When is a moo not a moo? A reflection on difference.

What sound does a cow make?

That was the mission we assigned to an international student from Germany during a Postgraduate class activity. I was also one of the students. The topic in question for our group was beef, and the task at hand is to synthesise our thoughts by way of a drawing. We start with a cow, a price tag, and a stick figure representing the consumer.

By his own admission, his drawing skills were limited, and the cow he drew was purple with a head that resembled a type of dog. I decided that the cow needed to make a cow-like sound to make sure you knew it was a cow. Out loud I said “Moo!” and in my head, I saw the letters M-O-O. But our German colleague wrote “MUH”.


How remarkable!

Language is a source of fascination for me, and this moment highlighted how language is perceived differently. Words, sounds, characters, voice and a myriad of other characteristics are given life and meaning by language, but they all come from a basic understanding that has been constructed through our individual experiences.

Caught by surprise, I found myself wanting to correct it. ‘That’s not how you spell ‘Moo!’ I thought. But just as quickly I deliberately suppressed that feeling. We both heard the same sound but saw a different word. Who was I to say that my word was more correct than his?

It’s moments like these where you are confronted by even the smallest difference that you learn something about yourself and your response to it. I am a little disappointed, more than a little actually, to discover that my first reaction to his spelling was to see difference as wrong. I take a small bit of comfort in the fact that I questioned my response almost immediately, and made a conscious decision to accept his version.

As a minority, having been at the receiving end of prejudice, I pride myself on my openness to cultural diversity.

Not every interaction in the session that highlighted difference resulted in a challenging response. Sometimes difference can improve knowledge and understanding; like learning about the philosophy behind ‘halal’, the poor practices of the meat industry in Germany, and the science behind the health risks of beef.

We all had different perspectives, but in the end we agreed to a course of action. Or did we? Even though I agreed to the course of action, I still had my doubts. But I didn’t voice them. I had a difference of opinion, but I succumbed to the group dynamic and decided not to rock the boat. I doubt this particular exercise was put at risk by not expressing my views. But in situations when it does really matter, can I afford to be complacent?

What I have learnt from this very simple scenario is that difference is provocative. Difference can expose assumptions and make the invisible visible, like where I had assumed that “moo” would be spelt a certain way only to find it could also be spelt “Muh.”

Difference can reveal new knowledge, like where we learnt about the humanitarian practices of ‘halal’ and the inhumane practices of the German beef industry. Difference is challenging you to share an opinion that might go against popular thinking.

Most of all, difference is opportunity. The opportunity to think outside your own limitations, self-imposed or otherwise, to see possibility where you might never have thought to look. Difference is daring to imagine a purple cow, with a dog-like head and an accented “muh”.

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