I work in a company that employs people coming from all around the world. Two and a half years of lunches in the kitchen, and plenty of coffee breaks, have taught me many tiny interesting things about other people’s cultures, religions and habits.
I’ve learnt that people coming from the same country often have many things in common. That, despite what I thought I knew about myself, I am much more Italian than I’d expected and that I, as well, share several attitudes and habits with my fellow countrymen and women. No matter how flexible I am in adapting to new cities, new food, to the new country.
What’s more important, though,
I’ve learnt that there is no bigger mistake than thinking in stereotypes
and addressing accordingly to colleagues and potential friends. No matter how many distinctive characteristics two people from the same country may have in common.
I have several Italian colleagues. It is very common to find us moving in groups of three or four towards the kitchen, claiming that we-absolutely-need-to-make-coffee. It is also common, when some other colleague enters the kitchen and catches us red-handed, to hear him/her addressing to us like: “Aaah, here it is, the Italian mafia!”. Same refrain over and over again, sarcastic smiles on their faces – “Do they think they’re funny?” we Italians ask ourselves.
At some point, my friend and colleague A. and I felt very bothered, and started asking colleagues to simply not call us like this anymore. We tried to be polite, as we sensed that other people did not mean to be rude nor offensive to us; nevertheless, we were firm in explaining that mafia is no joke, that there is nothing funny about it and definitely, nothing we Italian employees do to deserve to be called “mafiosi”. Even as a joke.
I must say, it’s improving. Anyway, that’s not the point.
The point is I’ve seen how easy it can be to stereotype. To have no clue about a culture, its problems, its wounds and, yet, use them for a good (?) laugh at a bar – or in the company’s kitchen. Without realizing that those wounds may cause shame and discomfort, even raise bad memories. I may have done the same to some other friend of mine, as far as I know.
A couple of days ago, I watched the new Royal Jordanian Airlines spot against discrimination. A spot about the fear of flying… but a much deeper fear.
People in a plane. Eyes staring at something, preoccupied, tense. Fingers drumming fretfully on the armrests. Surly gazes. A voice in the background.
… “I am afraid I end up somewhere I don’t wanna go,
of being stuck in a place where people will look at me differently…
… I am afraid of the ifs…
what if something wrong happens and they don’t believe me?”
And there it hit me. How could I be so blind? I DID catch myself getting scared for one moment, every now and then, I DID feel myself getting slightly anxious because of a beard, of an olive-coloured face: on a train, at a concert, at the airport.
Even after experiencing what it means to be unfairly compared to the worst lot of my country, after being hurt by this kind of behaviour (and, yet, I know it’s just jokes, I know nobody really thinks I am a mafiosa), I couldn’t be bothered to look at things from another perspective. Until now. I had never wondered how it must be: a beard, a book, a turban, perhaps, and all we can see – all I can see – is a terrorist. I am ashamed.
Enough is enough. We can – we must end it.
We never really put ourselves in their shoes, do we?
Images from www.adweek.com and www.socialsamosa.com/.