A Lot of Things Don’t Translate Well. Civility Does.

By Solomon Self, AU SIS ’19

I’ve been studying abroad in Thessaloniki, Greece at the American College of Thessaloniki for the past two months. Thessaloniki is situated on the northern coast of the country, and is close to the borders with Turkey, (the Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Albania. Over the city’s more than two-thousand-year history, it has been Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and finally modern Greek. Thus, it quite diverse and attracts people from across the rest of Greece, the Balkans, Asia Minor, and Eastern Europe. In my classes, it is not uncommon to have people from a variety of backgrounds who speak a variety of languages. With that comes a variety of opinions.

Looking back at my Cross-Cultural Communications class at American, I remember how it seemed like the NatSec boy from the Midwest or the socialist girl from New England were speaking a totally different language when they raised their hand to comment during the discussion. That actually happens here. From inside jokes about some historical figure from their home country to casual asides made in their first language, communication can already be challenging – and we haven’t even gotten to their opinions yet. I knew going abroad to study – especially in a region with no shortage of problems – would require open ears and an open mind, but I didn’t expect it to be put to the test so soon and so constantly.

As an American abroad in classes that deal with politics, there is no avoiding the Trump Question. Aside from asking if I voted for him – for the record, I did not – it became my duty to enlighten the class on his policies and his allure, things I am not necessarily an expert on. It gets even more complicated when non-American students express their support for him. Initially, my gut reaction was to furiously debate them and tell them all the reasons he was the worst thing to happen to American democracy in years. However, I began to realize that for them, maybe he wasn’t. If you’re from a country that fears its much larger and more powerful neighbor, perhaps a more militarized America isn’t a bad thing. If you feel your country is being taken advantage of by Chinese trade, maybe Trump “standing up” to them is admirable. If you’re from a country that has benefitted from both Democrat and Republican administrations, perhaps it doesn’t truly matter who’s calling the shots – liking the US president is simply a given.

The perspectives of my classmates, while sometimes very different than my own, are products of our experiences and upbringings. I, an African-American man from California, will have very different interpretations of things than a woman from the former Soviet Union or a man from Serbia. Though I may passionately disagree with those opinions, fighting them or shouting them down won’t help anything. We can speak different languages, have different customs, and hold different beliefs, but regardless of where we come from, we respect each other and are willing to learn from one another. I have educated some classmates on how Trump has attacked and hurt people in America – particularly communities of color and the LGBT community. I have learned from my classmates that even in domestic policy, America’s actions are not contained to America and that the ripples of what we do are felt across the world, for better or for worse.

Of course, none of these conversations and educational moments would have been possible if we had simply written each other off based on initial impressions, reacted angrily to hearing opinions counter to our own, or felt indignant about comments made from ignorance and a lack of understanding of each other’s home countries. I came abroad to learn about other cultures and see a different part of the world. I’ve done that, and in the process I’ve also learned a bit about myself. I’m no less committed to my political positions and moral values, but I am more willing to debate, discuss, and hopefully educate people on those positions.

The concept of civility, though it takes different forms, is universal. Everyone, regardless of their national origin or political leanings, wants to be respected and wants to have their voice heard. No place is more important than a university like ACT. People come from across the country, the continent, and the globe to learn, grow, and work together, and although there is much that sets us apart, those ideals bind us together.

Solomon Self is a senior majoring in International Studies at American University and is currently studying abroad in Greece. He is a member of Delta Phi Epsilon Professional Foreign Service Fraternity and formerly served as Student Government Vice President and an AUx2 Peer Leader. 

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