Black Lives Matter. Me Too. Make America Great Again. Same-sex marriage. Climate change. Build the wall. Dreamers. Kneelers. And Orwellian Squealers. As The Associated Press highlights on its website Divided America, “the melting pot seems to be boiling over.” We live in a world where the lines of difference easily become walls of indifference. Instead of a richly embroidered tapestry, we are a panel of different quilting scraps with little holding us together. Commentators on different sides, when they can’t agree on anything else, have described the state of the United States as a “cold civil war.”
How do we understand those persons on the other side of the aisle, the other side of the world, or the other side of the Thanksgiving table? How can we build and strengthen our communities, even as we are polarized on many of the key issues that define our times?
A few years ago, I was asked to write a book that could build community and bring different people together or at least help equip groups to work with and alongside other groups in situations marked by cultural differences. Call it outreach or bridge building or community building. Understanding Us & Them invites us to step away from our echo chambers, to focus on understanding the cultural identities of others and of ourselves, and to build skills for listening, understanding, and engaging across those lines of difference. The book introduces key ideas, tools, and learning activities for talking about cultures and cultural identities. Designed for use as a book club experience, readers are encouraged to share different stories as they explore together with others what we believe and why we do what we do. Through stories, learning, reflection, and discussion, this book introduces both the basics of cultural intelligence and also some fundamental interpersonal skills.
I have worked my whole career in intercultural learning and teaching. I’ve come to realize that the same skills that help my students understand Cambodian society, navigate appropriately in Germany, or interpret better what can happen when East meets West— those same skills can help all of us, even if we are not in international business or traveling overseas. In fact, some of the cultural intelligence and interpersonal skills that I build into my language and culture courses are exactly what can help us interact in constructive ways with people different from us and with ideas foreign to our ways of thinking.
One modest book will not mend all the rifts, nor unify liberals and conservatives, Muslims and Christians, your punked-out niece and your very conservative Uncle George. But Understanding Us & Them can give us tools to create spaces in our hearts, minds, and communities for important dialogue and relationship building. We cannot solve all the problems of our world and country, but we can take small steps to educate ourselves and build our capacity to be part of taming the cauldron, disarming the warring factions, and creating the communities where we actually understand each other a little better and where that understanding holds us together and makes us strong.
Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim is a German professor and associate dean of diversity and inclusion at Calvin University.