Once upon a time, I ran away to the beautiful California Coastal town of Santa Cruz. Deer wandered along the highways. Stepping outside, the Ocean was in walking distance. Santa Cruz Mission… skaters and surfers… perhaps the most progressive campus in the University of California system sitting up on the hill… vegetarians (like me) all around… the farmlands of Castroville and Watsonville a short drive away… the best burritos I’ve ever had… and yet…
It was during this time, just as I was entering my 40s, that the notion of cultural diversity struck me hard… for the second time in my life.
A bit of background: I had spent the first 40 years of my life in Los Angeles, the first World City. I thought I was pretty skillful at communicating with “others” after decades of wanderings through the many and quite segregated communities of Los Angeles. I was actively involved in the ECE professional community, and had many opportunities to experience the often subtle communication variations across and within cultures. I learned that communication existed in ways beyond words.
I learned that when I accepted a business card from a Japanese national or member of the immigrant generation, it was proper to accept the business card with both hands. And likewise, it was proper to offer one’s own business card grasped gently with two hands.
I learned that colors conveyed meaning, most powerfully, when Shalisha looked at my clothes one morning (I was teaching 5th grade in Watts at the time) and said sweetly, “Your clothes are nice and all, but them ain’t our colors.”
I realized that I made statements about myself every day by the clothes I wear, the food I eat, the way I move. And I had become skillful enough navigating these bits of information, and thousands more like them, to find myself quite capable of adjusting my communication according to the situation. I communicated with my Mom, mindful of the cues of her gestures. I learned to communicate with young children honestly and to accept their honest words as just that, “Mr Greg, you’re a boy and a girl. You’re a boy but you have long hair” or “Greg, you don’t eat meat. I don’t eat meat too. You don’t eat meat because you’re a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat because I’m Jewish.” I learned to swagger (just a little bit) through the rougher neighborhoods to claim space. I listened to rap music and could pronounce Spanish words passably. I was a World City citizen.
Back to paradise::
But when I arrived in Santa Cruz, I found that there was so much more to learn! I came to associate with some significant community organizers. I learned a new vocabulary for meetings such as the term “stacker” – the person whose job was to watch the meeting participants and identify who was next in line to speak. I learned hand signals for communication, such as wiggling fingers to show agreement. More sophisticated hand signals included indicating by the number of fingers held up whether one strongly supported, supported, was neutral, opposed or strongly opposed. But I also learned that strong personalities could hijack a meeting.
Santa Cruz is noted for its homosexual population, primarily lesbians. I learned to pay attention to the words they used for their sexual orientation. In Santa Cruz, the preferred term was Queer.
But paying attention to become an effective communicator requires more than just learning vocabulary. One of my best friends at the time was a young queer woman. One day while she was enjoying some vegetarian snack or another, she suddenly said, in rapid succession, “Do-you-want-some-do-you-want-some-do-you-want-some?” Caught off guard, I must have had a look of confusion on my face. She continued. “I noticed that you never take anything if someone offers it unless they offer it three times. I thought I would just save time.” This young woman, who was “old and wise” enough to have escorted women to clinics that were being protested had also deciphered one of the peculiarities of my family culture.
I learned that our society can be quite intolerant of youth. I worked with youth on probation and was amazed at the ways in which adults gave messages to discourage them. There were the blatant methods – placing bumpers on handrails, curbs and walls to discourage skaters. There were subtler ones – playing classical music outside of storefronts to annoy their aesthetics. When working with these youth, I certainly used a different communication style than when working with preschoolers. I eventually developed a short list of unacceptable words and the youth and I agreed that we could live with the rest. “So, I can say fuck but not faggot?” “Yes dude.” One of these young men announced one day. “You’re my advocate. That makes me an advocee. Shit, I think I just invented a new word!” Oh yes, I learned some of the finer aspects of tagging and graffiti crews as well.
I listened to Chicana poets, revolutionaries, civic activists, community organizers, teachers, preschoolers, and teens. I played blacktop basketball with some Latino fellas that would arrive with a case of Modelo. I lived in a house full of 20-somethings (remember, I was in my 40s) – some were queer, some were just plain quirky (I am usually tossed in that category), one was a university student, a couple were homeless and for a while slept in my car in the driveway. I was truly navigating a vast sea of communication styles.
From all this, if I could distill my knowledge gained into a few simple strategies, they would be:
- Listen for vocabulary and how and when words are used in ways to convey more than just literal meaning.
- Watch for cues such as touch, personal space, clothing, gait, posture, eye contact.
- Wait for an invitation to inclusion when engaged in intergroup contact. Jumping in and proceeding as usual is as sure a sign of invoking privilege as I can think of.
- Reflect on meanings, histories, experience, environments, etc before making any rush to judgment. That’s a lot to consider – and provides ample opportunity for one to expand one’s experience and avoid being an ass (an allowed word).