RESPECT & CURIOSITY: On Elephants and Others

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I have a great deal of respect for wild elephants and am careful to show that respect by backing out of their way when they come walking down the road towards my car.

I believe I’ve learned a thing or two about elephant culture in my multiple trips to various game reserves across Africa and one of those is recognizing that elephants command a certain body space.  They also respond well when one overtly recognizes their need for distance between us and so, when I respectfully back up, just a few meters is often enough; the ears go down, the trunk relaxes, the pace slows down. Often the elephant then ostentatiously starts stripping leafy branches off a nearby tree.

I imagine that it is a face-saving gesture for both of us: The elephant acknowledges the respect I’ve shown by pretending that it was always just about that tasty combretum branch on the tree next to where I’d been when we first saw each other.

I also do know what small cars look like when an annoyed elephant vents its irritation on it. Not good at all. People do die in such instances.  I think it is better to be respectful.

My respect may have originated in fear.

When a wild African elephant stands next to your little Japanese car it TOWERS. You see only its kneecaps. It exudes awesome power with its bigness and with its agile trunk.  The tusks round off the power theme nicely. Yet, my respect for elephants has shifted from fear to love as I’ve come to be curious about them as living creatures with their own personalities and issues.

I’ll never fully understand elephant culture any more than I could ever become an elephant.  And, that fearful element of respect is still there, because of its power and the limits to my understanding.


So it is with living with ‘other’ cultures.  Even though we may all be members of the same species, it is impossible be an expert in all cultures.  Developing cultural competence is not about knowing your way around the courtship rituals in rural Tanzania, the tea making ceremonies in China or wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day although you have nary an ounce of Irish blood in you.

As the world has shrunk with the advent of motorised vehicles; jet airplanes; satellites; and the Internet the opportunities for misunderstanding and friction has grown exponentially.  Those among us who become somewhat competent at navigating their way through and between diverse cultures have a natural capacity for respect and curiosity.  Respect is a given. It can be lost (quickly, painfully) and it can be regained (slowly, painfully).

My respect for the elephant may have originated in my fear for her great size and presence but it shifted easily, as my curiosity kicked in.  It shifted, through curiosity, from fear to love.  My life is enriched for knowing that there are elephants, right now, making their way to the river, eating, playing – just being themselves – even though we will never meet and I’m irrelevant in their world.

Do you start with Curiosity, Trust, or Fear?

If the starting point, in meeting someone or something new and strange, is fear (of how different they are, how mysterious) then how is it that some of us automatically first trust, and others automatically first mistrust.  Life experience has something to do with it.  If you grew up in a small, close-knit community with limited exposure to other cultures you are safe in the depth of your knowledge of how the world works.

Something like 20% of Canada’s population was born elsewhere.

One in five of us have some kind of personal history that is, in some part, not Canadian. It means that in one in five households we practice varyingly different traditions, rooted in ‘the old country’, as we try to figure out what it means to be Canadian.

There’s a certain amount of fear (and confusion) initially, about making faux pas that born-here Canadians might find strange or might find worth mocking us for.  (I’ve been here since the mid-1970s and was mortified recently when I used a phrase that, to me, is Standard English, to find that in fact it reflects my Afrikaner/Dutch roots and is not common parlance in Canada at all. (The phrase ‘I sucked it out of my thumb’ as in ‘I just invented/created/ imagined that’ has been a standard part of my vocabulary for as long as I’ve spoken English, and only now do I find out that it immediately sets me apart as from ‘another culture’.)

In this year Canada made the great gesture of adopting 31,000 Syrian refugees in the past 9 or so months.

Meanwhile in Nova Scotia this past summer, we had public consultations about the political correctness of asking someone where they’re from.  It seems to be OK if you’re something like a Cape Bretoner because then you can have a lengthy conversation about who came from Irish Cove vs. Little Narrows and who’s related to whom.  But if you’re from, say, Ghana, it isn’t allowed because there may be some negative judgement about it. (As in ‘oh, you’re an African so you probably personally know some elephants and live in a mud hut, but you’re probably a techno-peasant and…oh yes, your skin colour…’)

As I followed the news reports about this consultative process, I reflected upon the time I met a doctor some years ago, in Canada, who spoke English with a strong West African accent and physically looked more like the people I know in Accra than the people I know in Dar Es Salaam or Jinja or Johannesburg. Yet, he would say only that he was from – Alberta.  At the time I was annoyed – I wanted to talk about Africa but he didn’t want to touch it.  The debate this summer helped me understand his reticence.

Yet, if you are white-skinned with a multi-generational history in Canada, or even as a recent immigrant, it’s perfectly OK to talk about your Irish, Ukrainian or Afrikaner culture and traditions – it is interesting and quaint, but not ‘foreign’ enough to be really fear-inducing.

Funny that it takes a government commission of inquiry to help me understand something that could have been cleared up in two sentences, had there been trust.


It is a tough balancing act – what to ask; what to disclose; how to trust.

The son of a Zulu friend of mine was recently stopped by the RCMP in the rural community where they live, in Nova Scotia. He was out walking the family dog.  They harassed him – wanted to know what he was doing there, in this closed, safe, comfortable (white) community.  They didn’t have to ask him where he was from – with his dark skin he was obviously ‘from away’ and they didn’t like it.

If your fear causes you to fail to see the human being behind the difference, you resort to stereotyping, which fuels your fear. When I consider the social behaviour triggered by fear and the inability to be trusting and curious, I understand the deep seated anger of the black and native populations of this continent, in the same way as I understand the angry elephant trampling a disrespectful tourist’s car.  (The car doesn’t represent white folk, it represents the fabric of our society.)

I worry about the pain some of the Syrian refugees would have experienced by now, at the hands of people who mistrust Arabs – such terrible pain, after trusting that the nation spoke with one voice when Trudeau welcomed them in.

It is really, really time to do things differently.

Maybe it is time to revitalize the Golden Rule.



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