Growing up in an incredibly multi-cultural city like Mumbai, I was constantly exposed to friends, classmates and colleagues from different religious and cultural backgrounds. And while I didn’t realise it when I was little, as an adult, I realise how privileged I was to be able to learn about different cultures, get to understand different languages and celebrate different festivals that weren’t my own.
So when I moved to the UK and discovered that a fair few of my friends and colleagues weren’t aware of when festivals like Diwali, Eid, Chinese New Year Kwanzaa, Thanksgiving or even Hanukkah and Yom Kippur are, it was a bit of a culture shock for me.
The thing is, there isn’t a single reason to not practise more cultural awareness in this day and age. Information on everything under the sun is available at our fingertips in a matter of seconds. If you can Google what time a movie is on at the cinema or the menu at a new restaurant, there’s no excuse to not Google something in the interest of cultural awareness. A simple Google search should tell you what a certain country, religion, culture or faith’s main festival is, when it is, how you can wish a person well for it. Not a fan of Google? Alexa will sort you out. It’ll take under a minute out of your day and it isn’t too much to ask for.
A lot of people prefer to not comment on topics such as festivals of different cultures as it can be an awkward topic to bring up in the workplace, especially as they are worried about saying something they probably shouldn’t and potentially getting it wrong. But here’s the thing – if you do get it wrong for whatever reason, it doesn’t matter. As long as you are respectful, your colleague will appreciate that you cared enough to actually try. Which is why, I decided to make it my own little mission to make the people around me a bit more Culturally Aware and to help them learn things about different cultures that they didn’t already know.
If you can’t think up good enough reasons for being more culturally aware on your own, here are a couple off the top oy my head:
(a) You’d Make Your Colleague’s Day
A simple ‘Happy Hanukkah’, ‘Happy Chinese New Year’, ‘Eid Mubarak’ or ‘Happy Diwali’ could go so far in brightening up a colleague’s day and make them feel more appreciated and connected with, especially if they have to come into the office or work from home on a day they would ideally like to be spending with family. Also, a lot of the people around you live thousands of miles away from their families on big, important days. Put yourself in their shoes and think about how you’d want somebody to treat you in that exact situation. How would you feel if you lived away from your family, in a different culture, and everyone just ignored the fact that you were far from home on Christmas day, or that they didn’t even know when Christmas was? No Christmas displays in stores, no trees or lights or anything. Pretty depressing, right?
I used to work every year on Diwali and feel a bit sad about it (think of it like having to work on Christmas Day). But wasn’t until I got a particularly demanding email on Diwali, that I decided things had to change. It wasn’t even work-related really. I was doing someone a favour of sorts, and I had been too busy with work to deal with her request in the past two days, and she was insistent that I send through the material by that night. When I tried to tell her that I was trying not to work that day as it was Diwali aka the equivalent to my Christmas, she did apologize, but didn’t bother to take the time to say any of the usual “I didn’t realize. I’m sorry to bother you on a holiday – it can wait till tomorrow.” Which is when I realised that if I were to send somebody a work email over Christmas, 10 times out of 10, they wouldn’t reply. And even when they got back in the office, they’d think I was crazy for sending out a work request on Christmas day. Which is when I decided that I need to start respecting myself and my culture more, and that if it bothered me that people around me weren’t more culturally aware, that I was actually going to do something about it. Here’s my plan:
Turn my ‘Out Of Office’ On
I’m deciding here and now that I will not work on Diwali. Nothing could possibly be SO incredibly urgent that it couldn’t wait a day while I took some time for myself, to prep my home and to catch up with family and friends during this important time. If you’re a manager and have a team member from overseas or even one who is of a different faith to the majority, I’d recommend you check when the person’s Christmas equivalent is and offer for them to have the day off, or ask what their plans are for the day. Respecting your employees is so important and it’d be a great morale booster if you were the sort of boss who actually cared. You never know, they may be too shy or not assertive enough to ask themselves. It absolutely breaks my heart to walk into an establishment and see it staffed with Indian people on Diwali when there’s no way they’d allow that to happen in their own country, and it isn’t really fair on their families. Would you expect that from the rest of your staff on Christmas day?
Practise More Cultural Awareness Myself
There’s always room for improvement, no matter how much you think you know. I grew up in a very multi-cultural environment and loved celebrating not only Diwali, but Eid with my Muslim friends, Navroze with my Persian friends, Christmas and Easter with my neighbours, etc. While learning about new cultures doesn’t naturally interest everyone, I happen to have friends in the UK from different parts of the world – Malaysia, South Africa and The U.S, to be precise. And I’ve realised I don’t know a lot about Judaism, so I’m learning all I can from my friend who is Jewish. I’m taking the time to get to know their important holidays, how they celebrate them and am making a note of them in my phone calendar, along with setting an alarm, so I don’t forget to wish them on the day. It is so important for the people we care about to know we take the time to appreciate and respect their cultures.
Talk About This on Social Media
I follow Dua Lipa and Nick Bateman on Instagram. Both of whom visited India last year and posted Happy Diwali messages to their followers on the day. The gesture was so small and simple. It didn’t take a lot of time or effort, but it was such a powerful thing to do. It meant a lot that they cared enough to do it. And I like to think that the millions of people who follow them will have seen their post and are now aware that there is an Indian festival called Diwali. These people could potentially use this information to say “Happy Diwali!” to someone they know or work with, and end up making their day. This right here is cultural awareness in the making. I don’t have millions of followers, but I’m going to put little reminders out on Instagram stories when a certain culture’s holiday is drawing nearer, reminding people to share the love, as it is so easy to get wrapped up in our own lives and forget about those around us sometimes.
Teach Kids About Different Cultures
If you have kids, don’t leave it to school to handle cultural awareness in their Religious Studies class. It is important that children grow up to be culturally aware, culturally sensitive citizens of the world and for this, they need to have the opportunity to experience different cultures outside of the classroom. Trust me when I say that experiencing another culture’s festival on the day will be an experience they talk about and carry with them for life, and it’ll give them a much better understanding and respect for different cultures than anything they learn in Religious Studies. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone of a different faith and ask if you and / your child can come along and experience it with them. They would never say no. In fact, they’d be honoured to be able to open up their homes and share their culture, traditions and food with someone who wanted to learn more about it. I don’t have children, but I’m going to offer my friends with children the opportunity to come round and experience a typical Diwali with me, in the hope that they would grow up to say “I know about this culture. I actually spent Diwali with my mum’s friend and these are all the things we did.” Or even if they grew up and recognized the festival enough to wish somebody a ‘Happy Diwali’, that’d be my job done.
I fully understand that cultural awareness is a big ask of some people, but then again, on the other hand, it’s really not. It needs to become the new norm. Remember, if someone cares enough to share even a small part of Christmas with you, you should take the time to share a small part of their holiday with them, even if it is only to send a text. Just a little food for thought 🙂
What are your thoughts on cultural awareness? Share them with me in the comments below.