Some years ago I worked in a social work team where one of the social workers came from Glasgow. Now this team was in southern England, nearly as far from Scotland as you could get. When a newly qualified social worker joined us who also happened to be from Glasgow it was assumed that these two would have a natural understanding, and were put together for supervision purposes. After all they were both from the same country and a long way from home, and the older more experienced social worker would surely be the ideal one to support the new worker?
What, in our southern ignorance, we did not realise was that they came from opposite sides of Glasgow. Opposite cultures within the same city. Opposing football teams to support. Natural enemies even.
Fortunately their professionalism enabled them to overcome the differences in their cultures, and no doubt shake their heads at the southerners’ ignorance.
It’s easy to make assumptions like that.
Even in the setting up of asylum teams in the 1990’s we made the same mistakes. There was somehow an assumption that because asylum seekers were in the same situation, escaping war torn countries, it was sometimes overlooked that they had escaped from opposing countries in the same war! With hindsight it was obvious, but what foolish mistakes were made at the time.
While I was travelling in Siberian Russia for a while I happened to stay for a week in a town where I was the first European they had seen in living memory. The evening before I was leaving a young English backpacker arrived in a bar on the other side of town. Immediately telephone calls were made and mechanisms put in place to put us in touch with each other. Let’s call him Jay. It was naturally assumed, that being from the same country, we would want to meet up and talk.
Actually it was good to meet Jay, less because we were both English than because we were both travellers and could compare travel notes. Having the same first language was merely an advantage.
The impression was given that if two Russians found themselves alone in a foreign country they would want to meet. But I wonder if that is true?
Jay and I were several years apart in age, he was a recent graduate taking a gap year while I had studied in later life, he came from a relatively privileged background while I definitely originated from “working class” stock. I was travelling by car, he was backpacking. Back in England it was unlikely we would have naturally met up and socialised.
Staying in an Andean village, well stuck actually due to a breakdown, the villagers would come rushing over saying “amigo, amigo?” every time another European passed through. The same assumptions were being made.
On another occasion I met two young English girls in a backpackers’ hostel in Costa Rica. Well, I say ‘met’, but that is probably too strong a word for it. We happened to be staying in the same dorm room in the same hostel. They were clearly completely confounded to find someone old enough to be their mother, maybe even their grandmother, staying in such a hostel and never managed to look me in the eye such was their complete inability to know how to handle such a situation.
Age, class (yes it still exists), wealth, education, employment, sociability, family, sexual orientation, geographical location, politics, religion, hobbies and interests. These and more are all potential divisive factors even in our home countries. Sure, they can all be overcome, but how many times have I seen police and ‘front line’ social and health workers gravitate to share socialising because their jobs bring them into natural contact and there is a sense of safety in that familiarity? And why is it unusual to see CEOs down the pub with the postman or plumber?
I’m not suggesting its right or wrong, it just is. The lovely people in that small Siberian town might be surprised at how different the lives are of people from Moscow, and that maybe the mere sharing of the same language is not a foundation for anything more than a brief passing friendship, just as was my contact with Jay.
Scottish, English, African, Latin American, indigenous; wealthy and poor; young and old; educated or not (which has nothing to do with intelligence); capitalist, environmentalist, socialist; and more. We are all a mixture of different ingredients, unique in our own way. As we practice that difference in our own lives, let us also remember the differences in those we work with, both as colleagues and clients.