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CYC-Online Issue 99 APRIL 2007 / BACK
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Judgement or discovery in cross cultural contacts

Mark Smith

To enhance the ability of youth to help peers and themselves, the author proposes specific training in mature social decision making to help youth overcome immature moral development and egocentric thinking.

I say potAto and you say potato...The old song has come into my head over the past couple of weeks. My own university, Strathclyde, is hosting a group of social work students from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, as part of a long-standing departmental exchange. The song’s sentiments provide a good illustration of George Bernard Shaw’s observation that Britain and America are two nations “divided by a common language.” There’s no difference in the spelling of potato, nor of meaning, just of pronunciation. But these nuances are enough to jar with us – to get under our skin a bit.

The American students have to write reflective diaries, outlining their learning and their observations on living in a different country. Apart from some fairly stark distinctions between the individualistic emphasis of the US and the more collectivist traditions of Scotland, it’s small things they identify in their diaries – things like people in Glasgow not greeting one another, or the American students as they walk down the street. The initial reaction of the students was to think of Glaswegians as rude. Of course we found the opposite when we visited North Carolina last year. It can be disconcerting for socially reticent Scots to be treated like long lost friends by total strangers. It’s such experiences that help me get a handle on Leon Fulcher’s writing on the importance of cultural safety. Professionally too there can be differences in terminology and in some of the assumptions that underlie practice in the two countries. An easy reaction is to assume our own practices are somehow more enlightened and to expect others to see this in the taken for granted way that we do. To do so assumes that there are some universal measures or indicators of good or bad practice whereas the truth of the matter is that, in most cases, notions of good and bad are culturally contingent. When we start from a premise that professions like social work or Child and Youth Care can be understood or governed by universal standards or norms, we invariably start to judge others against these norms. We seek to judge rather than to understand. Yet real growth comes when we look to understand – when our curiosity drives us to become immersed in the wonder of other cultures and other ways of being in the world. When we allow ourselves to be open to the differences we encounter, we start to see things in a new light.

One of the American students, having identified her initial difficulty in coming to terms with the Scots' failure to make eye contact as she walked along the street, noted in a subsequent diary entry that Glaswegians were the kindest people on earth. Now as someone from Edinburgh, this is a bit hard to take. I mean Glaswegians – they don’t say either potAto or potato ...

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