Editor’s Note: This guest column is a response to a Jan. 31 news article titled “Cultural exchange enlightens MSU student” by Tor Gudmundsson.
By Shannon Collaer
Expectations are funny things. They’re constant; we formulate potential outcomes from social and academic situations, we hope for results, we fear consequences. We create expectations without realizing, and thus inadvertently affect understanding.
I recently learned an important, albeit difficult lesson about the nature of expectation and perception thanks to an article in this very paper, published earlier this year. After traveling to Saudi Arabia, the Exponent offered to interview me about the purpose of my visit and what I learned. I was elated to share the multifaceted and sometimes surprising understanding I gained in Saudi Arabia, a country too often misunderstood and misrepresented.
Ironically, my expectation for the article to be a source of complexity and unique perspective backfired into a piece which ultimately reinforced simple, often negative, perceptions held by many — particularly regarding the status of women.
My expectation was an article discussing the mosaic of roles women play in today’s Saudi Arabia; the unexpected result was an article focusing on the inferior legal status of women. Although legally, women are under perpetual male guardianship, this alone does not do justice to women in Saudi society; these women are forces of power.
Education is dominated by women in the Kingdom: girls outrank boys in standardized testing, and over 57 percent of college students are women. Economically, women are increasingly entering the workforce and gaining power, with thriving lobbying offices like the Khadijah Center, which focuses solely on economic opportunity for women.
Political rights are increasing; King Abdullah promised women the option to run and vote in the 2015 elections, and he recently appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, Saudi Arabia’s highest advisory council.
Although I explained these developments in my interview, the complexity of the issue was lost, and the focus of the article diverged. This is where expectations and perception become so important; what we say is not always what is heard, and what we seek to explain is not necessarily understood. This is the unfortunate reality of communication, and it demands a higher standard by all of us: We must identify our own biases and expectations in speaking, and more importantly, in listening. Removing what you want or expect to hear is vital if legitimate exchange and understanding are to happen. Selective or partial attention to reaffirm existing beliefs is not communication, and cannot yield understanding.
The reality of every situation is one of complexity, with positive and negative aspects, potential setbacks and constant evolution; yet the way we talk and think trends toward the simplistic. In discussing my experience, I didn’t realize what I said may not be what would be understood. Given the importance of the topic, I ought to have been more vigilant in explaining my understanding and identifying a limited perception.
My experience with this reality was a dramatic one; I unintentionally angered people, I hurt people, and I accomplished the exact opposite of what I intended. Be it in an interview or everyday exchange, we must realize the importance of communicating, not simply talking; of truly listening, not simply self-affirming.
Whether we seek to explain or seek to understand, it is paramount that we are prepared for complexity, that we expect dissonance from original perception, and most importantly, that we genuinely listen — without agenda, without expectation. We owe each other that much.