having a conversation with my son, I commented in English: “ethnic profiling”, “why us”, and “I wonder what criteria they use to decide who to stop”. I was hoping they would understand what I was saying; after all, English is taught widely in elementary, secondary and tertiary institutions in France.

Ethnic or racial profiling is the act of suspecting or targeting a person based on assumed characteristics or behaviour of a particular ethnic or racial group rather than on individual suspicion. I’m a Filipino-born Aussie and have a typical south-east Asian appearance. My 18-year-old son is 178 cm tall and has physical similarities with his white French-Australian father. They probably thought we were not together because I was some steps behind him trying to fix my hat while picking up my mask. Whereas, my son was in a hurry to avoid the soaring heat and was already under a shrub. When I called him back and he turned around, there was a change on the face of one of the police officers. His eyes became amiable, and he handed back my ID.  At least we were not searched during this “contrôle”. We had our identification cards with us; otherwise, they could have taken us to a police station to establish our identity (“vérification d’identité”).

Ethnicity is a social grouping based on common and distinctive culture, religion, or language. Race, however, refers to the person’s physical appearance; for example, Black, White, Asian, or Indigenous. An individual can be Asian but, ethnically, German.

Western countries’ statistics show that non-white people are more likely to be stopped by the police on the street. It is widely known that Australian and Canadian Aboriginals are more likely to be charged with crimes. In the USA, there is sufficient information on how African Americans and members of other minority groups (Hispanic and Latino Americans, Middle Easterners and South Asians) are suspected of criminal activities. In Germany, there was a court ruling concerning racial profiling in its policy allowing police to use skin colour and “non-German ethnic origin” to select persons who will be asked for identification in spot-checks for illegal immigrants. Of course, non-western nations are not exempted from this bias. The media have reported the Chinese government’s use of a facial recognition technology to track down and control its Muslim minority.

“Racial profiling” occurs when government and law enforcement people target those of colour for a humiliating and often frightening stoppage, detentions, interrogations, and searches without evidence of an illegal behaviour but based on perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion.  Racial profiling must not be allowed in countries where the core promise of its Constitution is equal protection under the law for all and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Is racial profiling effective? Studies and consultations show that this jeopardises law enforcement because police officers lose credibility and trust among the people they are sworn to protect and serve.

Is racial profiling discriminatory? The general principle of equality and non-discrimination is a fundamental element of international human rights law.

Anti-/non-discrimination law refers to legislation that prevents discrimination against particular groups of people based on sex, age, race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, mental illness or ability, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity/expression, sex characteristics, religion, creed, or individual political opinions. It is designed to hinder discrimination in employment, housing, education, and other areas of social life (this includes being in the streets or elsewhere). However, “not every distinction or difference in treatment will amount to discrimination. In general international law, a violation of the principle of non-discrimination arises if: a) similar cases are treated differently; b) a difference in treatment does not have an objective and reasonable justification; or c) if there is no proportionality between the aim sought and the means employed.” (http://www.humanrights.is/en/human-rights-education-project/human-rights-concepts-ideas-and-fora/s…)

In other words, with such international human rights legislation, we have the right to pursue our material, spiritual and social well-being in conditions of freedom, dignity and equal opportunity.

Discrimination is unproductive. In employment, it is economically unwise as victimised employees are unable to focus their energy on performing their tasks fully. Their feeling of negative vibes from a supervisor or colleague not only adversely impacts their job performance but causes absenteeism and ill-health.

France, for example, stands to gain some €150 billion over 20 years (i.e. a 0.35% increase in GDP per year) by increasing women’s and minorities’ access to skilled jobs and their overall employment rate (France Stratégie, https://www.strategie.gouv.fr/english-articles/economic-cost-workplace-discrimination-france-billions-euros-lost-potential).

How can prejudice and discrimination be dealt with? Employers, big or small, should have anti-discrimination policies and procedures in place that include regular training on cultural awareness and unconscious bias.  In the case of police departments, there should be a preference for community policing over strategies of power and fear.