x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Is it better to sample a melting pot or a salad bowl?

Cultural diversity in everyday matters is part of the rich experience of life in a society such as ours, where cultures meet, but it can leads to deep embarrassment sometimes. There's not much to do about this except to keep an open mind and keep trying.

A Swiss couple was visiting a Hong Kong restaurant accompanied by their pet poodle, reported The Times of London on August 21, 1971. The diners, presumably not fluent in Cantonese, ordered from the menu by pointing at the pictures, then gestured that they wanted their dog fed too. The poodle was promptly taken away.

After a while the waiter returned with a dish hidden on a silver tray. The lid was ceremoniously lifted revealing one pet pooch, roasted and garnished with pepper sauce and bamboo shoots.

Apocryphal? Maybe, but the newspaper's serious treatment of the story shows just how badly things can be lost in translation.

The UAE's cultural and linguistic diversity provides just the right conditions for this type of tragi-comic misunderstanding. Roasted canines may not be a problem, but minor mishaps are inevitable, especially when you have a culturally diverse and highly fluid expatriate population.

The UAE is not a "United Colors of Benetton" advertisement. This is not a melting pot. A salad bowl is the more appropriate metaphor: diverse ingredients maintaining their own distinct flavours. And, incidentally, very good for the health.

That diversity is not, however, always comfortable. During my early days in the UAE, while I was waiting in a queue to have some documents processed, I was horrified to feel someone breathing down the back of my neck. As a person with a very British sense of personal space, having a stranger stand so close behind me felt like a physical assault. I turned around to put a face to the breath. The guy read the indignation on my face, backed up a little and gave me a knowing smile - he had met my type before.

On another occasion I was riding in a lift with some North American colleagues who insisted on saying "hi" to everyone who got in. They then attempted to strike up conversations with total strangers. While a part of me viewed this aggressive sociability with some admiration, another part was slightly unnerved.

The British are fabled for their politeness, which extends to completely ignoring someone who might not want attention. If you fall over on a British street, people may not rush to help - this is not snobbery, callousness or bystander apathy, it's simply passive politeness. We pretend not to notice to spare you any embarrassment. How polite is that?

Language is a big issue too. Having made an attempt to learn Arabic, I can say that most of my own linguistic faux pas have been treated with good humour and kindness. Although ... one day I was practising my Arabic with my own students, and I badly mispronounced a word, transforming my innocent utterance into an unutterable insult.

The student I was addressing at the time turned red with embarrassment. Her classmates stared at me in shocked silence, until one kind soul realised my mistake and volunteered the word I meant.

A major problem with having a rudimentary grasp of a language is homophones. These are words that sound almost identical when spoken but have radically different meanings, for example: bear/bare, waist/waste and die/dye. English is full of them, and so is Arabic.

As way of an example, a Canadian friend of my wife's was stopped by the police. This lady is married to an Emirati, wears the shayla and abaya, and speaks a little Arabic. The police officer gestured for her to lower the window, and in the laconic style so characteristic of law enforcement agents, barked a single word at her: "Sura". Now, to a slightly anxious ear, with only a basic grasp of Arabic, sura could mean picture (photo ID), or a verse from the Quran. You can imagine the police officer's bemusement when our Canadian friend closed her eyes and began to recite the opening verse from the Quran in her best voice.

What is the answer? There isn't one. There is no quick fix and I'm not about to advocate courses in interpersonal cultural competency - although there are certain sectors, health care for example, where such an intervention is warranted.

But generally speaking, cultural diversity is part of the richness of life, and getting to know one another, however uncomfortable it may occasionally feel, is integral to human growth and development. It is only through others that we can get to know ourselves.


Justin Thomas is an assistant professor of psychology at Zayed University