I am fortunate in being able to visit many different countries, to be a guest in many different cultures. As one travels around the world one moves not only in miles and metres but also in culture and difference. My own country is my home, known, familiar, not perfect, but deeply normalised. I mean normalised in a cognitive sense: I am conditioned into my view of morality, ethics, fairness, which I express as culture. My culture: the culture that I am both part of and serve to create with those around me. This week I have been in Saudi Arabia, a place known only to me through stories and stereotypes.
When we consider other cultures, we often do so through the lens of our own values, and my perception of Saudi Arabia is certainly tinted through this lens. It will be clear that I am by nature deeply liberal. I believe that to strive for equality is a calling we must all rise up to. But I also recognise that we are different: we are different in our views of what is right, of what is fair, of what is equal, and our individual choice is to choose how to engage. We can engage in conflict, or we can engage to understand. I believe that both can serve a valuable purpose: the rights and freedoms that are felt in my own country have been hard fought for by some communities.
Whilst today women can vote, same-sex couples can marry, homosexuality is legal, and we are supposedly protected by equality laws, we would be fooling ourselves if we believe that our journey is complete. I wrote a couple of days ago about the difference between a one-dimensional and a three-dimensional view of other cultures. Before I went to Saudi Arabia, I had a one-dimensional view, based on that which I’d seen and heard, that which I had read. Today, through the kindness and hospitality of strangers, I have a three-dimensional view.
It’s that view that I want to share as I write today: I write from my own liberal perspective, but I hope with respect. The world is a large place: there are many unifying factors that bring us closer together, and many divisive ones that push us apart. I do not believe we will ever have, nor should we necessarily strive for, one unified, global culture. Our differences give us strength, and identity. So with that lengthy caveat and introduction behind me, let me share my experience and reflection, and I hope my deeper understanding of our shared differences.
It’s small things that can surprise you: driving from the airport, we passed a branch of Marks & Spencer’s, food and clothing store with a branch barely a mile from my house. As I had imagined the experience of arriving in Saudi Arabia, I had visualised women wearing abayas, a full-length robe, and men wearing ghutras, the familiar red and white headscarf. I was not disappointed: almost everybody was dressed like this, but what I had not expected was to see them walking in and out of Marks & Spencer’s. The juxtaposition of the deeply familiar, with the brand-new, made me realise immediately and my assumptions were likely to fall at the first hurdle.
The role of women in Saudi society is clearly different: I cannot comment on wider perceptions, simply share my own experiences. Arriving at the event I was greeted by both men and women, some veiled, some without. If I was surprised by that, the surprise was grounded in my own preconceptions. It was clearly unusual for me to work with a group that was exclusively male, except for American and European colleagues.
My overwhelming perception of my time in Saudi Arabia is not particularly one of difference, but rather one of cautious change. Because there is change. The arrival of shopping malls has not simply given access to retail space, but also created new spaces to gather. Indeed, whilst I was maybe secretly hoping for some kind of dramatic and unexpected experience, in fact I was simply surrounded by people doing almost exactly what they would be doing in my hometown. Dressed differently, certainly, and at home there would not be a call for prayer with the shutters coming down in shops for 15 minutes or so. But I would see young people drinking coffee together, men and women, singly and in pairs, darting in and out of shops, wearily carrying bags down escalators, and chatting on mobile phones.
There were moments that were more difficult: searching for a restaurant with a female European friend, we were firmly, and very politely, turned away when we accidentally walked into a restaurant that did not have a family section, a section where women are allowed. It’s easy for me to find this experience unusual, but I should not forget that only in the last few years have bastions of male clubs and golf clubs fallen to be unisex. And some of those battles are still ongoing.
I said my experience was one of cautious change: many of the conversations that I had was similar to conversations I have around the world. A growing understanding of the Social Age, the sense that things are different, new types of competition, new technologies, more global connections, greater disruption. There is a universal sense of young people doing things differently, and a universal sense of older generations trying to figure out what to do about it. There seems to be a universal understanding that change will happen, although for all of us in all our cultures there are things we wish to keep the same.
One moment I did find difficult was when a friend from home sent me a news article about a young woman who had been arrested in Riyadh for sharing a photograph of herself without a headscarf on Instagram. On the day that I presented my keynote about Social Learning and Social Leadership, in the city that I was in. As I said earlier, I think individually we have to make choices about how we are in the world. We can choose to engage, to learn, to travel with humility, and sometimes we can choose to share stories, to have conversations, to explore the foundations of our own beliefs.
The greatest privilege of my visit was that it gave me a chance to make new friends, and to sit with those friends late into the evening and learn about each other’s lives. We talked about things that we agreed on, and things that we differed on. And I believe we did so with great caution and shared respect. As a result of those conversations I have a greater understanding of Saudi culture.
My principles remain the same, but my understanding of the nature of our difference is now far deeper, and that in itself made the trip worthwhile. It is not my role to force or cajole others to be in the world as I am. If I am a Social Leader myself, then it is my role to listen with humility, to share stories wisely, to learn, and to engage with respect. Of course I hope for change.
Whilst I talked both privately and publicly about Social Leadership, the Landscape of Trust, and how we build the Socially Dynamic organisation, I did not talk about homosexuality and full equality. Read into that what you will: perhaps I disguise my own moral cowardice behind a veil I call respect. Perhaps I was too nervous, perhaps I was unsure how, or perhaps my role is to learn and build connections because the more we understand each other’s world, the better we are able to shape and influence our own.
Strangely, I have been nervous to write this. In my own culture I seek to be strident and unafraid to argue and fight for change. But it is my culture: I have both a right and a moral duty to do so. I find it disgraceful that we have failed to achieve full equality in the United Kingdom, so I’m hardly in a position to pass judgement elsewhere. And, of course, we all operate within our own standards of ‘right’. To the people i shared experiences with, it’s they that are right and, perhaps, my own culture that is wrong. If we simply project our own views as right, there is no outcome other than conflict, and we miss the opportunity to learn. I think the reason I’m nervous is that I do not want to want to offend, because the bonds I have forged by walking together are bonds of friendship. Let me finish with a story about children.
Many of the people I spoke to have family: often young children doing what young children do, obsessing over YouTube, and forging their dreams for the future. I asked many people I met how they feel the world will be that their children grow up to live within. Whilst there may not have been consensus as to what the future will look like, the thing I can say for sure is that everybody thought it would be different. Be it slowly or fast, we are becoming more connected in many different ways. In some spaces that leads to conflict, but in others it leads to understanding. I guess our individual choice is to decide which space we will engage in and how. It is possible to be respectful in our difference, and perhaps to strive to make our own cultures the best that they can be, so others can see how we are in the world, and we can learn from each other.
Ultimately the future for any of our cultures lies in preserving those things which connect us to our heritage, whilst gently embracing the things that will connect us to the future.