Evelina, Dog Owner. Why Labels Suck.


Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity at Work

I usually like to start my day off with reading news stories from around the world, hoping to capture a balanced view of what is actually happening.  It is not always so easy to piece it all together.   One thing stands out for me for sure. The presence of labels: when, how and if they are used to describe protagonists and antagonists in the stories.

We are uncomfortable with applying specific labels when we see large groups  doing nasty things.  You are more likely to see an avoidance  of labels  with Canadian television broadcasters or more socially oriented European media.   The concern is about stereotyping, backlash, and creating fear.  On the opposite side of the spectrum when the media, social movements, governments and others want to draw negative attention to a group – the labeling comes in really handy.

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My Twitter feed was laden with sexist and racist exposés from journalists covering the Olympics in Rio. I also read about the hateful interactions of Arab athletes against the Israelis.  Clearly, “Israeli” or “Jew” a divisive label, was preferred over a more conciliatory one of  “fellow-athlete”.   How sad!

Labeling is tricky.  Gabby Douglas, the American Gold Gymnast had her share of labels thrown at her during the Olympics.  A lot of them weren’t very nice.  It was interesting to note how Gabby’s “blackness” was plastered around Twitter by black groups.  Then to my surprise, I saw again in my feed an article about how Gabby Douglas credits her Jewish upbringing with helping her to succeed.  Two cultural/racial groups wanting to make her their own and confer their label as a celebration of membership.  For individuals who judge people on one-dimensional characteristics: where does someone like Gabby fit in?   Since she is Jewish, does that mean she fits into the white privileged category that oppression activists would categorize, even though hatred against Jews is now considered to have reached the levels of pre-Second World War times? Or is she black?  Here lies the problem with looking at human beings so simplistically.  We are not one-dimensional.   It is time to reconsider the limitations of dangerously divisive thinking.

Labeling has been on my mind for a while, and more so now as I connect with Americans. My race seems to always come up.    Along with that, it becomes important for them to tell me their race when we are speaking over the phone.  I don’t understand it, maybe I will in the future.  In my opinion it is irrelevant, and so I wish my race was too.  I don’t think there is a universal “white” or “black” way of thinking.

I am Evelina: a multi-dimensional human being and so are you.  If it makes you happy to label me, why don’t you categorize me as  Evelina,  dog owner? I much prefer that.

 

 

 

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!

 

 

POTLUCKS AND THE POLITICS OF FOOD IN THE WORKPLACE


Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity at Work   co-author,  The No-Nonsense Guide To Workplace Inclusion

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While splitting the check, B.Y.O.B, potlucks, and eating leftovers from the catered luncheon are routine in a Canadian workplace; by far this experience  is not an international phenomenon. While you may think your welcoming, kind gesture to “break bread” with a New Canadian co-worker is a good idea, don’t be surprised if they have a different interpretation. Food and eating can be a highly political affair. Political? Indeed – political! Let’s take a look at one of our most popular epicurean rituals which has stood the test of time.

Potlucks

Why do we have potlucks in Canadian society? Potlucks offer an inexpensive, easy way to feed large groups of people, while providing an assortment of food the guests may have never sampled. It’s about sharing: food, workload, and preparation.

What are the beliefs that sustain potlucks in Canadian society?

  •  Cooking is a chore and not many people like it and especially when it involves trying to please a number of people whose preferences are unknown.
  • If you want to have a gathering everyone should be “pitching in” financially and effort-wise. Food and entertaining is expensive and it shouldn’t be up to one person to do all of the work.
  • It’s more fun if we all help out and we can share the joy and responsibility.
  • Hospitality doesn’t need to be formal. You can still be hospitable and casual at the same time. Everyone can be a host. It doesn’t take a lot of skill, effort or rules.

How might these beliefs clash with people who are coming from countries which are more hierarchical, formal and collectivist?

In a big way! Although the price of food has increased dramatically, it is still widely accessible and  affordable by comparison to other parts of the world. We don’t have a lot of rituals around eating except for “eating on the run”, “fast food” and “Tim Horton’s”. With a growing acceptance of vegetarian and veganism what we eat these days is less based on social stratification and more inclined to be on preference.

North Americans tend to view food in a “profane” way as the famous sociologist Emile Durkheim would probably conclude. Food is ordinary and nothing special, has no associated rituals or beliefs to preserve its “sacredness”.

This would be in sharp contrast to the many New Canadians who are more likely to view food as “sacred”. They may have grown up learning how to cook with recipes passed down from the generations, or associate foods with symbolism and rich meaning and a wider array of festivals and celebrations. Some foods may be used for medicines or spiritual healing or to bring good luck or fertility. The “sacredness” of food means the act of eating is a“sanctified ritual”. For example, Jews and Muslims will refrain from eating pork products and the meat they eat must conform to “kosher” or “halal” standards. It means that the animals are slaughtered in a religiously prescribed way to enhance the sacredness of the food and thus the sanctity of eating.
Hospitality is a lost art in North America. If you have ever shared a meal for instance with an Afghan, a Portuguese, or an Arab family – the hospitality cannot be compared. You will be treated like royalty and no effort or expense will be spared. The goal is not to make the experience easy for the host, but just the opposite. By contrast, the host wants to show you how much you mean to them by going through lots of trouble and expense. You will not feel obliged to do the dishes nor would they want you to. They want you to relax and have them entertain you. You may actually feel that they have enlisted their whole family to make you feel comfortable. The experience is formal and every action is intentional. Good hosting skills lead to many benefits including: new jobs, connections, elevated status, marriage proposals, a strengthened ability to negotiate, but most of all preserving or enhancing one’s reputation.

Are potlucks a good idea in a North American workplace? It all depends. If you want to celebrate or show appreciation for a job well done you may come across as a cheap manager or employer – an insult to your New Canadian workers. Showing appreciation and respect for employees and especially those from more formalized cultures requires: a demonstration of effort; some expense and conveying their importance in the workplace which is not a bad approach to take with all of your employees. Is it?

“Those People Are So Rude!”


Canadians. We are known for our eternal politeness and patience. Our forms of politeness are intrinsically linked to our British roots.  From an early age in school we are taught to say “thank you”, “please”, “sorry” and “excuse me”.  We often judge others’ upbringing by their use of these words.  It has become one of the signs of being “cultured” in our society. While these social conventions (those practices which are considered normal and expected) are expected practices here, that is not necessarily the case in other parts of the world.

When I was studying Indian culture, I came across the understanding that “thank you’s” are not routinely dished out as they are here but are saved for moments when an individual has gone out of their way to help another. 
Essentially by doing this, Indians and the recipient of the “thank you” can be assured that the expression of gratitude is sincere.  Once I started to discuss this idea with my friends from other cultural backgrounds , I discovered that politeness can be demonstrated in many other ways, without the use of the words we consider to be expressions of politeness.  In fact, often I found that it was perfectly polite to say :  “Give me a ….” or “I want a …”.  Both of these demands would be considered rude by our standards, but not  for Russians and some other cultural groups.  In fact in some cultures, saying words like “please” is  an act of submission.  Why are you begging, they might ask?

In multicultural Canada, it can be easy for us to judge New Canadians as rude if they do not conform to our social conventions from the  very beginning.  In many cases, they are translating what they would say in their head in their mother tongue into English, which may not include these words that we desire and value in our everyday lives.  Consequently, New Canadians may miss a job opportunity because they did not thank the interviewer, or they may bud in line because that is how things got done in their country of origin, not realizing that this is a rude thing to do here.  Or they may be taken by surprise one day when someone says to them “Get it yourself!”, when they say, “Give me”.  

It takes time to become acculturated to life in Canada and one true sign is by knowing and adopting the social conventions of the culture.  Many of these social conventions are unwritten.  You can only know them after spending time here or when someone corrects you.

It is very easy to jump to conclusions that other cultures are rude when they don’t do things the way we do them.  The reality is, we probably do things all the time that they think are rude, too. 

It is important to look at the whole picture and the context, rather than make judgements on a few words or lack thereof.  What is normal and expected here is not the case in other parts of the world.

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