gavelI grew up eating a lot of ethnic northern European foods. I would often get comments in the workplace lunch room about the leftovers I had brought in that day.  I remember one comment about “what a strange food combination” I was eating (sauerkraut with a dollop of sour cream) that made me feel really defensive and reactive. Both the person who made the comment and I were perplexed by my reaction at the time, but I’ve recently been given a framework that has helped me make sense of that incident.

The framework is from a recent Intercultural Competency Training that I took, the same model that is being used in the Who Are Our Neighbors program being offered to ministers (and will later be offered to others) by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) .

The co-worker was perplexed because she thought she was just expressing curiosity about food she had never seen before.  What neither of us understood at the time was that she was doing so from a place of judgment — i.e. that she held the framework of what foods were “normal” and what foods were “strange.”  I now understand my own reactivity as being seen as “strange” and “not normal” by eating food that was very much a part of my cultural identity.

The lesson I’m trying to learn as I cultivate my own intercultural competence is that the “new normal” is that there is no “normal,” at least when it comes to the expressions of our Unitarian Universalist faith that are cultural. Instead of being judgmental from our own cultural lens, we can practice dialogue that helps us to listen to and understand how others live in and interpret the world.

How might this look?

From:

“You used the word “God” 14 times in that sermon.  Isn’t that a bit excessive?”

To:

“I notice you used the word “God” a lot in your sermon.  What is your understanding of that word?”

From:

“It’s alright to have folk music every once in a while, but it’s important that we not deviate from the excellent classical music that is part of our reputation.”

To:

“Folk music is not my favorite type of music in the service, but I notice that you were enjoying it.  Tell me about what you were experiencing.”

From:

“You brought Styrofoam cups?!?  Don’t you know how damaging that is to the environment?”

To:

“I see you brought some cups.  I’m curious as to why you chose that particular kind.”

Developing this practice of starting from a place of curiosity rather than judgment creates an atmosphere where dialogue can create a shared, negotiated understanding because we can learn about the underlying identities and values that support our preferences.

-Post by Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

About the Author
Rev. Renee Ruchotzke
Leadership Development Consultant, Central East Regional Group (CERG) of the UUA. I have a vision of Unitarian Universalist congregations being led by thousands of diverse, spiritually mature and passionate people ready and willing to spread the good news of liberal religion.  I believe ministry is best when shared between lay and professional leaders. More information about me can be found on the CERG regional website.
  • Mark Bernstein

    Okay, let’s try this. Renee, I notice that all of your blogs are both instructive and insightful. How did you get to be so smart? :)

  • PeaceBang

    Not to harsh on your thoughtful piece, but the way those questions are framed sound incredibly condescending. If someone said, “I notice you used the word ‘God’ 14 times in your sermon,” I’d probably want to snap, “When you weren’t busy counting how many times I used the word ‘God,’ did you hear a thing I said?” This approach feels inauthentic and contrived to me, not respectful or invitational at all. The onus is on the other person to justify their experience or their preference. It gives me a case of the icks.