Differences are something we’re all aware of, but how far do we go to actually understand them? There are “minor” differences among people who are easier to understand like different taste in clothes and style, favorite foods or foods one doesn’t like, and other such differences, which could seem to some to constitute preferences rather than actual differences, but that’s beside the point. When we move on to differences that involve cultural ideas and ways, we find that it becomes much harder for individuals to understand and accept those differences.
One example that comes to mind is where people have greeted another person in a different way than what that person is accustomed to causing a negative reaction on the part of the person being “wronged” because of what he/she is used to as the correct form of salutation. A second scenario that can further illustrate the scenario mentioned above is where two people from a small town are in a city and as they pass by others they stop to say hello, but receive no response. The tendency in this situation is for the small town individuals to find the city individuals rude for not responding to their salutation. A different example, but always portraying the reaction to different behavior and customs is when people complain and make comments because the person in front of them is walking “too slow”. Because this person does not rush to get where they are going, but strolls, they are deemed a burden or bothersome. Sometimes it doesn’t even stop there; the complaining individuals sometimes go as far as calling the “slow” walker names and judging the “slow” walker’s intelligence as well. Not everyone does this, but there are numerous people who do, believe me. The same reactive behavior and judgment are found in situations such as a mother and child’s way of expressing their love to each other, a young adult living at home, a young girl wearing make up, a man watching romance comedies, a man who doesn’t like sports, and the list could go on and on.
From my personal experience in regards to differences and reactions I have two examples. The first one was when I moved to a different country and accustomed to my old form of salutation, which was where I would say hello and good morning to any and all who walked by, I did the same in the new country. The locals would not respond and actually looked at me as if I were an odd ball. My initial reaction was to think that they were being rude. When I shared the experience with a friend who was a local, they told me that it was not custom in this country for you to say hello or good morning to strangers. As of that day I realized that differences in behavior and actions should not be judged so quickly, as we are all truly different in the way we think and are taught. The second example is actually going to introduce another factor to personal reactions towards differences besides what we are taught and used to; this factor is our expectations of something or someone. We tend to expect certain behaviors, actions and reactions; when we get the opposite, our initial response tends to entail disappointment and judgment. The example that illustrates expectation and reaction to differences from my life involves Jim Carry movies. I love Jim Carry movies and when I first started watching them the ones that were coming out were all comedy: Ace Ventura, Dumb and Dumber, and Liar Liar. When I went to watch The Man on the Moon I expected to see a comedy; instead I found the film quite contrary to a humorous one. I walked out of the theatre and thought, “What an awful movie! How can this be?” Then as I contemplated the movie, I stopped and said to myself, “Well, the movie wasn’t bad; I just thought I was going to see something funny.”
These two experiences and some others throughout my lifetime have taught me to think before I react. To truly place myself on the other side and to not assume I can know the person or reason for the situation. Throughout my life, as I’m sure your own, I have met many individuals that continuously make remarks about someone’s behavior, looks, status, or actions, based on their own ideas and culture. They judge people, claim that the other person is wrong and making mistakes, that the other person is “bad” or rude, and never really stop to try to understand or put themselves in that other person’s shoes. One of the hardest things to do for many of us is to step back when we’re making or are about to make a conclusion based on our preconceived notions and tell ourselves to just hold on a minute before we speak those untrue and judgmental words. Some people will not admit to judging or reacting from preconceived notions; they will always think that their words have meaning based on their reasoning and that therefore they are correct in their judging.
We are all taught notions and ideas from our parents, our society, our friends, our country, our leaders, and all others who are with us from the time we are born, who show us what they think we should be and how we should be. This is where we learn what should be done, what is right in behavior and actions and what is wrong. To blindly make assumptions and judgments based on ourselves is skewed from the start for we see and think with our ideas and what we have learned from our surroundings. To stop and reflect, to understand that different is not something wrong, to truly accept one for who they are without judging them is a step further to doing the same with our own person.
A passage from Dr. Carl Rogers’ book On Becoming a Person is perfect to close with and helpful in further explaining some of what I am trying to share with you.
“I have found that truly accepting another person and his feelings is by no means an easy thing, any more than is understanding. Can I really permit another person to feel hostile toward me? Can I accept his anger as a real and legitimate part of himself? Can I accept him when he views life and its problems in a way quite different from mine? Can I accept he feels very positively toward me, admiring me and wanting to model himself after me? All this is involved in acceptance, and it does not come easy. I believe that it is an increasingly common pattern in our culture for each one of us to believe, “Every other person must feel and think and believe the same as I do.” We find it very hard to permit our children or our parents or our spouses to feel differently than we do about particular issues or problems. We cannot permit our clients or our students to differ from us or to utilize their experience in their own individual ways. On a national scale, we cannot permit another nation to think or feel differently than we do. Yet it has come to seem to me that this separateness of individuals, the right of each individual to utilize his experience in his own way and to discover his own meaning in it, — this is one of the most priceless potentialities of life. Each person is an island unto himself, in a very real sense; and he can only build bridges to other islands if he is first of all willing to be himself and permitted to be himself. So I find that when I can accept another person, which means specifically accepting the feelings and attitudes and beliefs that he has as a real and vital part of him, then I am assisting him to become a person: and there seems to me great value in this.”