From Stumbling Blocks to Wider Roads
My name is Sujata Banerjee.
I am a Bengali. Therefore, I love fish curry, enjoy melodrama and break into Tagore songs and poems at the slightest provocation, among other things. I like that these assumptions are being made about me, even before my counterpart gets to know any personal details, as this often leads to entertaining conversations and the comparing/matching of regional behavioural patterns.
This works beautifully as an icebreaker, leveraging positive stereotypes as a starting point for meaningful, individualizing exchanges.
Hopefully, it is not a communication ending point, where the labelling sets in.
Actually, I was born in Deep Down South Germany, and my parents soon added a pinch of Italy to my garam masala mix of early cultural experiences. My passport has always been blue, which led to long queues lining up behind us nearly everywhere, while airport immigration officers thumbed through our documents. Their existential questions ranged from “Why are you here?” to “Why did you come back?”. Listening to my parents´ patient explanations led to a Lot of overthinking in later years.
Growing up in Germany, my parents constantly reminded me to speak every language I acquired on the way with the assurance of a native speaker, which was supposed to minimize misunderstandings in my respective environments. In spite of this, I felt that whenever I was communicating in German, I was increasing rather than reducing ambiguity. Was this due to the fact that I was trying to pour the entire, undistilled quantity of my cultural experiences into my communication, instead of working on adapting them to the contextual understanding of my counterparts?
My German classmates had heard from their parents that India was a hot, poor, illiterate and peace-loving country. There was an ongoing debate among the grownups on whether the peace-loving part was a result of the heat, illiteracy and poverty.
Nearly everywhere we visited, we were offered stewed chicken along with canned peaches, pineapples and a yellow sauce that was supposed to “taste like home”.
Everyone was quite friendly and seemed to be waiting for us to say or do something interesting.
My parents took this with a pinch of salt, but I began to feel very uncomfortable and shared this, as always, with my maternal Grandfather. Three aerogram exchanges later, we had come up with a plan. Perhaps words could create a form of reality, instead of the other way round?
So that´s how I launched my first perception-altering experiment at my German primary school.
I gradually began to replace my classmates´ “information, legitimized through parental experts” by conjuring up images and shaping expectations about the “other” life I lived whenever I mysteriously disappeared to India.
My classmates came home retelling my tales of dense green jungles sprinkled with carnivorous orchids and vegetarian hermits, universities in (!) trees and toy trains on dining tables, of being befriended by peacocks, elephants and milk-loving cobras whenever I ventured outdoors, and of sharing imported chocolate bars with neighbourhood monkeys on our rooftop terrace. I thoroughly romanced India for my classmates, and THEIR parents began to complain to MY parents that their children were demanding to be taken there, at a time when traveling any further than Italy seemed unnecessary.
Perhaps I ought to mention that there were no other Indians within a radius of 80 miles who could have contradicted my narrative. I also happened to be the only non-white child around, which meant that I was very different. To my classmates with whom I had shared “my India”, I was very special.
I knew that my Father had not always felt welcome during his first visit to Germany as a student. But those were the mid - 1940´s, and his German contemporaries were still reeling from the impact of the War. However, he often experienced instances of curiosity and open questions about societal and cultural life in India, and he responded to these invitations to engage with appreciation, empathy and patience.
In later years, he would unhappily listen to stereotypes that had fast-forwarded to the stage of prejudice, in both Germany and India. He grew allergic to questions starting with “Isn´t it true that” or “Why do they” and encouraged conversations beginning with “Could you tell me what you think about...?”. He put both respect for his experience in Germany and respect for his seniority in India to good use, trying to combat the misconceptions that he considered to be harmful for both societies. He was thanked for his guidance, but hardly anything changed. I watched him growing tired of having to respond to the same communication patterns, over and over again.
I began to doubt my childhood experiment. Could positive stereotypes effectively replace negative ones, or did they only add a layer on top of what continued to lie underneath?
Why did we so often try to come up with culturally sensitive ways of asking questions differently (often with an agenda attached), instead of asking different questions?
By the time I continued my higher education in Germany, I was sure that the usual behavioural survival techniques of mimicry or conforming to more or less acceptable patterns were not my cup of (preferably Darjeeling) tea.
Instead, I came up with a mixture of both, as well as something new, which was survival through communication. My German slowly acquired the informed, highbrow, and modulation characteristics of a successful TV news anchor. With this communication style, any thoughts I voiced came across as intellectually superior (smooth trick). It even worked with professors. Especially after I chose Rhetoric as my M.A. honours subject, they didn´t stand a chance, as long as I stuck to German. I easily out-snobbed the snobs. I tried really hard to give my environment something to think about, to spark something, to share. But through my choice of communication pattern, I seemed to be telling them what to think.
As the result of my experiences and experiments, I became increasingly curious about stereotypes and even concentrated my thesis around them. My German professor was very unhappy with my subject choice, as “any German student could have come up with this. Why didn´t you, as an Indian with such a multi-cultural background, choose something more original”? I thanked my Guru for his guidance and carried on writing my thesis on stereotypes.
These anecdotes come to my mind when I think about what I do, and where this came from.
These are some of the things I try to remember as a multilingual communication practitioner:
I should carefully examine how strongly my use of language influences my perception of reality and vice versa. Whenever I am communicating with others, I should feel co-accountable about the outcome.
It is not enough to layer positive stereotypes over negative ones, I need to sensitively address what´s at the bottom of the famous iceberg. That´s where the critical mass is.
When I encounter assumptions, I should not respond with over-explanations or negations. Putting assumptions into context and inviting the audience to view them through a different lens nearly always works, - and it is far less exhausting.
I should consider the speech patterns of my audiences and adapt my own accordingly, as an open invitation for them to participate at eye level.
I should not try to tell people what to think, but rather give them something to think about, even if they don´t like it.
Ideally, I should not only advise my participants on how to start asking questions differently. I should encourage them to ask different questions.
And finally (interestingly, this quote has been attributed to both the Gautama Buddha and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe):
Out of the stumbling blocks that lie in my path, I can build wider roads to travel on.
Sujata has 28+years of work experience. Her main areas are Strategic Communication, Leadership, DEI, Virtual Collaboration, country-specific workshops across Europe and Asia and expat coaching. She is an International Business lecturer since 2010. She feels @home at home and abroad.