Difference, respect and money

by David Week on 06 May 2011


Don’t be tolerated

Tales from the Hood recently wrote a post about tolerance. It begins:

I remember several months ago sitting in the Karachi airport McDonald’s chatting with @ayeshahasan about the foreigners who go to Pakistan and try to blend in by wearing a salwar kameez…

and asks, mid-stream:

How do you know that your local colleagues are just putting up with you because they can tell that you “mean well”? How do you know that they’re simply too polite to tell you to get out of their country?

I’d hate to spend a life just being tolerated. It would be… intolerable.

So there’s a powerful incentive for me not to be just tolerated, but to be actually welcome. So I shot out a few paragraphs of comment, just top of mind stuff. But on reflection it seems to me that my subconscious (or my fingers) hit three principles that I hope I have, by now, engrained into me.

Here they are, verbatim: with some additional commentary.

Be comfortable being different

I think that to be more than tolerated, it helps NOT to “belong”. If you go to India, say, there are 1bn people there who already belong, far more than you can ever can. They eat the street food. They dress in the local garb. They know the local culture, because—collectively—they are the local culture. What possible value could it be to them to have one more Indian, only this one a pseudo-Indian: one that just isn’t very good at what they all do excellently.

My value is I am not local. I see things they miss. I can say things they can’t. I know things they don’t. My value is in my foreignness.


  • Another way of saying this, though not perhaps as pithy, is that if you’re not bringing something different to the place, you needn’t be there at all.
  • It also gets up my back when people try to “blend in”. An exception is when you have to alter your customs in a certain way in order to avoid really annoying people. That’s called politeness.
  • There’s a relationship between attempting to “blend in”, and one of the two most common reactions to culture shock. One reaction (withdrawal) is to disappear into the yacht club, and drink the night away. The other (“going native”) is to declare every aspect of the local culture wise and earthy and superior, don a sarong, get married, and change your name.

Respect your comrades

Now: foreignness is not enough. They don’t need foreign arseholes, any more than they pseudo-locals. So in addition to being foreign, I also come with respect. I acknowledge that they see, say, and know things that I can’t, and that what they see, say and know is IMPORTANT. I treat them with great respect, and whoa!–surprise, surprise–I get a little of the same back. There’s something to that karma thing after all.


  • My understanding of “respect” comes from a passage by the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, writing about the different stances one might take to another culture. He defined these stances in terms of openness to learning from that culture. At one end of the spectrum of openness is that attitude that one has nothing to learn. It’s quiet possible to work in development, be full of care and compassion and all that gooey goodness, and and that same time believe that one has nothing to learn. But such an attitude is, to me, deeply disrespectful. At the other end of the spectrum is the openness to the possibility that one’s might learn something that will force one to reconsider the foundations of one’s worldview. Note that this is “possibility” that one “might”, not the certainty that one will. The first is openness and respect; the second is fawningness and culture shock: equally disrespectful, because it’s treating others not as real human beings, but as a romanticized projection.
  • I have no strong supporting evidence, but I believe that when we’re  not feeling stressed, afraid, infantile or narcissistic, this kind of respect comes naturally to us humans. Here are three ideas that I associate with this belief:
    • Tom Harris’s idea that the stance “I’m OK, you’re OK” is healthy, and that the other possibilities (I’m OK, you’re not; I’m not, you are; I’m not, you’re not) are all unhealthy.
    • Robert Axelrod’s book “The Evolution of Cooperation”, which uses game theory to show why it makes good evolutionary sense for most of us to be really nice to each other most of the time.
    • A factoid from the book “Killology”, which said that it is wholly unnatural for one human being to kill another; that soldiers have to be specifically trained to overcome their natural instincts, in order to do so; and that 98% of people who have killed others in combat come back scarred by the experience—and the 2% that aren’t scarred, are the ones who were already psychotic going in.
  • I like the old and not-often-used word “comrade”. As I do the word “solidarity”.

Don’t be afraid to bring money

The third thing I bring is money. Of course it’s not mine, and I don’t actually control it, but fact is someone else with money is paying me to be there, shepherd their investment. So I take care to show my local compadres how to use money well, which I define as in a way that satisfies their needs, and the needs of the donor at the same time. Everybody’s happy, which in turn leads to more money. I can’t guarantee that, but I can help. And that’s another way to be more than tolerated, because for all the hand-wringing in the world about money, all of it by people who have heaps of it, money helps. Money is power, it’s true. Power to influence, to motivate, to get things done. And by virtue of that, helping people to learn how to use donor money is empowering.


  • Jacob Needleman write a book about money. He said two things that stay with me. The first is that everyone claims that they don’t care about money… but watch what happens when the restaurant check comes. The other is money is amazing: there is almost nothing that you can’t do if you have enough of it; and there is almost nothing that you can imagine doing that doesn’t involve money at some point—yet we avoid talking about it. The point here is that almost everyone has some pretty deep-seated attitudes towards or against money. Most of them are probably not helpful.
  • Just as you would benefit from someone giving you a million dollars, and someone else showing you how to use it wisely; please provide that wise advice to the beneficiaries of whatever project or program you’re involved in.


So bring your foreignness. Embody respect. Carry with you financial empowerment. You won’t be “at home”, but who cares? It’s not your home. But you welcome in someone else’s home, and that’s even better.


  • I’ll stand by that.


  • Bonnie Koenig

    David – Great ‘thinking out loud’ through your own experiences on how ‘foreigners’ can effectively interact with countries they are visiting/working in. We can all learn from more of these types of reflections. (And thanks to J. for starting the discussion with his reflections!)

  • cemilygo

     Thanks for the distillation of years of experience.

    • I guess everything we think today is the distillation of years of experience, no? I’m reminded of two bons mots that stay in mind:

      • We are all the descendants of winners. (The losers didn’t procreate.)

      • All peoples have the same length of history.

  • MJ

    An excellent summation of how to thread the needle!

Previous post:

Next post: