I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world. -- Socrates
— Ed Coburn (@EdwardJCoburn) September 14, 2013
Being a “Citizen of the world” is a big responsibility. The term implies that you have a legitimate and genuine concern for other people, living in foreign countries, with languages, cultures, customs and traditions that are, in many cases, radically different from your own. As we can see, being a citizen of the world is a tremendous challenge.
The challenge gets even bigger when we have no actual experience of living in a foreign country, of speaking a foreign language, of adjusting to a strange culture, with different ways of doing things. In short, being a citizen of the world is easier said than done.
Nonetheless, if we leave skepticism out of consideration, however well-intentioned it may be, we can ask ourselves what would be an important, if not the most important, characteristic that a citizen of the world should have? It’s a tough question, not easily answered. Out of ten people, I would expect to have ten different answers.
Here is my answer to the question: What is an important characteristic or trait that a citizen of the world should have? The ability to communicate across cultures, or, cross-cultural communication skills. I would like to use myself as an example, because I’m well acquainted with myself. I hope to be instructive, though I make no claim to being the average or typical cross-cultural communicator.
My cross-cultural communication skills are grounded in three related experiences I had during high school. One, I was President of my class from the 9th grade to the 12th grade, from my freshman year to my senior year. Being involved in student government taught me how to listen to people with different goals, different views, and different motivations than mine. Listening, you will agree, is a must have skill if you wish to communicate with someone.
Of course, leaders also have to speak in public, in front of other people. I learned that I was terrified of public speaking, scared to death to say or do the wrong thing and get made fun of. So, I began a lifelong habit of overpreparing for planned speeches, and adept at withholding my opinion if I hadn’t fully developed it.
In this respect, communication skills, the course that was of tremendous help to me was a course called, “Speech”. It made all the difference, as I learned the skills that would carry me through a leading role in the school Junior-Senior play, not once but twice, in front of the whole town of Luxora (the school auditorium was completely full on both occasions). By the time graduation night rolled around, and I made the President’s speech, I was reciting poetry and dedicating it to the Junior class. Oh, I was terrified, trust me, as again the whole town was there…
The final piece of the puzzle, cross-cultural communication skills gained in high schol, is a course in Spanish. It was during the days when language teachers thought that all you had to do was be able to translate, learn vocabulary (nouns), and read the target language. I obviously did well, but learned that there were other cultures besides my USA, North American, southern culture of a small town.
There was a big world out there, where people spoke different languages, and celebrated holidays that we didn’t in the USA, for example, “Dia de los Muertos”. On November first, we celebrate All Saints Day, while on the same day, from November first to November second, Mexicans celebrate the “Day of the Dead”, a tradition dating back to before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.
In sum, student government, public speaking, and learning a foreign language (Spanish) formed the basis from which I developed cross-cultural communication skills. As an adult, I have visited 35 of the 50 states in the USA. I have lived in Europe and in South America, visited Africa and Alaska. I am trilingual, speak, read, write and understand 3 German, Spanish and English.
Can I claim to be a citizen of the world? Yes, if you will allow me to communicate, to speak, to read, to write, to observe the daily life of the people where I live. I can choose from a wide variety of media nowadays to inform myself about what concerns the rest of the world. In the end, it is not difficult to understand what is mutually beneficial for everyone, and what is not mutually beneficial.
On the other hand, if you take away student government, public speaking, and foreign language out of my high school education, then I would probably never have developed the ability to be comfortable in a foreign culture, living outside the United States. What’s worse, it is likely that I wouldn’t even care about relationships between my country and other countries, either.
For example: “To prosper economically and to improve relations with other countries,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared in 2010, “Americans need to read, speak and understand other languages.” Unfortunately, Duncan pointed out, only 18% of Americans report speaking a language other than English, while 53% of Europeans (and increasing numbers in other parts of the world) can converse in a second language. Source: Forbes
If I am a citizen of the world, it is because of my cross-cultural communication skills. Student government, foreign language, and public speaking, are indispensable skills if you truly desire to be a “citizen of the world“…