The dangerous nature of an intercultural encounter

There is something culturally different but familiar about the people at the next table in the café. I theorise about their background from how they dress, stand, their features and so on. Then I get a better clue when I recognise the language they are speaking and can even understand some of it – helped by familiar gestures and body language. 

I’m cautious about thinking of nationality. They could be first or other generation British. I can somehow tell they are middle class. 

Then one of them recognises me; and when he pulls down his face mask I see who he is. We have met occasionally over the years. So now I know his nationality – though clearly British plus this nationality. He tells me he works for the local Council.

The English we speak to each other is of the sort that I only speak with people with his background. It’s not the accent or vocabulary, but the choice of references, of topic, the particular type of warmth, the things that are understood, between the lines, because of some common history. He knows that I’ve lived in the city where he was born and grew up – the streets, buildings, interiors, sounds, the distant mountains.

I ask him when he last went ‘home’. I feel safe now that this is an appropriate question because I believe that he knows that I know something about the politics. I feel I have crossed some form of boundary of familiarity. He says just last year. For me it’s nine years. When I suggest that there are qualities you can find ‘there’ that you cannot ‘here’ and vice versa, I get a strong sense that he knows exactly what I’m talking about;  and he says he agrees absolutely. I’ve heard this so many times from people with his background.

It’s taken me a long time to work out how to write about this. A simplistic interpretation is ‘meeting people from a different culture that I know something about because I’ve visited it and learnt its language’. This is firmly in inverted commas and to be put aside because it’s essentialist, limiting, divisive and reductive, if not racist.

Nevertheless, I did say ‘culturally different but familiar’. I could say this about anybody – for me, football players, actors, BBC employees in the café outside the BBC in London. I would then also be indulging in all sorts of theorising about who people were. If they were, to me, ‘just British’, or something like ‘American’, it would be things like class, occupation or political alignment I might instead be theorising about. ‘Nationality’ would be a shifting concept with different and indeed political connotations when set against concepts such as ‘migrant’. The idea of where somebody ‘comes from’ is then highly charged, dependent on the politics of belonging and who is asking it of whom.

But my theorising about the people at the next table is also a lot to do with me. I’m still relying on rumours, or perhaps even stereotypes, about what their behaviour might be despite my long experience of direct observation and my explicit and well-known agenda to put these aside. I’m easily falling into the trap of forgetting that people with whatever background are as diverse as anyone else. Like everyone, they make momentary decisions about how to behave based on all sorts of factors – family relations and histories, individual personalities, what happened an hour before, conflicts and aspirations, and so on. Am I not choosing bits of my impression of ‘their culture’ to feed by own hunger for the exotic.

Neither must I exoticise the lingua­culture thing. Whichever language we speak, large or small, it will always change depending on who we are speaking to – their communities, interests, histories, all their discourses, and so on. There is therefore nothing that ‘special’ about this happening with this particular group of people. Can I be excused for emphasising how I speak with them because I’m very consciously contesting the dominant false belief that language is fixed within national culture?

The reality is that the intercultural is always shifting and uncertain and operates in ‘small’ domains. This ‘smallness’ does not however in any way diminish culture as identity and inspiration – figurative aspects of civilisation, nation, history, home, ancestry, and all the big things that we need to belong to. 

Sometimes we also need people to know about our backgrounds – about the cultural things that we identify with. It’s good that I have some knowledge of the background, architectures and civilisation of the people I encountered in the café. It’s good that I’ve been to other places and found broader perspectives. We should never however, despite our good intentions, use these big cultural things to stereotype, define or confine other people, or indeed ourselves. This certainly isn’t a matter of interacting from one ‘culture’ to ‘another’. 

This thinking is clear to me. However, I need also to appreciate that my feeling the need to say how much I understand the people at the next table is more to do with me feeling the need to say something about my own history than with them. 

This was indeed an intercultural encounter, but not because of the ‘culture’ of the people at the next table – instead, because it leads me to position and reposition myself.

(I am indebted to my co-researcher, Sara Amadasi, for critiquing an earlier draft of this blog.)

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