Let’s Meet in the Middle

The Goal

I recently came across a thought-provoking quote about inclusivity, by one of the most celebrated marketing gurus, Philip Kotler. It said, “being inclusive is not about being similar; it is about living harmoniously despite differences.”

In many ways, this would be an ideal scenario. But it got me thinking as to how we can reach a point of harmony. Can it ever really be achieved without having some level of understanding or appreciation of our differences? Without this, will we always be left making assumptions, judgements or even fearing those who we perceive as being different to us?

My Experience

One of the things I love the most about my specialism in intercultural relations is being an intermediary between different groups. In this space, one of the most challenging yet rewarding opportunities has been our work on the refugee crisis.

Late last year, I was invited to speak at a two-day conference in Athens, which was attended by medical and public health professionals (from across Europe) who work with refugees. My brief was to represent the perspective of refugees, based on insights from our 2016 Refugee Voices study, in which we interviewed 1500 refugees face-to-face, in Germany, Greece, and Jordan.

Given that the majority of attendees spent considerable amounts of time with refugees in the field, I wanted to present insights that they may not otherwise be privy to. More specifically, I wanted to highlight refugees’ determination to rebuild their lives, that they were forever grateful to host countries for giving them the opportunity to do so, but also the fact that lack of clarity over their futures was draining on their optimism.

Being one of the only non-medical professionals at the conference, I was somewhat nervous about the response I would get. Upon reading the session overview in the programme, would attendees be intrigued or see it as a great opportunity to have a coffee break and/or explore Athens? Thankfully it was the former! I was genuinely touched and overwhelmed by the response to our presentation. Afterwards, many commented that this was a perspective they rarely had the opportunity to hear, largely due to professional boundaries, as well as language and cultural barriers.

Making a Big-Splash

Commissioning and disseminating research findings has a significant role to play in helping to facilitate intercultural understanding and appreciation. However, as our recent study on achieving social cohesion in South Africa revealed, popular culture can amplify such messages and have a wide-ranging impact on society. For this, we built an Online Community of 70 participants who represented key population segments in terms of demographics (age, gender, race/ethnicity), and geographic distribution. After the four weeks of discussion, it became clear that tensions and differences in societal outcomes across racial, ethnic and tribal lines were seen as fundamental barriers to social cohesion. Importantly, while these problems were thought to be ingrained within governmental/societal infrastructure, participants felt that some of the most effective solutions could be offered by non-governmental initiatives and ventures. More specifically, they gave examples of how sporting events (e.g. the Rugby and Football World Cup) and music festivals had united South Africans.

While I have always been a champion of how popular culture has the potential to positively shape society, this research and a few recent examples have helped to strengthen my belief.

Example 1: A Rock Concert at the Royal Albert Hall

As those who know me (or even meet me briefly) can verify, I have a slight obsession with dance! This is for various reasons including the mental and physical health benefits, but more specifically, being part of a London-based Indian dance company has enabled me to see the impact this medium can have on intercultural understanding and appreciation.

Perhaps the most powerful example, for me, was a few weeks back when our professional dancers performed at the Royal Albert Hall with renowned rock musician, Steven Wilson. Steven is a fan of Indian culture and wanted to capture Bollywood and the festival of colour (Holi) in his stage show. In many ways, the audience could not have been further from our usual appreciators, but we were moved by the reception we got. Our time on stage was filled with roars of applause, and dancing, which is not typical for a Steven Wilson gig. The key factor was that everyone was united by their love for Steven and his music. Therefore, whatever he presented, they embraced…with gusto!

Example 2: Vogue India

Another example that has struck me is the April 2018 cover of Vogue India. It features (possibly) Bollywood’s most globally famous actress, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who has starred in movies such as Bride and Prejudice and Pink Panther and is a brand ambassador for L’Oréal and Longines (among others). Accompanying her is US music sensation, Pharrell Williams.

When I first heard about the collaboration, my mind went into overdrive. This sort of collaboration was groundbreaking and provided the perfect opportunity to do something meaningful that crossed country, ethnic/racial and artistic boundaries. I was consumed by millions of thoughts: would they go fully Indian with the theme and outfits; or actually, would they make it more hip-hop? Then…panic set in: would it be well received, or come across as a gimmick and thus do more harm than good?! Finally, the eagerly anticipated release date arrived and…my excitement was back in full-force. I thought it was brilliantly executed! Instead of focusing on any one culture, they had created a neutral space via high-end, quirky fashion. By letting this do the talking, for the audience, to a large extent, everything else that Aishwarya and Pharrell represent becomes secondary.

Final Thoughts

While I subscribe to the notion that inclusivity should, in many ways, be about living harmoniously despite our differences, working in intercultural relations has made me realise that a number of factors can make this challenging. For example, a lack of information or exposure to different groups.

Without first understanding and (ideally) appreciating our differences, can societies really function harmoniously? At a human level, this can lead to fear, prejudice, and tensions between groups. From a policy perspective, a lack of understanding can lead to initiatives that benefit some and disadvantage others. In terms of brands, it can mean that products and services only resonate with certain consumer segments, leading others to look elsewhere.

Popular culture can play a vital role in helping to facilitate intercultural understanding and appreciation. Firstly, it has the ability to reach people at mass, across the globe. Furthermore, with technology and social media, this can happen within minutes. Secondly, the level of emotional engagement with popular culture means that people are more inclined to pay attention and trust the content. This, in turn, also increases the likelihood of it positively impacting their attitudes and behaviours. Finally, popular culture provides neutral spaces where we can (at times literally) meet in the middle. By uniting us through common interests and experiences, these spaces offer an opportunity to better understand and appreciate each other. Furthermore, here, not only do we come to see past our differences, but we begin to see our similarities.

About the Author: Sania Haq is the Head of Research at Audiencenet. Feel free to contact her with any questions or thoughts at sania@audiencenet.co.uk.

Note: More to come from AudienceNet on the role that popular culture can play in building harmonious societies. In May we will be attending the PeaceTech Summit in Washington DC, and will also be publishing more of our research findings throughout the month.