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!

 

 

How I Increased My Portuguese Fluency by Watching a Soap Opera


By:  Evelina Silveira, President Diversity at Work in London Inc.

It’s 9:00 pm and I have given up my regular date with Peter Mansbridge on the National News preferring to watch the Belmonte family:  Jose, Carlos, Lucas, Joao and Pedro navigate their business deals in the beautiful town of Estremoz, Portugal.  The Belmonte’s came into my life quite by chance one day when I was flipping channels, just wanting to relax.  Alas!  I heard a familiar language spoken on the television –Portuguese.  This was my first language that I have lost due to lack of practice.

Out of curiousity, and out of a deep appreciation for the visually appealing men I saw on the screen, I decided to give it a few minutes of my time.  Before long, I was fully engaged and not superficially either.  It became an intellectual exercise where I challenged myself to understand, by linking linguistic similarities to English.  When I started watching Belmonte about two months ago, I only understood about 60% of what I was hearing.

I have never studied Portuguese formally.  However, I had some exposure in my family of Portuguese immigrants. I decided some time ago that I wanted to learn it better but I am not someone who enjoys taking classes or listening to tapes.  I want it to be fun and not a lot of extra work.  Voila!  Belmonte to the rescue!

Sixty days later of watching 5 hours a week, I understand about 98% of what I am hearing and my vocabulary has expanded exponentially!  This isn’t your average run of the-mill American-style soap opera peppered with affairs botoxed beauties and beaus all living in their massive homes.  Albeit, the Belmonte’s do own a vineyard, a marble quarry, an olive oil business and a park, but not everyone in Estremoz is rich or perfect.

So what have I learned from this captivating, suspenseful, picturesque, award-winning soap opera?  A whole lot such as:

  • Some business vocabulary.
  • Slang expressions.
  • Many similar idioms like:  “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”.
  • Vocabulary related to criminal investigations as one of the major plots has to do with “ o trafico de mulheres” or trafficking of women.
  • How Latin based words like “horrible”, “impossible” “incredible” etc are very similar to the Portuguese words but the “b” gets dropped for a “v”.
  • If you listen carefully many of the verbs have a Latin base and you can easily figure out what they are trying to say.
  • Portuguese is a very formal language and there are higher standards for politeness and respect for hierarchy and status.  Even the Police Sergeant uses formal titles to address suspects.  And when the characters are exchanging insults they still manage to add an:  “Desculpa”  (Sorry)  or “Boa Tarde’  (Good Afternoon)  Imagine that!
  • There are a lot of English words that have become part of the Portuguese lexicon.  For example in business:  “off-shore”; “dealer” (as in drug dealer); “okay”; “strippers” etc.

Besides increasing my vocabulary and comprehension, Belmonte has also given me a greater understanding of contemporary Portuguese issues.  For example, there are many references to how a few of the characters have lost their faith in God and don’t go to church anymore. Portugal has for centuries been one of the bastions of the Catholic faith and now it appears that even that is dying.  Poor Padre Arturo (Father Arthur) himself has decided to give up his vocation after his Italian son got killed in a motorcycle accident and the Bishop wouldn’t let him attend his funeral.  Padre Arturo is no longer counselling his parishioners about holding onto their faith but vice versa.

Then there is the issue of violence against women.  One of the plots has to do with the trafficking of women by a group of English and German investors who engage some of the business men in Estremoz in their dealings.  The show appears to want to highlight the epidemic of human trafficking in Europe but also the different aspects of violence against women.  In Sargento Susanna’s headquarters there are posters which focus on psychological abuse as a form of domestic violence.  You wouldn’t expect a poster like this in a police sergeant’s office but the producers are obviously trying to use these opportunities to disseminate important information.

On a less serious note you see how much the Portuguese love their food.  I swear Sofia Belmonte spends half of her life in front of the dining room table.  I don’t think I have ever seen so much eating in a television production outside the Food Channel!  The Portuguese use food as a cure for many ailments as you see in Belmonte. A chamomile tea is given at bed time for a sore tummy and to calm the nerves.  Victims are encouraged to eat after a trauma to gain their strength.  Sonia eats in the middle of the night to cure her insomnia. Rosario prepares a bountiful breakfast to show her love for Hugo.

Next time you are thinking of brushing up on a language don’t discount the value of actively and analytically watching a television program –even a soap opera.  You may be surprised at how it can be much more than entertainment. The key is to find an immersion activity you enjoy and stick with it.

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