One of the things I love about being an American is the wonderful diversity that greets me each time I step out the door. Rarely does a day go by without my encountering people who have backgrounds very different from my own. Because America is the land of opportunity and draws people from around the world, it's almost like getting a free trip to exotic locales without all those tedious hours squirming in airline seats designed for Lilliputians.
Although this does pose the occasional problem with communication when they're from another country and English isn't their native language, we're usually able to work things out and understand each other. I figure it's a small tradeoff to interact with folks from lands that I may never visit.
However, when confronted with an individual who may still be struggling with English, some people become frustrated or even hostile. They're offended that this person hasn't mastered our native language yet. As you might expect, many of these situations end without much useful communication. Furthermore, it's not uncommon to see people storm off and mutter something about how stupid this person is because he can't speak flawless English.
Being among the linguistically challenged I speak only one language, something that I find a bit embarrassing when surrounded by friends from around the world who grew up speaking two, three or sometimes even a dozen. I've theorized that there must be some sort of international remedial program for the slow of speech and they just assume I'm one of the less ambitious students.
Nonetheless, they're patient with my shortcomings, and we manage to have fun just the same. No matter how broken their English may be, my perspective is that if they're multilingual to any competent degree, they're smarter than I am.
More importantly, this doesn't apply to just linguistics. Because I don't assume that people who are different are somehow inferior, it opens up a world of opportunity for me to make new friends, increase my knowledge and build strong alliances in my work. These are all incredibly powerful benefits for any of us to have in life, and they come at a very reasonable price. All you have to do is eliminate your assumptions about people and treat them with the same courtesy and respect that you'd offer anyone you consider important.
This applies to much more than international encounters. Our assumptions are very much alive even within the strata of our own culture. I've stood in line at my local taco joint and watched with amazement as customers treated the minimum wage people taking their orders as though they were ignorant and insignificant creatures. And although these workers do their job nonetheless, you can be sure that the food and service offered to the rude is nothing beyond the bare minimum required. Consequently, I've never quite understood the benefit of a condescending attitude.
I prefer a different approach. I make an effort to treat each person I encounter with respect and a smile, perhaps even engaging in a bit of light hearted banter as they work. In short, I treat them as though they were important and deserving of my respect. And how do I know they're not? Having many friends who are in college, for all I know the person serving my taco is currently studying nuclear physics. Not only do I have a fun conversation, but you can bet that the tacos I get are first rate. Whoever said that fast food isn't rocket science just didn't know the right people.
America rocks, in no small part because of the incredible variety of our society. Here's an experiment. Start treating every person you meet as though they were important, and see what kind of response you get. Tapping into that diversity will bring countless good things into your life. Who knows, you might even get a decent taco in the bargain.