Over the past semester, I encountered many situations where I was unaware of the faith traditions and cultures of my friends and acquaintances, but extremely passionate and curious to learn more about it. As I approached them to learn more about their experiences, I developed a sort of guide for having meaningful Interfaith and Intercultural conversations. Therefore, for my final blog post, I decided to come up with this list, to help anyone else who may have faced the same situation as I have.
1. Build up the Trust
Develop a safe and trusting environment to have an engaging conversation. Usually developing a rapport with someone may take time and effort from both sides. When you have the opportunity and time to develop a relationship, make an opportunity to break the ice by meeting one on one with the person. However, if you only have one meeting with the individual or a short amount of time, approach them respectfully, and ask questions.
2. Acknowledge your ignorance and curiosity
Establish with the person, that you do not know much about their background, religion, culture, or faith tradition, but would like to learn more about it. For instance, when I wanted to learn more about the experiences of my African American friend, the first thing I mentioned to her was that I did not have much knowledge about her community but wanted to learn more about it and her personal experiences. She was very happy that I approached her respectfully, and allowed me to ask her questions and give her the chance to share her experiences with me. This strengthened our bond and enabled us to have fruitful and engaging conversations with one another.
3. Consider their comfort with the subject
Do not assume that everyone would be comfortable to discuss their faith and/or culture with you. After all, such topics are very personal. Therefore, ask if they would be willing to give you a brief explanation about their faith or culture, or if they would be okay with answering any questions you have.
4. Watch your Words
In the mass media and internet age, we are exposed to many words that are stereotypically or disrespectfully used to represent peoples. Try to use respectful words and phrases in your conversations. Word choice is extremely integral in any sort of conversation. If you see the other person uncomfortable by the choice of words you are using to refer to them or their identity, ASK them for suggestions on respectfully referring to their community – a more respectful way of engaging in the conversation.
5. Be quick to listen and slow to speak
Pay attention and listen carefully to what they have to say. Many times, I fall victim to my mind making up counter-questions or coming up with similar experiences that I faced, even before the person in front of me has finished talking. The key to having open conversations is giving your 100% to what the other person is saying – without focusing on coming up with an answer before they are finished. Remember, this is a conversation, not a race.
6. Judge Not! Condemn Not!
Do NOT judge what you hear, or quickly determine that it is weird because you fail to understand it. Many times, our cultures may not consist of the same values and belief systems that the other person’s culture or faith tradition is based upon. We must understand a person’s beliefs, values, and practices based on the person’s own culture, rather than our own. This approach is known as Cultural Relativism.
7. Validate the experience but do not generalize
However, do not make assumptions and general categorizations based on the experiences of one individual. Everyone has had their own valid unique experience. While having these conversations gives you great insight and opportunity to learn about a person’s culture or faith tradition it does not mean that every other individual who identifies with the same tradition or culture may have the same experiences. One must take an intersectional approach towards understanding people’s experience and backgrounds.
I hope these tips are a useful resource as you engage in more interfaith and intercultural conversations. Always remember: Ask and you shall Receive, Seek and you shall Find.