One of my best-ever friends, Sviatlana, is Belarusian. She is very clever, passionate, and interested in the world around us and although we didn’t argue often, our conversations were robust.
One day, a few years ago, we were sitting in a café in Dubai chatting, enjoying the warm weather when the conversation turned to a news report about an aircraft accident at a London airport. A report by the UK Government had just been issued and without any of the details we managed to have an argument.
I was not surprised that she wanted to talk about it. Anything to do with airplanes crashing was of great interest to her as she was at the start of her life as cabin crew with Emirates.
Sviatlana said that it was obviously a cover up and one of, the plane was unsafe, or air traffic control had cocked up, or it hadn’t been serviced properly or some other institutional mistake.
I said that the report by the CAA in the UK would be honest and factual and if there was something more then be sure that an investigative reporter for our free press would uncover it very quickly.
We were in mid argument when I raised a hand to stop the discussion.
‘You understand,’ I said, ‘that neither of us know for sure what happened. We are arguing about this from our cultural perspectives.’
Sviatlana had been educated in Belarus in a Russian inspired educational system. Politics in Belarus are dominated by a single party set up with a President (really a dictator) who gets into power with over 90% of the vote. Until she had left Belarus she had been fed the news the way the State wanted her to read it. Education was as much indoctrination as exploration. She assumed that anything the Government says is propaganda with truths massaged. That was her default position. She had assumed that the report we were reading was total fabrication
On the other hand, I was the product of a Yorkshire born, brought up in South London, white middle class who had done quite well and assumed honesty and openness until our free press tells me otherwise.
We started from very different perspectives and were arguing about our bias.
I am still learning about the way Eastern Europeans think and their expectations on ‘appropriate behaviours’. As you may know I am engaged to a Ukrainian and like all other couples, sometimes Sasha and I also argue.
Sasha is Ukrainian, educated in the Ukrainian school system and when she was at school, Ukraine was still part of the USSR. It was certain to colour her perceptions of the world in front of her every bit as much as my public-school education colours mine.
We are now good at recognising when our divergence of opinion is due to our backgrounds and this I have now learnt is known as ‘Cultural Literacy’. Early in our relationship we discussed these cultural prejudices and the effect it could have on us. We try and recognise these as our relationship develops. I won’t say it is easy, but it is essential, however difficult, to differentiate and separate substance from background prejudice.
I might be culturally more literate in Ukrainian, but I guess I would be lousy at Chinese, Patagonian and nearly every other the 200 plus countries in the UN.
I once worked in Holland and found the Dutch far too direct for my liking thinking that they lacked the subtly of the British approach. I know now a few more Dutch folk, and it is getting better. I understand them but still often double take.
I carry stereotypes of most Europeans. Don’t get me talking about the French and their arrogance, or the discipline and rules of the Germans, the laziness of the Spanish who sleep for two hours every lunch time or the Greeks who meet for dinner closer the midnight than seven o’clock. And the Americans, far too pally with more chat than action.
The reality is that until I live in the culture I will never achieve a universal or global cultural literacy. I am finding it quite enough to learn about Ukrainian culture let alone what it is like today to be brought up and live in Huddersfield.
Other than for my love life, why is this important?
For the last year the British have been in the middle of a complex set of negotiations with 27 other countries over Brexit. We are not just negotiating with the EC commission but finally also with the parliament of all the member countries.
We might even end up with a piece of paper signed by all the Prime Ministers and Presidents, we might even end up with a clutch of new trade agreements, but it will not be total harmony.
Believe me, cultural literacy takes a life time.