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Opinion

Opinion: Can the diaries of ordinary people be used to bridge cultural divides?

Illustration of a book
Words that carry weight: In a University of Maryland study, Pakistanis and Americans who read diaries from the others’ culture often came away with a more positive and tolerant perspective.
(Los Angeles Times)

Most people keep their diaries hidden. They put them under pillows and in drawers. Some write their diary entries in invisible ink, and keep the pages under lock and key. Diaries are personal and private for a reason — they represent our innermost thoughts.

Yet we managed to persuade people from different countries — the U.S. and Pakistan — to write down the mundane and humanizing details of their everyday lives and then share them with one another. We wanted to see if diary entries could break down prejudices and bridge cultural divides.

For 70 years, social psychologists have searched for the most effective way to break down prejudice. The search is as old as the discipline, which was born as a means of studying and reducing the discrimination and brutality people witnessed during World War II.

Researchers have forced conflicting groups to work together to fix a broken faucet and produce customized radio programs that show different ethnic groups cooperating with each other. Researchers have subliminally primed white Americans with associations between “black” and “good,” hoping that the connection would take. Some of these approaches were more successful than others, but it is notoriously difficult to get a prejudice reduction approach to stick.

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Previously, we had found that hostility between Pakistanis and Americans is mostly derived from media-driven misconceptions. In reality, the Pakistanis and Americans we enlisted for our study knew little about each other’s daily lives. Diaries had the potential to change that, we thought.

Before we began our research four years ago, our University of Maryland team tested whether people would feel comfortable sharing personal details for a scientific experiment. Our sampling of American and Pakistani diary writers allayed our fears, writing rich, vivid descriptions of their everyday lives.

In the primary study that followed, we assigned people to read these diary entries. A Pakistani collaborator helped us gather 100 of her fellow citizens through fliers and classroom announcements in Islamabad and Abbottabad, the last city Osama bin Laden called home. In the U.S. we recruited 100 people in the Maryland area.

Before the diary reading commenced, participants took a survey with troubling results that were consistent with previous surveys administered by others. Many Americans wrongly thought Pakistan was a Middle Eastern country (it is in South Asia), and that Pakistanis were violent and excessively constrained by their culture. Many Pakistanis said they thought Americans were immoral and only sought to dominate other religions and cultures.

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We wanted to see whether reading diary entries from another culture would reduce the prejudice and negative stereotypes they had expressed. Subjects were randomly assigned to read entries from their culture or a foreign culture.

The similarities between the American and Pakistani diaries were striking.

Two women in their early 20s, one from the U.S. and the other from Pakistan, each wrote about spending time with family, enjoying meals and watching movies. To us, it seemed like they might be friends if they ever met.

There were also important cross-cultural differences. Another Pakistani diary writer described waking up early for prayer every day and attending religious classes at her university. When she misremembered a Quran passage, her teacher made her stand in front of the class for 10 minutes as punishment. Conversely, an American described spending the night with her boyfriend and drinking beers with friends — activities that would be taboo in Pakistani culture.

But the diary keepers from different cultures shared a common set of concerns: emotions that define us as humans, regardless of culture.

At the end of a week, American participants were again asked what they thought of Pakistanis, and vice-versa.

The results, set to be published in the journal Behavioral Science and Policy, showed that before and after differences often reflected a more positive and tolerant perspective. A Pakistani woman who had read American diaries wrote, “Americans may be different than us in moral and religious values, but the life of a student in America is very similar to the life of a student here.”

An American woman who had read a Pakistani man’s diary said, “I feel that we have a lot of similarities between our everyday lives. We both attend college, play sports, having the freedom to eat and hang out with our friends, etc.”

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An American man who took in a Pakistani woman’s words wrote: “I would say that they are hardworking and selfless. They care about the greater good of their society, and make sacrifices for others.”

Those who read diaries kept by people who share their same culture rarely changed their attitudes. For instance, one Pakistani who had read a fellow citizen’s entries described the “free” American environment as “the root cause of common evil.”

The foreign diary readers also appeared to speak positively of that person’s culture. On average, participants reported more familiarity, similarity, positivity and closeness with each other’s cultures.

In our experiment, the perceived “cultural distance” between Pakistan and the United States lessened between those who read diaries kept by members of another culture. This sense of reduced cultural distance led Americans to see Pakistanis as less violent and freer, and Pakistanis to see Americans as more moral and less ignorant of other cultures.

Prejudice reduction studies must be repeatedly tested and replicated to make sure their effects are reliable. We plan to do that with larger and more representative groups.

Diaries hold immense promise as a way of bringing cultures together, providing unfiltered access to the everyday lives of those we may know of only through the media.

Joshua Conrad Jackson is a doctoral student in psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Michele Gelfand is a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Maryland.


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