Monday, 5 May 2014

Cultural understanding: a safer world in female hands?

“Everyone speaks English”. There is a tendency for the Americans, British and Irish to dominate meetings. Meeting styles and etiquette vary from country to country.  Silence does not always mean agreement. Attempting to learn another language teaches you respect for those who confidently or bravely speak yours at the very least. Listening with cultural sensitivity is the most important skill of all.

A thaw, please?
It is precisely because I have studied other languages and cultures that I am uneasy about the rhetoric from the US towards Russia. Threats only hasten another Cold War or worse. We need a thaw on the Russian side for dialogue. Was it not a Russian who won enormous respect in the Western World for initiating the end of the Cold War? Why as we approach the 100th Anniversary of the First World War, do we appear to be on a slippery slope towards the Third? Why can’t Putin and Obama have a fireside chat like Gorbachev and Reagan?

We all have loved ones
Are we going backwards? Is there a lack of cultural understanding here? Despite cultural differences, it is important to remember that the other side have loved ones they really care about too. Today, every world crisis beams the dead, dying and distraught live into our living rooms. We see the suffering of the Syrian children and displaced refugees in our homes.

In any crisis, it is important to remember that wounds can take generations to heal. Children learn at their grandfather’s knee of past crimes and injustices. I remember how my own grandmother spoke with vitriol about Germans. During the Second World War, she defiantly stated that she preferred the comfort of her own bed to that of the Anderson shelter. "The Germans could bomb her in her bed if they were going to". Yet, my fiery Welsh grandmother could not hate the German exchange student who visited us decades later. Ingrid was a child like any other - no different to her own grandchildren.

Rhetoric and misery
Heavy-handed political rhetoric can come back to haunt us. That is not to say that we should appease a murderous foreign leader. We know the lasting misery caused by the Holocaust, and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and Rwanda. Old wounds have come back to haunt Ireland this week. When will Israel and Palestine achieve lasting peace?

I am surprised that the first African American US President would make jokes about his Kenyan roots. Ghanaian Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, speaks English, French and several tribal languages. Barack Obama apparently speaks none.

I was appalled to read that the US President has jokingly made reference to the missing Malaysian plane. How insensitive. Those poor families from China and other nations may wait years to know the true fate of their loved ones.

I remember the Swiss Air Disaster of 1973. At the time, I lived in Axbridge, Somerset (UK). Forty local children lost their mothers. The suffering and repercussions lasted long after the Media scrum had left the village square. They were able to bury the dead in Somerset at least.

My own mother could have easily have been on that shopping trip to Basle. My best friend’s mother was one of just 37 who survived out of 140 on the flight. I still remember how we listened in numb shock for further news on the radio. We didn’t wait as long as the distraught relatives in Malaysia. We all remember seeing a family friend on TV. The newly widowed father of three young girls wandered in shock among the coffins. The Swiss were very generous, but our local community was devastated.

Unprofessional humour
In recent weeks, I have been astounded by some of the rhetoric and cultural faux pas emanating from Washington. Self-deprecating humour is common in Britain and America. However, it is regarded as unprofessional elsewhere. I am lucky to live in a democratic country. In Britain and America, we can question the behaviour of our leaders. So Mr President, I do not believe that the leader of the Western World should act like a stand-up comedian on camera. The eyes and ears of the world are always on you. As you joked, they were still retrieving children’s bodies from the South Korean ferry disaster.

Quiet female diplomacy
While the rhetoric is flying over Ukraine, a British woman is working more quietly and effectively for peace in the world’s troubled spots. She may not be a polyglot or full of rhetoric, but respect for other cultures and quiet tenacity behind the scenes can take you far. Catherine Ashton has risen from a Northern working-class background to become the much respected, first High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission.

Progress is slow in the world of diplomacy. It can take generations. It can also be destroyed in an instant. If we want more peace in the world, it seems that we need less rhetoric and more women in high positions.

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