Asking to Understand: Having Productive Conversations Abroad

By Kira Pyne, AU SPA ’20

I have spent the past two months studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS), focusing on terrorism and counterterrorism from a European perspective. Classes at DIS focus on learning outside of the classroom, and my terrorism course took a week-long study tour around Western Denmark learning about how Denmark works to prevent terrorism and radicalization.

Something that is important to understand about Denmark: It is a racially and culturally homogeneous society. I try not to stereotype, but it’s hard to not see that everyone whizzing by me on bicycles is blonde, tall, and dressed all in black. As a society that pays over half of its income in taxes to the government, Danes have to have similar values and beliefs about how their government should work and use their money. Denmark is consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world. The Danes that I’ve met and talked with seem to be very satisfied with their quality of life and their government.

A topic that is frequently brought up in my classes is Denmark’s views on immigration. We read over a policy about immigration that essentially said Denmark was going to work as hard as it could to strictly limit immigration and keep refugees out of the country. Two of my professors explained that this was because many people want to keep Denmark as, well, Danishas possible. This article can provide more insight into the subject.

These views on immigration were certainly in the back of my mind when my terrorism class arrived at a mosque for our study tour. We were fortunate enough to be able to speak with the Imam, an official who will lead prayers, and two other male members of the mosque. My professor encouraged us to ask provocative questions and get as much of an understanding as possible on their views on religion, assimilation, and life in Denmark. To say that my classmates took this seriously was an understatement.

When my classmates asked questions to purposely provoke the men we were talking with, we didn’t end up learning much. For example, someone asked, “Are you actually trying to embrace living in Denmark?” The Imam was angry at the implication that he and the other members of the mosque were not working hard to assimilate into Danish culture, especially because many members of the mosque were born in Denmark.

But when someone asked a question with an open mind, we got so much more out of the conversation. For example, someone asked about their opinions on the new Danish law passed that has caused frustration in the Muslim community. The law requires new citizens to shake hands with Danish officials at the naturalization ceremony.

The reasoning by Danish officials for this law is that in Denmark, it is custom to shake hands when meeting someone for the first time, and shaking hands at the ceremony symbolizes people’s integration into Danish culture. When members of the Muslim community did not want to abide by this, Danish citizens assumed that Muslim people were disrespecting Danes and their culture.

What was explained to us, from the perspective of this particular mosque, is that members of their community are not supposed to touch someone of the opposite gender unless they are married or family.

I certainly did not agree with everything we discussed at the mosque, but I did get a much better perspective on productive dialogue. We are never going to agree with everyone’s opinions or ways of life. We all live our lives differently, and there is a difference between trying to learn about and understand those differences versus confronting people about their core beliefs. Asking to understand allows us to see into someone else’s world and day to day life. When we ask questions that try to reaffirm our previous beliefs, our beliefs are reaffirmed. The dialogue is closed.

Unlike Denmark, America is not a homogeneous society. Many of us come from different countries, different religions, and we certainly don’t all look the same. We have to work every day to understand the differences between ourselves and those that surround us. Too often, we jump to defend our own opinions and react with frustration when someone questions those beliefs.

In a time where our country is extremely divided, asking questions to understand, rather than to change another’s opinion, is more important than ever. We don’t have to agree, but without understanding, we are not going to be productive. Understanding, embracing, and loving our differences is what is ultimately going to move us forward as a nation.

Kira Pyne is a junior majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies: Communication, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government (CLEG) and minoring in Psychology. She is a member of the SPA Honors Program, part of the Standards Committee for the Rude Mechanicals, and a New Membership Assistant for Phi Alpha Delta. 

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