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Misunderstanding Migrants, Part I

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

Note: I researched and wrote this series of pieces before the attacks in Paris and Beirut, and the various subsequent reactions. These tragedies, while they change the present context and challenges of intercultural communication, only make this issue more urgent. In the face of frightened reactions, it is of the utmost importance that we maintain the human face of the other, that we make careful distinctions between those who commit violence and those who do not, that we communicate in mindful solidarity with all nonviolent peoples across racial, ethnic, national, and religious difference. It is for this reason that I elected not to edit or rewrite these pieces following the attacks. Every attempt to understand and reach out to others in times of upheaval, dislocation, and fear is an essential expression of common humanity; such expressions can change and unite lives in difficult and uncertain times. These posts were written to aid people in thinking through that challenge; and that is still what they are about. 

During the past few months we have all been hearing a great deal about the refugee/migrant crisis in Europe. For many of us, this situation is in reality far away, abstract, hard to imagine. But with all the media coverage – and now the recent wave of terrorist attacks – it sounds a little frightening, and perhaps we find ourselves chewing on uncomfortable questions: given all the upheaval in the world, will our communities at some point face a similar situation? What is the right thing to do when a large group of people, needing and deserving of basic needs, arrive on our doorsteps? How should differences be accommodated or addressed?

These are questions that Europe has been grappling with very publicly for the past couple of months, but the issue has long since reached the United States. Even without the new influxes from Syria and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, migrants and refugees are already a reality for most cities in the United States, too.

As a mediator, I wanted to address the communications challenges that arise when groups of newcomers arrive in a community. No matter how policy making bodies respond, there is always the challenge of communicating with people who are arriving from a different context, who likely have a different background and sets of needs and concerns. The possibilities of misunderstanding and resulting conflict are high, and can threaten to jeopardize even the best-intentioned efforts of either the newcomers or the host community. No matter how the media coverage sounds, it’s a whole different ballgame when people find themselves face to face.

I am not an expert on intercultural communication, but I’d like to share some research that I’m doing, using Bradford ‘J’ Hall’s Among Cultures: The Challenge of Communication[1] as a guide, and informed by my years of experience helping people to use communication as a pathway towards success, peace, understanding, and problem solving of many kinds.

This post kicks off a short series I’ll be doing on communication and conflict in the challenging circumstances of cultural difference and political upheaval.

Join me next week to begin exploring the basic contours of intercultural communication.

[1] Hall, Bradford J. Among Cultures: The Challenge of Communication, 2nd edition (Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005).

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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