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Many people think that good communication refers to how we speak. In fact, the quality of a conversation pivots on how we listen. Listening attentively is not enough. We also need to consider how we interpret what we hear.

When I say: “I believe in the value of assimilation,” how do you interpret that? In some circles, the reaction will be: “But of course!” In other circles, my statement might elicit a more horrified reaction. Why the difference?

Contrary to popular belief, the difference is not about politics and values. It’s about interpretation. If we do not pause to consider how we hear something and the context into which we put it, and if we do not ask for clarification regarding the context of the speaker, we perpetuate polarization.

When I was growing up (a long time ago!), there were only two designations for how people adapted to new countries and cultures: either they assimilated, or they did not. Since then, academics have developed more nuanced categories: assimilation, integration, separation, and marginalization. In this framework, assimilation now has a more negative connotation: it means discarding one’s original cultural identity to adopt a new one. The more socially acceptable word to use these days is integration: an individual maintains previous cultural beliefs and traditions and engages appropriately in the new culture.

I have assimilated and/or integrated into a wide range of new cultures and environments since the age of 6 (with varying degrees of success), as did both of my parents. Before you react to my use of the word assimilate, ask me what the word means to me. Ask me about my context.

To reduce polarization, start listening differently.

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Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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