Have you ever heard a story, in most cases an urban legend, something like this, “If you sit with your foot on your knee in such-and-such country, the locals take it as an insult”? Most of us have heard similar stories by the score. How do such stories emerge and become legends? Are they just the workings of an over active imagination, or are they something else?
Sometimes they are based on truth, but more likely they are not. They are just misconceptions that have bred and fed on themselves to take a life of their own. Before you know it, these stories with little or nothing to support them become accepted as facts. Sensational reporting doesn’t help matters either. Because people don’t want boring stories, news sells only if it’s sensationalized. Through both social and print media, which may not be policed at all for truthfulness, the material we come across usually does not paint an accurate picture of a country and its culture.
Nothing Can Be Better than a First-Hand Experience
To understand a culture, first-hand experience is essential. For this purpose, countries like the USA initiate cultural exchange programs through which artists, filmmakers, musicians, poets, etc., from different countries meet one another. Cultural exchanges directly or indirectly address matters of global concern. These include tolerance, conflict resolution, awareness of human rights, importance of art and craft, freedom of creative expression, etc.
Cultural expos and other such cultural exchange programs supply a unique opportunity for nations to introduce their culture to the rest of the world.
Of course, there are misconceptions on both sides of the global divide. But since we have no means to filter the authentic from the inauthentic, ill-conceived ideas about those who are strange multiply and persist. So what can be done about it? One solution is cultural exchange programs, such as cultural festivals and expos, etc., which could be organized to bridge gaps between countries.
As an example, DeMonfort University in Leicester, England, will hold its 13th Cultural Exchange Festival to exchange ideas and beliefs multilaterally. During one week each year, this event hosts more than 3,000 people, and the number is growing. Talks and discussions occur on formal and informal levels, as individuals from one country meet and speak with individuals from other countries.
Alliance, an American cultural exchange community, organizes cultural exchanges between residents of the US and other countries to promote and understand indigenous cultures from all over the world. Displays of art and culture in varied genres attract not only artists to such programs but also aficionados who simply appreciate art and want to add something positive to their own lives.
These are just two examples of many efforts being made multilaterally. The U.S Department of State also offers exchange programs involving students and faculty from various countries.
How Language Comes into Play
One of the biggest obstacles at such events is the language barrier. At the Leicester festival, booths of bi-lingual and multilingual volunteers help any two, three or more people converse by interpreting for them. As bi-bilingualism has become indispensable in today’s world, such events can be made more fruitful by engaging translators and interpreters for better communication between people from across the globe.
We can cast a casual glance around the world and easily see conflict everywhere we look. It is obvious that we’re in trouble globally and that we must do something about it. But stopping global and local problems must begin with ending misunderstandings and false conceptions of differences. Each of us needs to step up and put a stop to misconceptions abounding worldwide. If anything can reduce or eliminate misunderstandings, it has to take place on a grassroots level with the common people, each one committed to finding truth and accepting cultural differences. Learning other languages is a necessary step to achieving global understanding.