During a long drive with my friend Jamal to New York, our conversation led to a discussion he had recently had with our friend Maria. He was recounting a debate he had with her over immigration, explaining that he was frustrated by her manner of expression. He felt that she had shut him out when she raised her voice, displayed no intention of really listening to him, and expressed too much emotion during their discussion. Surprised, I told him I had no idea what he was referring to but instead was reminded of the agreeable discussions I’ve had with her in the past. In time, we moved on to another topic, but the brief conversation lingered in the back of my mind.
A few weeks later, I went to the 8th Annual Latino Ivy League Conference at Columbia University. The conference brought together Latino delegations from all of the Ivy League universities to discuss matters relevant to Latinos in America, including affirmative action, gentrification, and the laws that target people who are queer and colored. After returning to Princeton, I was in the middle of describing the conference to one of my roommates – describing the energy in the rooms, the emotionally charged and intellectually stimulating opinions shared, and the incredible gift it was to have had discussions explicitly with educated Latinos from the other Ivy Leagues – when I was reminded of my earlier conversation with Jamal. In an instant, I realized why we had each had such different encounters with Maria. Maria and I understood each other on a level that Jamal did not. Unlike him, I was not put off by her emotionally charged opinions because it was exactly what I loved from the discussions at the conference.
This is what I’ve always known. It’s home. It’s cultural – it’s Latino. The emotion, the raised voice, the passion during their discussion was culturally Latino. Not to be mistaken with stereotypically Latino, because every Latino/a is not sassy, emotional, and/or loud. What I mean is ‘Latino,’ like being in a full house on a Saturday night, with all of my family, laughing and talking over each other. Being loud because the objectivity of my argument will not be lost in my volume, and in order to hold the floor because my uncle will swipe it from me at any moment. Being passionate, because I care about the matter, and I cannot detach my emotions from my arguments, nor would I want to. Latino.
At the time of Jamal’s interaction with Maria, he was unaware of that cultural difference. He was unaware that many (but not all) Latinos raise their voices, gesticulate, and get emotionally charged when they discuss … anything. He, like many Princetonians, was part of debate teams and model congresses and learned a technical way of discussing. He was taught that raising your voice and showing any emotion is a sign of subjectivity and bias, and the combination warrants dismissal, or at the very least discredits the opinion of the adversary.
So what happens when technical meets cultural? People clash, people get frustrated, and people stop talking and/or listening. And what does that mean for those wonderfully enlightening conversations that are supposed to happen at a university which has brought together a diverse group of students? It means that the exchange of ideas is limited by a lack of cultural understanding between groups from different backgrounds.
Princeton has made incredible efforts to provide opportunities for us to have conversations with people from countless different cultures, national origins, and lifestyles. Nevertheless, it is extremely difficult to have conversations with people who have different styles of communication. When I told Jamal why I thought he had an issue with Maria’s discussion style, we proceeded to have our own long discussion about whether people should adapt to the debate-formatted style. Though I know I raised my voice and got emotionally attached to my opinions, he could see the objectivity of my argument because he had a newfound understanding of the ways in which my cultural background influences the way I debate.
Just like people have varying opinions, people express their opinions differently, and it is important to keep the lines of communication open in order to allow for the exchange of ideas. Such an opportunity for enriching dialogue hinges on an understanding that there can be cultural differences tied to the way someone expresses his opinion, and that the objective validity of his argument is no less credible because of his manner of expression. There is true potential for conversations at Princeton, where the student population comes from a variety of social circumstances, if we all just kept this in mind.