This past Wednesday, November 4, Champlain College in collaboration with the Trent International Program hosted the first of a four-part series of talks centered on diversity and fostering community. The first talk, ‘Diversity and Friendship,’ was discussion-based with the purpose of providing a space for students and faculty to talk about their experiences in multicultural settings and learn from each other.

The talk was led by Kyllie Jansen, the International Student Advisor at Trent University and a self-defined ‘third-culture kid.’ Both domestic and international students were in attendance, providing for an enriching and diverse setting that incorporated a range of experiences and perspectives.

The first activity, one that has become a staple for the Trent International Program’s events, asked students to split into groups of five and find ten things that all members of the group had in common. The activity allowed students to identify shared experiences and relate on various levels, demonstrating that despite having diverse backgrounds, there is room for commonalities. These commonalities focused on how we are alike, rather than on how we are different.

One of the most significant issues discussed was cultural context. Cultural context is defined as the rules placed around interaction and communication, and is often the root cause of barriers to cross-cultural interaction. The cultural context is responsible for the subtle, yet significant cues that dictate how we communicate within our own culture and that cause misinterpretations in everyday forms of interaction with others.

For example, for many international students the phrase, “Hey, how are you?” warrants a genuine response that transcends “fine.” “Hey, how are you?” requires a conversation.

However, in Canada, the phrase is often equated with “hello,” and requires no detailed response.

Students suggested that overcoming the differences within the cultural context, especially in communication, is often a difficult and lengthy process. International students tend to form bonds over the difficulties in communication with other international students struggling with the same difficulty, and expressed that communication simply takes more work with someone from a different culture.

It is because of the ease of relating with those from a similar culture that strong bonds are created within a particular group. In other words, a shared culture in a foreign place forges friendships that would otherwise have not emerged between individuals of that same culture.

However, overcoming cultural barriers is essential as multicultural interactions have the potential of enhancing world-views and promoting inclusivity and cooperation. Students noted that forging meaningful relationships with people of different backgrounds requires effort on both ends.

When meeting someone new, we often tend to first see the culture and then the person, and yet, when students were asked to define their culture, their answers included personal aspects of their upbringing, their families, their beliefs, and lastly the overarching culture of the locality or group with which they identified. They first described their individuality, and then their general culture identity.

Overcoming cultural context barriers requires a recognition of individuals as individuals, and then of their cultures and backgrounds. This recognition is applied to both domestic and international students alike. Students pointed out that cross-cultural interaction requires openness to identifying similarities and accepting differences.

This kind of interaction necessitates space for asking questions and making mistakes. In other words, cross-cultural interaction entails talking about cultural differences themselves in order to better understand them.

As Kyllie Jansen noted, groups that tend to be more diverse are more comfortable when it comes to ‘making fun’ of differences. They allow room for noting differences, accepting them, and add humour to the inevitable cultural contrasts. Recognizing difference and celebrating it, rather than tiptoeing around political correctness is a trait that these diverse groups of friends share. Recognizing the multiplicity of cultural contexts allows for these to be talked about and accepted.

Jansen provided an example of two students whose culture was substantially different when it came to interpreting time. They would make plans to go to the movies every Tuesday and one student would always be half an hour early, as in his culture, this was a sign of respect. The other student would always be half an hour late, and likewise, within his cultural context, this was the socially acceptable manner.

Every Wednesday, both students would arrive at the office talking about the irreconcilable nature of their interpretations of time, and yet, every Tuesday they would again go to the cinema and face the same dilemma. They both recognized the difference in cultural context, and yet they overcame it.

The example of friendship, despite inherent cultural differences, proves that a different cultural context is a barrier that can be broken down. It demonstrates that meaningful friendships can be forged across cultures.

The following three talks of this series will focus on diverse communities, Islamophobia and the political divide by the construction of a fear-based agenda, and inter-faith dialogues with the purpose of fostering more inclusive communities.