Australia is a diverse, multicultural society. Approximately 29% of the population are born overseas. We come from over 300 different ancestries, and Australia is home to the world’s oldest continuous culture.
Our different backgrounds define and unite us. Unfortunately, our differences are also used by some people or groups to divide us, and to create conflict. However, we can help others to counteract divisive messaging by showing them how to gain a deeper understanding of other cultures.
Below are some ideas you can share to help those in your life to build cross cultural understanding, as well as some examples of programs leading the way in breaking down cultural barriers.
It can be hard to step out of your comfort zone – especially if there are language barriers, but the best way to truly understand others (and not buy in to misrepresentations and stereotypes) is to spend time with people. All of us are complicated and have many layers to our lives. Think about the friends you already have – the first thing you may have noticed about them was how they differed from you – including their cultural background, but it’s unlikely that is now the focus of your friendship. The more you spend time with someone, the more you can focus on them as individuals, and on the interests you share.
Remember you are not just your background, and this applies to us all. Individuals don’t just define ourselves by our geography, religious beliefs, or ethnicity. You may share more in common with others than you think. You might like the same films, both be middle children, both not like school, both have the same job – the similarities could be endless, and could have little to do with your background. Likewise, disagreements or differences are more likely to be based on different personalities and interests, rather than someone’s cultural background.
When did you form your own ideas about a certain group or another person? Was it taught in school? Were you told about someone before you met them? Have you been accessing just the one source of media information? When you acknowledge that cultural stereotyping is common, and that we all carry around biases (however unintentional) we can begin to unpick those views, and encourage others to likewise acknowledge any bias they may have towards you.
A key part of cross cultural understanding is learning from each other’s stories. These stories aren’t just written – they are shared through art, music, poetry and song. Encourage people to seek out different sources of music and art from different cultures, but also to develop connection through shared passions for the same art, music etc.
Many cultures put nonverbal communication above words. For example, in parts of Asia, avoiding eye contact is a sign of respect, whereas in North America making eye contact is important. In Europe, a kiss on both cheeks is a common greeting, while a firm handshake shows respect in Australia. Understanding these differences will mean you are more likely to accept gestures not common to you.
Likewise, non-verbal communication can help you communicate when language is a barrier, as a large part of all communication is non-verbal. Consider how great sport is in uniting cultures – a game of football (soccer) uses very little verbal communication, but can break down barriers with ease.
The only way to truly know someone, and dispel any myths you may have heard, is to ask. If you ask with an open mind and genuine curiosity, you’ll most likely find that others will welcome your interest and the chance to explain things from their perspective.
Below are just a few of the many great programs that have been successful in developing cross cultural connections in NSW, as well as some stories that you can show those around you to help spark further interest in understanding more about others:
Together For Humanity works in schools to foster intercultural understanding.
Multicultural NSW: It’s My Story is a series of interviews from Multicultural NSW featuring outstanding members of the NSW community who make noteworthy contributions to our diverse society.
U and Me is a series of stories of friendship against the odds, produced by Why Documentaries in partnership with Multicultural Communities Council Illawarra and Multicultural NSW.
All Together Now is an anti-racism charity, which has developed the Apps Everyday racism and Kids Racism, which offer users a journey to better understand others by walking in the shoes of someone else for seven days.
SBS Cross cultural competency program is a series of study guides designed to build capability around inclusion & cultural diversity in Australia. Primarily for students, but also useful for youth workers and other professionals.
If you need advice on how best to help someone you care about, call our Step Together helpline workers on 1800 875 204, 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.