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On Culture and the Discussion that Isn’t

January 29, 2011

Welcome to an uncharacteristic weekend-rant-post regarding a couple of things I’ve read this week that have made me unreasonably angry. Two words: cultural sensitivity.


5 points for spotting a cultural sensitivity.


We all know that some of the greatest hurdles to overcome in the office, on site or anywhere in life, really, are culture differences.  In businesses which trade in expat professionals, specifically, it is common to work with people from all over the planet, and communicating sometimes has hidden innuendo that is hard to understand.  In fact understanding those differences is what this blog is all about, and I trust that those who read me regularly understand, that while I want to understand someone else’s context, I always try to throw in a little common sense to make sure that the pendulum doesn’t swing too far one way or the other.

Which these two stories obviously don’t do.


Case 1.  Ms. Fan v. UBC Regarding a Hospice in her Backyard (via Crommunist)


My culture isn’t your culture, but my culture is better.

“Plans for a hospice on the University of British Columbia campus have been put on hold after some neighbourhood residents said the proposed facility offended their cultural sensitivities around death and dying.  […] “It is all about cultural sensitivity,” said Ms. Fan, a Chinese-born immigrant who lives in a high-rise near the proposed hospice site. ‘We came here as new immigrants with our own belief system. And in our beliefs, it is impossible for us to have dying people in our backyard.'”

So Ms. Fan is worried that the hospice might inconvenience her and her neighbours, and doesn’t want it in her backyard at the expense of – who? – people who can’t help themselves?  Look, Ms. Fan, I am going to try and look past the fact that your beliefs seem founded less in traditionally Asian beliefs (which the Chinese immigration group Success has said don’t necessarily dictate superstition about death and dying anyway) than in fiscal or convenience desires, and I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.  Yet even when I do that, all I can see is someone who is placing the importance of their “beliefs” above the lives of others.

This is dangerous, and no matter how much I try to see things from your point of view, I know that I can only respect your beliefs (which I certainly wish to do) if they are not to the detriment of someone else.

So let’s let the pendulum swing back the other way for:


Case 2.  Ms. Williams-Bolar v. her School District (via In My Flippie Floppies)


My culture is better, but it isn’t your culture… got it?

“An Ohio mother of two was sentenced to 10 days in jail and placed on three years probation after sending her kids to a school district in which they did not live.  […] The court determined that sending their children to the wrong school was worth $30,500 in tuition.  […] ‘Because of the felony conviction, you will not be allowed to get your teaching degree under Ohio law as it stands today,’ the judge said.”

Let’s leave the black-white discrimination thing out of it for the moment and ask the question: if you met someone who wants a better future for their kids, and who was actively trying to better herself through education, would you go out of your way to stop them from having that?  The Western culture I grew up in, work in, and will raise my kids in values education immensely.  We kn0w that educated people earn more, are happier and live longer, and we are constantly promoting programs which disseminate the value of education (like this one in Canada, this one in Australia or this one in the States).  I know people who actively hold their kids back for the developmental reasons outlined in Gladwell’s Outliers, and yet this woman is not allowed to place the same value on her children’s education as we are?  I don’t care what colour she is, where she is from, or what her reasons are – if she is willing to try and get her kids a better education then how could anyone go out of their way to punish her?  A slap on the wrist for exposing the discrepancies between schools, sure, a charge for disregarding a law, alright, but denying her the right to finish her own education?!?

OK, Judge Cosgrove, I’m trying to see things from your point of view, but I can’t see that taking away the right to a better education for both these kids and their mother is anything but hurtful.


I know both these situations are complex, but I’m putting it out there that sometimes my blog’s purpose (understanding the context of someone else’s decision/view) is unattainable in light of my own context.  I’d just like to see a little consideration of the other side and perhaps some critical thinking when applying the rules or pushing one’s own beliefs.

Why not try our cultures are different, let’s chat?



One of my favourite things about blogging is the discussion it generates, and after discussion with a few people on this topic, I feel I need to clarify my stance regarding case 2.  I believe that ‘cue-jumping’ is inappropriate, and I wholly agree that breaking the rules for one’s own benefit is wrong.  The point I am debating here is the fact that the judge, by charging her with a felony, took away Ms. Williams-Bolar’s right to graduate.

I feel there is a difference between reasonable punishment and breaking someone down because you can.

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