Are you suffering from Diversity Pain?

Posted: 12 June 2016 in Cultural, Haiti, Understanding Others
Tags: , ,

Close togetherness – getting about in Haiti

When I work in a place like Haiti, I met people who are quite different.   Duh – no surprise then.  Ah – but that included the expats.  There’s not just the obvious Expat-Haitian difference.  But also sundry Brits, Americans of various parts, Swiss, Germans.  Kids (defn: people younger than my kids), grandfathers (the guy I meet in the mirror) , long marrieds, singles, etc. Bizarrely, understanding is more accident prone where I share a common mother tongue but where the backgrounds are different.  Why? Because I think I understand, but I understand less than I think.  Where no offense is meant, offence is unwittingly served – hot and pungent.


I felt it easier with some recent Norwegian visitors, as I did in Haiti working with the German speakers.  Their English is good. But because it is not perfect, each sentence can be more easily taken for just what it says.  For native speakers, the speed of exchange is far higher, and so is easier to be unguarded or make faux pas.  And always carries shades of meaning, meant but not taken, or taken but not meant- quelle horreur!

We work hard to get round all this, but “work” it is.  There is an emotional overhead with “diversity”; dealing with difference, and dealing with it close up, face to face, daily, working for common causes.  Every day is requires effort.  So, in highly heterogeneous situations, the sense of being in a shared group becomes more intense because it is not so commonly found.  And of course -feeling outside of a shared group, of alienation, becomes more common.

This is not really about Haiti, where beyond the NGO reach, it is quite mono-cultural.  This issue is far more bigger back in dear ol’ Blighty.  And alas, is a real hot potato in the EU referendum.   How to live with Diversity: in the office, in the school, in the social network or churches, is becoming a bigger issue, though one that’s been on the scene since The War.  Robert Puttnam’s Bowling Alone describes the ongoing decline in social capital in the US since 1960.  Existing social networks also reinforces homogeneity in terms of race, sex, religion, social class and age. Birds Of A Feather for anyone?  And research shows that this starts right from the pre-school years.

I wondered if social media makes this worse?  Or perhaps accelerates this side-by-side-yet-separate living?  It seems yes, but far less than we imagine.  Dunbar in Social Cognition on the internet (2012) found that social media cannot really extend the number of real friendships beyond ~150.  What they did find is that the social media is psychologically powerful in maintaining and reinforcing exiting links with already established friends far away.  So – social media will not accelerate the scattering of social networks into thousands of little niche worlds.  But neither will it homogenize and link hitherto alien groups together.  Soc-med does not open up new vistas of human connectedness.  It keeps the disparate groups ticking over just fine.

Managing diversity is a real problem.  For businesses in managing multicultural, multi-age teams, and schools or churches with different pulls on their programmes.  It has become a core issue in the EU referendum. And the very existence of our nation (Brexit leading to Scotxit?).

All this has been with us, in increasing strength since The War refugees and The Empress Windrush. Political Correctness has been around for a while to try and cope with this, alongside its sister, Equal Opportunities.  People Management (human resources press) is full of this stuff, and understandably so – as people can go to court over any of this – and frequently do.

When my father married a war refugee with a child from another man 60-70 years ago – that was exotic, or disgusting, depending on your point of view.   When John F Kennedy became US President, as a Roman catholic – that was daring.  Such diversity, such exceptionalism then is now quite normal. Ordinary.  But I wonder now whether we are giving up to cope with the new (much larger) varieties.  We are beginning to suffer Diversity Pain, and we are failing to cope with the prospect of “otherness”, let alone genuine refugees?

John Cleese has spoken out against Political Correctness.  And he got a lot of cheer for this.  In reality he was speaking against its extension from Honest-To-God fairness to a juvenile denial of adult debate.  There is a backlash long in the coming against PC.  Let’s not lose its original purpose.

So: 2½ cheers for PC.  It can be anal but let’s manage Diversity Pain.


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