I was taught a lesson today that I suspect will live with me for a long time. To cut a long story short, I had written an article for the website about the Congo rainforest. A Belgian colleague asked me to change the wording in one paragraph as it could be perceived as offensive to African people.
My initial reaction was to be a little defensive, both because I believe that I am culturally sensitive and also because sometimes I can be a little possessive about my writing. The conversation in my head was full of indignation, the very suggestion that I wasn't being culturally sensitive was in itself, offensive.
After all, my Belgian colleague is a white guy like me, sure he's worked in Africa for many years but I grew up in Australia, one of the more multicultural nations in the world, I have two sister-in-laws with Indian heritage, and I have friends from all corners of the globe, and I live in the Netherlands which is also very multicultural...and...and...
After some deep breaths, I realised that I needed evidence, I needed hard numbers...but what I really needed was an African perspective. Fortunately, just a few desks away sits Sophia, who originally hails from Zimbabwe. Yes I know Africa is a big continent with lots of different cultures but at this point, Sophia's perspective represented a huge leap in the right direction.
Sophia sent the paragraph in question to some African friends for their opinion. The emails came back fast and unambiguous, the paragraph had to be changed. There was nothing factually incorrect with what was written but words are full of meaning and innuendo that transcend the official dictionary definitions.
Words, sentences and paragraphs that appear innocent to one person can be read very differently by another. The cultural baggage we carry with us is designed to help us understand the communities we grew up in and the subtleties of human interaction within it. Remove the words from one cultural context and place it in another and the meaning can change significantly.
The paragraph was changed, the intended meaning of the original paragraph was preserved but now without offending anyone (hopefully). In the internet age where words, sentences and paragraphs can be read by people across the world with a huge variety of differing cultural baggage, the importance of understanding the limits of your own cultural sensitivities becomes even more important. To all those involved, thanks for the lesson.
The new and improved article can be seen here and make sure you check out the video. There is also a great photo story from Natalia who gives us a behind the scenes view of a recent trip to the Congo by Greenpeace and a group of journalists. Natalia is from Argentina, speaking in English about the Congo. Now that's cross cultural!