The debate on Britishness in the UK press is here to stay. We are not alone. Australians, Germans and the Dutch – to name a few – are going through the same process of wondering about their national identity. The special challenge we have in the UK is that we tend not to like putting definitions about ourselves in writing. In fact, unlike our cousins the Americans, we don’t even like to put our constitution in written form.
So, why are we and others so concerned about the issue at the moment?
Well, the key reason must be the growing realisation that ‘multiculturalism’ as an ideal, rather than simply a description of the fact that there are many cultures in the UK, has not really worked in practice.
The force of opinion now very much seems to be, from all sides of the political spectrum, that we should re-emphasise what makes us British rather than what makes us different. A change in direction that would appear to make sense if we are to have an integrated society.
But what never seems to get a mention in the drive to improve the social fabric is intercultural understanding – particularly communication.
If different ethnic groups were better able to understand the intent of other groups’ communication and the impact of their own verbal, and non-verbal, messages, we would come a long way in improving relations between them.
Rather than focusing purely on British values, we may do well to look at shared values and where those values may be interpreted differently. For instance, the much bandied around terms ‘fair play’ and ‘tolerance’. What do they mean to a native British person, to someone from Bangladesh or someone from China or Poland?
Until we define our terms in ways that mean something, and until we understand each others communication patterms and listening habits, we are going to have an uphill struggle in moving towards a more integrated society. Knowing the rules of cricket and how many members of Parliament there are is not going to help as much as understanding that when a native Brit says “Hmm, interesting idea…” they may mean precisely the opposite. It is on these issues that all important trust is made or broken.
Hmmmm…”Until we define our terms in ways that mean something”. I’m not sure this will help. “Means something” to whom?
On the other hand *explaining* what certain terms and sayings mean could get us a long way. An example of this is given at the end of the post. When the British say “interesting idea”, they usually don’t mean it. There must be similar examples from other cultures worth noting, and getting these things known would help us towards better understanding, integration etc etc
I totally agree with Michael’s post. The very British way of “muddling through” the cultural differences that have for so long existed within our country really need to be addressed with a greater sense of urgency and honesty. The superbly frank and heartfelt speech Barack Obama recently delivered on race relations (and tensions) in the United States should be the benchmark against which British political discourse on this topic is measured. We need to stop mumbling platitudes and start meeting the challenge of diversity head on with positive and constructive actions, such as cross-culture training, because we will only start to break down the walls between us if we can understand and appreciate what is on the other side.
A transcript of the speech can be found here by the way: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/mar/18/barackobama.uselections20081