When Bilingualism Means More Than the Number of Languages You Speak – Building Empathy in our Diverse Society
Think Bilingual Austin’s founding mission is to build community through language learning and multicultural understanding. However, language is simply a tool to help us better communicate and understand the speakers of another culture and background. Yet, even those of us who speak the same language often still require translation because of differences in cultural and socio-economic experiences and perspectives, including the stories we choose to believe to help us make sense of the world around us. These language nuances based on experience and perspectives create differences in both meaning and tone. Sometimes these differences are subtle and other times sometimes they are very distinct. For this reason, it is not uncommon for a person who thinks he or she is communicating one thing only to be perceived by the receiver as something completely different. For example, what may be a plea for help may be taken by the receiver as an aggressive offense; what may be intended as a kind gesture may be taken as an overreach or intrusion. The lack of understanding of each other’s experiences and perspectives can lead to much confusion, fear, aggression, confrontation and disdain for the other group/s. Even if limited understanding is achieved, the need for tolerance and openness must also be realized before meaningful connections can be made. For this reason, we emphasize the need for multicultural understanding to always be present; to help us be better communicators, to be more empathetic and to help us learn from one and another.
Multicultural understanding is how individuals from one ethnic, socio-economic, or religious group better understand the culture and world perceptions of those from another group, and visa versa. Through multicultural understanding, diverse groups are no longer perceived as the “other” but rather as one of the many diverse groups who are part of our larger community and the understanding and acceptance that their presence adds value. It is only through understanding of diverse perspectives, empathy and compassion and inclusion can real change for the good can come. Importantly, it is only when all members in our community can we ,as a civil society, thrive and be economically and socially productive. Conversely, if diverse groups are unable to come together through empathy and understanding and if we refuse to address diverse groups’ concerns, we only hurt ourselves and our community by perpetuating deep rooted divisions.
Polarization across political ideologies, religion and ethnic groups and the mass distribution of misinformation and distortion of facts to justify and strengthen specific ideologies are tearing our society apart and diminishing productive civic discourse.
If we wish to build greater unity through empathy and understanding in our society, we need to begin embracing these six simple steps:
- Embrace the golden rule and show respect and kindness for all people regardless of race, religion or ethnicity, and yes, even ideology. Treat all people the same way we wish to others to treat us, even if or when we do not feel it is reciprocated.
- Have difficult conversations with others from diverse groups. Be willing to listen to other groups perspectives and probe without judgement into the reasons as to why those groups perceive situations or believe what they do. This is not the same as agreeing but rather listening to understand and empathize.
- Be consciously aware that each group develops tribal thinking with an intentional narrative that often pits one group above others. Be open to the fact that our own identity group may be exacerbating group in-think and deliberately perpetuating hostile narratives about other groups. Moreover, be open to the fact that we may have preconceived biases that may make us feel hostile or prejudice toward other groups without even realizing it.
- Stand up against rhetoric and actions that demonize or degrade other groups and serve only to fuel divisiveness, hate, anger and distrust toward other groups. Help stop the perpetuation of divisive and negative rhetoric about other groups by questioning the source and its intention. Is the intention to conjure negative ideas or stereotypes about another group? Does it fuel fear or hate about another group? If so, diffuse such rhetoric by not giving it credence or validity within our sphere of influence. Focus on information that provides insight, unbiased reporting and understanding without fueling generalized negative attitudes about a specific group.
- Educate ourselves to gain a better awareness of different social group dynamics based on historical context and socio-economic hierarchy. Be cognizant of how social and economic contexts may shape each groups’ experiences, perspectives and understanding and how institutional systems may have been set up to more negatively or more positively impacted specific groups within our society. Think about what kinds of changes we can make in our society so that all people can feel included and provided with equal socio-economic and judicial rights as others.
- Embrace inclusivity of different groups of people and work diligently to find common ground for effective cross group collaboration. Ultimately, we are all in this together to build a more harmonious, equitable and just society. Division and strife across diverse groups with one pitted against another only serves to weaken our society morally, ethically, economically and institutionally; and it will only fuel animosity and hostility which could eventually destroy our civil society. We owe it to ourselves, our family, our local community and for our posterity to embrace our diversity and build on common interests based on the basic human rights established in our U.S. Constitution.