By Maria Mulder, Spanish and Portuguese, Fourth Year
Throughout the year in the United Kingdom, we often hear about events important to other cultures, even if we never participate in them ourselves. The ones that immediately come to mind for me are Ramadan, Hanukkah, Diwali, Notting Hill Carnival and of course this season, the Chinese New Year.
Whenever such events roll around, we may feel inclined to turn away and disengage if we do not have any cultural connection to them ourselves. Certainly, when it comes to the Chinese New Year, I personally never saw any reason to get involved or learn much about the festival. Its symbolisms never resonated with me, but I felt no fundamental connection to it as a Westerner regardless. I imagine that many Westerners tend to take this approach when we confront unfamiliarity, which to a point, I can sympathise with.
However, after reflecting more thoroughly, I have concluded now that this attitude could stunt our capability of understanding and working successfully within the societal framework in which we live today. This is particularly true if we analyse the demographics of the UK in the 21st century. The most recent census (2021) has shown that it the country is more diverse in terms of ethnic makeup and spiritual/religious belief than ever before. Possessing a limited degree of knowledge and awareness of our fellow citizens in an increasingly multi-ethnic and multicultural society can stimulate and feed into a cycle of social decline.
To provide just a few explanations of how this may be the case, specifically in relation to professional contexts: imagine yourself as an employer. Consider the approach you would choose to respond if an employee from, say, a Jewish background, contacts you to request time off for a Jewish observance. Would you have the kind of cultural awareness required to be able to successfully navigate the situation whilst avoiding legal troubles caused by accusations of discrimination? It is easy to see that an absence of respect for and understanding of other groups’ beliefs and norms would have influenced your response to this scenario.
But the benefits of cultural sensitivity go beyond employers’ relationships with their employees in the professional world. In order to maximise workplace harmony, productivity and growth, it is in the best interests of employees to have this competence. Think of the kind of damage to employee morale that would be caused by cases of harassment and bullying based on ignorance of each other’s differences.
Consider also, beyond mere malice, the unconscious bias that many of us have towards others and how this influences our treatment of those we work with. For example, consider the exclusionary nature of alcohol-centred social occasions. A colleague at a given company who abstains from drinking may feel as though they do not belong; they could eventually conclude that they are better off seeking opportunities elsewhere. How would the departure of a disenchanted employee (who may otherwise have had been an asset) help the reputation or success of said company?
In the grand scheme of things, many of us attend university as a steppingstone to a (hopefully) solid career. Whether your university is regarded as diverse or not, universities are ultimately spaces where we are supported in preparing ourselves for the workplace. When we, again, take into account that we live in both a pluralistic society and a globalised economy, building cultural awareness should absolutely be a crucial aspect of this endeavour. One of the easier and more enjoyable ways of doing so is taking a step out of your comfort zone and participating in cultural events marked by celebration, positivity and inclusiveness. Joining that Carnival would well be another gateway to self-development!
So, to answer the question: is it an obligation as a student to educate yourself on other cultures’ rituals, such as their festivals? Perhaps ‘obligation’ is a strong word. But for many cases, in order make the most of both your university experience and to equip yourself for the future, it is wise to do so.