A number of years ago I met a man from Bangladesh. I have traveled widely and consider myself a global citizen. Unfortunately, during an evening meal I kept referring to his country as Pakistan. I had been reading a novel by Salman Rushdie on the separation of India and Pakistan and had not yet created new geographic categories for that part of the world. Throughout the evening my ignorant, unmindful, and unaware reference became a barrier to our communication. His perception of Americans as ethnocentric and ‘ignorant was reinforced. Fortunately, he was kind, and I was able to learn a great deal from him. However, most of our conversation was a geography lesson–he the teacher and me the student.
The lack of a shared common knowledge and my blindness to my ignorance of this man from Bangladesh and his country offended him, reinforced whatever stereotypes he had of Americans, and opened a distressing gap between us. Much of the encounter was spent creating new geographic categories in an attempt to close that gap. If I had attempted to inform myself better beforehand or if I had been more aware of my ignorance, the incident might have been avoided, enabling us to move the conversation to a deeper discussion of world issues and/or enjoy a richer intercultural experience.
What is awareness and how does it differ from knowledge? Simply stated, knowledge is what we know to be true within our own context and experience. There is a Yiddish proverb which says, “To a worm in horseradish the whole world is horseradish.” What we know, then, is mired in the immediate, the local, or, at best, the regional and national-which fosters ethnocentrism and parochialism.
Global awareness involves a recognition and appreciation of the size, complexity, and diversity of the earth conceived as a single entity. It is literally a worldview-and is at the opposite pole of the view from horseradish. It enables us to perceive the vastness of the world, its dynamic complexity, and the diversity of its peoples and cultures. Awareness, much like mindfulness, is knowing that we don’t know, that there is a realm of knowing that exists outside our direct experience which is often identified with intuition. A Tao proverb states, “To be free of the disease, one must be sick of the disease.” That is, one must be aware of the disease at the deepest level, irrespective of what one knows about it.
Ignorance, or the state of not knowing-and not knowing that we don’t know-can be particularly embarrassing in intercultural encounters. Like it or not, in cross-cultural social interaction, we are judged by our lack of knowledge about people, places, and things of other cultures. “People,” say Cushner and Brislin (1996, 13), ‘judge others to be well intentioned, ill mannered, well educated, hardworking, and so forth, relatively quickly-generally within the first few minutes of an encounter,” And these attributions have consequences.
Global awareness, then, is knowing one’s ignorance of the world and being ready to pursue the knowledge needed to overcome it.
Another pitfall is our tendency to think in generalizations which, because of their survival value, transform themselves into stereotypes that in turn get us into more trouble cross-culturally. Take a simple, almost mechanical example: chairs, To Americans chairs are for working at a computer, for dining at a table, for studying at a desk, and so on. If they have four legs, they are safe. When we see a chair that does not fit our categories, we become cautious or skeptical. A three-legged chair is risky to sit on. Likewise, when we expect chairs but find none, we are dubious. A dining room without chairs, for example, is cause for question. This is the crucial moment: the unaware person will probably avoid thethree-legged chair and condemn the “chairless” dining room. The aware person uses his or her fundamental knowledge to provide a framework for understanding and to fill out that mental framework. When we enter a dining room without chairs, we readjust our cultural attitudes and behaviors regarding appropriate dining customs.
Awareness stimulates the desire to learn, to be open to differences, and to develop a positive communicative attitude or stance. Creating new categories of information expands our understanding and view of the world. Knowledge prepares us for new encounters. But “knowledge does not [in itself] empower people to action. It only makes them aware of the circumstances around them and the expectations that they have of themselves and that others have of them” (Lingenfelter 1996, 238). We know that the world in which we live is multitudinous, and yet the world of which we are aware tends to be quite limited. Increasing our awareness of the world, increases our potential for growth, knowledge, and competence.
[First published in the Global Awareness Profile by Intercultural Press in 1998, J. Nathan Corbitt]