I did it again. I put my foot in my mouth, and my podcast guest was a bit stunned by my culturally insensitive statement. I’m not sure what was worse, the look on her face or the fact that she physically jerked backwards.
I thought I knew about literacy rates in Northern India and had prepared to interview a highly qualified Indian female educator on my podcast. In fact, I’m married to an Indian and work for an economic development nonprofit. These are facts and figures I work with regularly, but the way my statement came out ‘on air’ didn’t hit the mark.
Instead of asking a question, I made a broad statement about low literacy rates. My guest was clearly thrown off. She paused with a long “ummm” before correcting my inaccurate comment. And to make it worse, it was all recorded on video!
My guest paused with a long “ummm” before correcting my inaccurate comment. And to make it worse, it was all recorded on video!
For almost 15 years, I’ve been living mostly in India. My spouse, children and I live in a non-metropolitan area where extreme poverty and corruption impact every aspect of life. Aside from our day jobs, we use our voices to elevate other voices which are outside the cultural mainstream. This often includes social workers and people who have lived experience to add to the cross-cultural conversation. In this way, our global listeners can learn firsthand about the “invisible” side of India.
Living in India for all these years and learning fluent Hindi still didn’t save me from inserting my white, American perspective into this particular interview. I assumed my understanding of low literacy rates was a helpful stepping stone to the next part of the conversation, when in fact, it was offensive and put my guest in a defensive position.
Fortunately, there are strategies you can use to avoid culturally insensitive blunders like mine. No matter what kind of podcast you make, even if you interview friends and neighbors, there may be times when you say the wrong thing. It’s how you handle it that matters. Remember to ‘pass the mic,’ check your assumptions, and give a genuine apology in the moment.
How to use open statements and ‘pass the mic’
Any time you’re engaging another culture which you are not a part of, or interviewing someone from a different culture about a particular issue which pertains to their life, your goal is to be a cultural observer. Pass the mic to the local person so they can share their expertise.
If you must generalize, make it a positive observation and qualify it as your opinion. As an outsider, it is not your place to criticize another culture or people.
No matter what kind of podcast you make, there may be times when you say the wrong thing. It’s how you handle it that matters.
Here is an example of how to change a closed statement to an open statement, while changing a generalization to an open observation.
- Closed statement: “Indians are very attached to their families.” This could be taken negatively and certainly can’t be true for all 1.3 billion citizens. Let’s try a different way.
- Open-ended statement: “In my years in India, I’ve noticed that many Indians are family oriented. Do you think this is accurate? Do you think this is true in most families?”
The second statement is qualified. It’s based on your observations and not presented as a blanket fact. It is a positive quality that you have noticed, but the way you have phrased it leaves room for correction. Your guest now has the chance to respond, offer a different take, and give insight.
Off the top of your head, what do you think you ‘know’ about the culture in question?
When you pass the mic and give them space to elaborate, you’ve shared your observations (which shows that you are smart) and created an opportunity to show your guest’s expertise.
What does it mean to check your assumptions?
Assumptions. We all have them — particularly about other cultures that we ourselves do not come from. Everyone is biased. But we can do our best to overcome our assumptions and biases by checking with a trusted person before we start our interview.
Assumptions. We all have them — particularly about other cultures that we ourselves do not come from.
While prepping for an interview which you feel may include sticky topics, maybe ask a friend who is familiar with the issue to review your materials and questions ahead of time. It will be even more effective if you ask someone who represents the same group you’re interviewing.
Off the top of your head, what do you think you ‘know’ about the culture in question? Consider where those impressions came from, and take the time to educate yourself. Incorrect or outdated cultural generalizations are everywhere. Research and asking questions can help you avoid perpetuating stereotypes.
When you mess up, apologize on-air
It may help to consider ahead of time what an apology might look like, especially if you have cross-cultural conversations regularly. Keep it simple, and avoid making excuses for your confusion or misunderstanding. The time to acknowledge a mistake is in the moment.
Give the opportunity for the other person to speak freely and to correct you if you make a statement which is incorrect. Accept the correction humbly and ask for clarification. This will not only help your audience learn something new, but you’ll learn something in the process.
The time to acknowledge a mistake is in the moment.
We all have assumptions about other cultures. And even the most well-meaning folks mess up. The good news is, if we apologize with genuine humility, most of the time people are willing to give you a pass and continue dialoguing with you. Allow yourself to be corrected. And as tempting as it is, don’t edit it out afterwards! Mistakes are valuable.
In summary, remember these three tips when engaging with another cultural point of view.
- Ask open-ended questions
- Recognize and check your assumptions
- Apologize when you mess up
Allow yourself to be corrected. And as tempting as it is, don’t edit it out afterwards!
In my case of committing a cultural faux pas, I was lucky. My guest, an educational advisor for schools in North India, gracefully corrected my skewed statement and we were able to move on with the interview, uncovering many jewels of information along the way.