What the Brits’ Telly Can Teach Us About Diversity Dialogues


tv

Evelina Silveira,  President, Diversity at Work

When you think about British television, what comes to mind?  Well, if you are not British most of us would probably say Coronation Street  because it has been around forever on Canadian televisions. But there is so much more to discover!  Deciding to join the cable cutting crowd, I have opted for YouTube instead, for my nightly viewing. And British TV is it!

I have been so impressed with the wide range of British television programs devoted to social experiments in the form of reality TV.  To their credit, it appears the Brits are sincerely trying to understand “the other” through their programs of cultural exchanges of various sorts.  They’re not your regular run-of-the-mill low budget reality programs but thoughtful, out-of-the-box productions that are not afraid to ask the tough questions.

Why do I find the programs to be so remarkable?  Because the participants in the social experiments get a chance to “walk in the other person’s shoes” and freely ask questions without being afraid of a label of “homophobe”, “racist”, “islamaphone” “xenophobe” etc.  You get to see the good, the bad and the ugly.  Nothing is held back and I like that.  At least, when everyone has their preconceptions on the table you have something to work with instead being terminally superficial and polite.

What I began to notice in British television was delightfully refreshing.  The Brits actually engage others in a conversation about diversity.   I don’t see that happening in Canadian television.  All  we ever see is one side of a story and you either accept it or you don’t.  There is rarely an opportunity for two groups to come together and learn about one another and gain sensitivity, empathy and insight into the other group’s world.  The Brits seem to love programs devoted to “social experiments” and I have to tell you as a lover of sociology and anthropology — these types of programs score high for me.

It must have been a television genius who came up with the subject matter.  I have watched at least one  episode with the following themes:

  • A small group of Brits who have to live like a Muslim for a designated period of time.
  • Six men from a variety of backgrounds and lifestyles who go to live in a Benedictine monastery and must follow their rules
  • Nasty British teenagers who are sent to live with an American Amish family to help them reform their ways
  • Bad behaving British teenagers who are sent to live with another family in a foreign country which is known to be “very strict”
  • Several English citizens who feel they have been negatively impacted by immigration are matched with immigrants to challenge some of their assumptions

What so good about these experiments? What do participants often learn from the experience?

  • There is greater understanding that can come from honest and often challenging conversations. You might either become stronger in your conviction or  more empathetic to the other’s experience.
  • There is value and meaning in learning about other people’s rituals even if they seem far off.
  • We can be enriched by others’ experiences and might find adopting aspects of their lives to our own.
  • Having your assumptions challenged is not a bad thing and it contributes to your own personal growth.  You can also help others grow by letting them express their biases/stereotypes and prejudices and work with them.
  • You can’t live in a liberal democracy without expecting to be offended occasionally: a price of freedom of expression.

For example, in the BBC documentary a young British-born  worker is matched to a Polish immigrant who owns his own construction business.  The young man contends foreigners are taking all of the jobs.  He gets to meet Mariuscz  a business owner and notices that his whole shop is full of only Polish workers which fuels his negative perception.   However, when he has a conversation with Mariuscz he realizes that these workers have a starting wage which is much lower than he would accept.  Mariuscz says he started at a low salary and worked his way up in a shop and finally decided to open his own business.  Mariuscz however is challenged to see that hiring only Polish workers is discriminatory and that he could benefit from English-speaking employees.  He is open to accepting this criticism and comes to see that his workers would learn English if there was someone around who would be prepared to speak it.  The result of this dialogue?  I would say a win-win for both participants.  Each was open to hearing the other’s point of view and challenge their own thinking.

British television shows me how much we Canadians have in common  However, I would have to say a few programs that I watched momentarily would never survive in Canada.  They are just too mean! Programs like Fat Families and Life on the DoleLife on the Dole  does not seem balanced at all.  Most of the cast consists of drug addicts, people who don’t want to work and ex-cons.  We don’t see many examples of the working poor.  If the purpose of Life on the Dole  is to make working people angry about the poor, than it succeeds in that regard.  If this program was filmed in Canada the slant would be different.  It would be aired to bring about empathy and awareness of the poor and set in a more compassionate light and with less of a classist tone.

All in all, British television rocks!  I need to run —-  Wife Swap UK is on!

 

 

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