One of my favourite things about teaching English is the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and learn about different cultures. I’ve been teaching English for 23 years now and I wonder how many nationalities I’ve met! Over 50 face-to-face, I think, and maybe 100 if I include conversations on social media!
One thing I’ve learnt is that people are far more the same than they are different, no matter where they are from. There are jokes that make everybody laugh. There are things that make everybody sad. People want and need the same basic things. With a little bit of English, we can generally have conversations on many topics without any misunderstanding, because people are basically the same all over the world. Amazing!
Another thing I’ve learnt is that, unfortunately, people sometimes have wrong ideas and impressions about other countries. Let me give you an example. In some countries, there are arranged marriages and some British people don’t understand how this works. They think that it means that young people are forced to marry against their wishes. I’ve had lots of students who have explained to me that an arranged marriage in their country is much more like having their family help them to find a suitable husband or wife and that they can always say no.
British people tend to think that women are treated as second-rate citizens in certain countries. (I don’t want to say the countries in case I cause offence!) But I’ve taught men from those countries and they have always treated me with respect. I talked to the women too and learnt how their husbands, fathers and brothers treasure them and take care of them. (Of course, I know that there are places in the world where women are treated very badly. There are bad people who do bad things all over the world. But most people are good and today, I just want to focus on this issue of preconceived ideas.)
British people are not the only ones who get things wrong. I’ve also heard plenty of things about Britain that are not actually true. A while ago, I posted something on Facebook about how adult students can call their teachers by their first names. One or two people actually got upset with me about this post! In some other countries, this would be a sign of disrespect but in Britain it’s OK. This doesn’t mean that British people don’t respect their teachers. It just means that they show their respect in different ways.
Another example of a cultural difference is the use of care homes. In the UK, people are living longer and longer, and sadly, this means they often have complex health problems, including dementia. Some old people end up living in care homes. Over the years, a number of people from other countries have suggested to me that this means we don’t care about or respect the elderly in Britain. This just isn’t true!
People in Britain don't put their parents into an old people's home to get them out of the way so they don't have to look after them, even though TV programmes and films might give that impression! This is a very difficult decision for a family to make and it usually happens as a last resort when the family can no longer manage. A lot of old people, especially those with dementia, need round-the-clock specialist nursing that they can only get in a care home.
Sometimes it’s actually the elderly person’s own decision to move into a care home. My parents looked after my grandmother for a long time. My brother helped a lot too but I lived too far away - another common issue in this country. We tried hiring a carer so my grandmother could stay in her own home but she hated it. She didn’t want to be dependent on my parents either. In the end, she actually chose to move into a care home.
I follow an American teacher on Facebook and I recently saw a post he made about yard sales. This is where people sell things they no longer need from their front yard (or garden in British English). Lots of people commented that he should have given the things to the poor instead. Well, different countries have different ways of doing things and we shouldn’t say who is right or wrong. We can’t fully understand another country if we’ve never lived there.
In the UK and America, we can’t just walk into a poor community and give them the things we no longer need. It’s true that we perhaps don’t have quite the same levels of poverty as in some countries but poverty definitely exists. It’s not that visible. We can’t easily give things directly to those who need them but there are some churches and organisations that collect unwanted clothes and furniture and give them to people who need them. We also have food banks here. People with plenty can donate food and this is given to families who are in need.
We don’t often have yard sales in Britain but we do have car boot sales where people can sell stuff from the back of their car. A lot of the things people get rid of in yard and car boot sales would be of absolutely no use to the poor. They need food and clothing, not old paintings, DVDs and jewellery. In the UK, we give these sorts of things to a charity shop. The shop sells them and then uses the money to help people. Some people who sell their stuff in a yard or car boot sale might give the money to charity.
In Britain, we have a lot of charities. Some of them have annual TV shows which raise an enormous amount of money for charity. Some of this money helps people in Britain and some of it helps people in poorer countries. I imagine it’s similar in the States. So people here do like to help others but we do it in a different way.
So my message for you is that we shouldn’t believe everything we hear about other countries and cultures! Films and TV shows don’t give an accurate picture. And we mustn’t be too quick to judge or criticise other people for doing things differently. I’m including myself in this!
How can we avoid judgement and misunderstandings? First, we just need to keep an open mind and be aware that these differences exist! Second, let’s keep communication open, ask each other questions and learn from one another. My Facebook group is a great place to do this!
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