When I was a kid, my mother always used to tell me not to speak with strange men, a piece of advice that I took to heart.
Ironically, I now spend an awful lot of time getting into cars with strange men since I have to travel for work; since I don't own a car, that means I often use cabs.
Life in the UK
I've been living in the UK for four and a half years, and in that time, the vast majority of the cabbies I've met have been polite, charming and friendly. They've given me mini-tours along the way - a Scottish cabbie living in Kent pointed out his favourite points of beauty. In Hull (I think), I got a brief history of the town's ghosts. On one cab ride with a male colleague in Brighton, we were enlightened as to where all the semi-secret whore houses were. In Edinburgh, my cab driver chatted to me about his views on Scottish independence and the pros and cons of living in small towns. And these are just some of the highlights off the top of my head. There are many more.
In all this time, I've had two uncomfortable rides. They were just that - uncomfortable - I wasn't (too) worried that I'd be physically in danger. But they stayed with me for a long time. Why? Because I was upset with my own reaction.
The most recent upsetting cab ride was a couple of weeks ago in Birmingham. It started out all right, the cabbie was friendly at first. Inevitably, he asked where I was from, since I'm clearly not British. I told him I was from New York. He started telling me about Obama's failings and about how Ron Paul would make a great president. To me, this was just ignorance - annoying but tolerable. Then, he started saying things along the lines of how all Americans think the same way - about everything. That's right - all 300 million of us. And by the way, this wasn't a compliment. I only responded weakly, with a polite laugh.
The Wrong Way to Ask a Question
We moved on. I mentioned that my mother is French. His voice dripping with judgment, he said, "Oh, so I suppose you're supporting Sarkozy, then?"
For some reason, this upset me most of all. He didn't know me from Adam, but because I'm American, he assumed I must be right-wing. And from there, he jumped to the conclusion that I must support Sarkozy.
Instead of calling him on his presumptions, I responded by saying I wouldn't support Sarkozy at all.
I was upset because he put me into a group I felt that I didn't belong to (right-wingers) and then made negative assumptions based upon that pigeon-holing and then acted to make me feel bad about it. (I've discussed this previously here.)
The Right Way to Ask a Question
But I was also upset by the crudeness of his questioning. He could have found out what I supported by asking an open-ended question: "Oh, well, I know the French elections are coming up, who do you think is the best candidate?"
He could have said, "from the outside, it looks like Ron Paul might be a good candidate because of x, y and z. But you're from there, what's your view?"
Then we could have actually had a conversation.
The truth was, though, that he wasn't interested in having a conversation.
Diversity vs Inclusion
I recently read an article that summed this up to some degree. In it, the author points out that
There is a big difference between ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’, and concomitant with that, a big difference between ‘cultural diversity’ and ‘cultural integration’. Indeed, not understanding the differences between both, presuming that diversity exists because one sees diversity visibly, leads to what in philosophy is called the ‘appearance/reality’ dichotomy – the idea that things are not in reality what they might appear to be.
In other words, just because there's diversity doesn't mean that people are inclusive, or that they will try to help others who are different to themselves integrate. The appearance of diversity is not an indicator of inclusion.
In that cab that day, the cabbie had no interest in seeing diversity as an invitation to be inclusive. Rather, he saw it as an opportunity to attack someone different to himself exactly for that difference itself.
I hated my reaction. I just laughed politely and uncomfortably and went with it. I didn't challenge him at all. I really wish I had - but the reality was that I was in a car with a strange man, and I just wanted to get out of it safely.
How would you have reacted?