Challenging Cultural Assumptions

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For some time now I’ve been part of a locally based group engaged in promoting dialogue and understanding between Muslims and Jews in Leeds.

It’s been a heartwarming and hugely positive and enjoyable experience. We’ve reached the point where we can tell jokes and laugh at our quirks (and have found that all religious jokes are essentially the same) but more importantly we now feel we know each other well enough to start to examine deeply held and long standing perceptions of the “other”.

I suppose it’s in the nature of such a gathering that the people participating are inherently liberal, open-minded, tolerant of difference and willing to try and understand puzzling aspects of another culture.

But in a group meeting the other day I pondered aloud to what extent I unconsciously make unfounded assumptions and hold distorted perceptions? Or, to use a more loaded word, to what extent might I still hold prejudices?

Interestingly I was not alone in wondering this, and someone else bravely raised the question of just how easy is it to listen and absorb and then act on information or alternative views to actually change a core belief?

We all like to think we are capable of changing, but recognizing these core beliefs is not necessarily easy.

So I was heartened today to have one long held but hitherto unconscious (or at least deeply buried) cultural assumption challenged in the course of my morning dog walk in the park.

Early morning dog walkers, joggers and walkers in general have a different social code to the rest of society during the rest of the day. Early morning dog walkers, joggers and walkers greet each other with a resoundingly energetic and enthusiastic “Good morning!”

It’s like being on the continent, greeting total strangers in this way. And it’s a nice start to the day, saying hello to the rest of the world. Just as I expect things might have been in the Olden Days when Life was Hard but People were Happy and Contented.

But this morning I was faced with sudden indecision as a fully hijab-veiled lady approached from the opposite direction. In the flashing seconds as we neared each other, I was embarrassed to not know what to do. I didn’t want to offend by not saying anything, but I didn’t want to offend by looking her squarely in the eye. I actually hadn’t a clue what might be culturally acceptable. And I was suddenly horribly and uncomfortably aware that I was assuming that ladies wearing a full hijab did not want to be looked at or noticed by outsiders.

My dilemma was resolved in the most delightful way possible. As our paths crossed, the lady called out to me cheerfully in the manner of a regular park stroller “Good morning!” And I was only too happy and eager to return the greeting.

And a second uncomfortable assumption had foundered. The belief, odd as it may sound, that a lady veiled with only her eyes showing would not want to say good morning to me.

How silly that I should have assumed any such thing.

How differently I will approach my next encounter with a heavily veiled woman.

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