Growing up, I was constantly being introduced to different cultures, ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds. I remember being fascinated at the vast amount of cultural traditions and nuances, and I craved to meet new people, people with different stories. In Damascus, Syria, attending an International High School quenched my thirst for meeting different people, as the student making up the school were mostly children of diplomats who were stationed in Damascus. I had friends from all four corners of the world – from Buenos Aires, to Ghana, to Amsterdam. For me it felt natural being in a diverse environment, and I wouldn’t know any other way of interacting.
That was until I move to Yerevan, Armenia around four years ago. During the first few months, it was both comforting yet strange to be in a country where everyone is of the same ethnicity, of the same nationality, and of the same religion – everyone is Armenian, following the Apostolic church. It first felt comforting because I felt like I was ‘home’, being in my own country with ‘my’ people. But it was also strange at the same time because I was not used to the homogeneity. It was when I enrolled at the American University of Armenia that I began to notice the prejudice that existed here.
There was only one international student in the freshman class, and he was from India. I will not disclose any names for the protection of this individual’s privacy. I first was oblivious to it, since I had never witnessed first hand people exhibited prejudice towards another person. Slowly but surely, I noticed the whispers when this student walked into a class; I noticed how everyone else created a bubble around if as if he were contagious. This student was picked on, laughed at, and publicly humiliated on many occasions. I was ashamed and appalled at my peers’ behavior, and the first thing I did was blame it on their characters – believing that they were a bunch of disrespectful bullies, who are also immature for exhibiting this type of behavior – ultimately falling prey to the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error underlies that we find it easier to explain other people’s behavior in terms of personal dispositions, rather than thinking about situational factors that could have played in a role in their actions (Schneider et al., 2012). The more people I saw exhibiting prejudiced behavior towards another, the more people I ended up attributing being disrespectful and horrible to.
It was not until much later that year on a day that I was reminiscing my high school days when I had an epiphany. I was introduced to diverse environment growing, but Armenians who were born and raised in Armenia here never had. There is little to no diversity in Armenia, so how could these people ever be accustomed to a diverse environment when they have never been in one? Their entire lives has been underlined by the similar-to-me effect – since everyone around them is similar to them, they have been accustomed to perceiving others who are like themselves more favorably than others (Schneider et al., 2012).
This is fortunately taking a turn for the better in Armenia. Tourism has seen a boost in recent years, which means locals are being introduced more and more to individuals of different ethnicities and backgrounds. A lot of citizens of neighboring countries have also come to Armenia to start business, and there has been a huge influx of Syrian Armenians (due to the civil unrest in Syria). I am noticing how the dynamic has changed between local Armenians and an individual who is not from here – and it is definitely a great aspect to witness. Gordon Allport introduced the contact hypothesis, which “assumes that positive contact with members of an out-group could decrease negative stereotyping of the out-group by the in-group and lead to improved intergroup relations” (pg. 343, Schneider et al., 2012. I definitely see a link between this hypothesis and what I have experienced throughout my four years here by observing in-groups (Armenians) contact with out-groups. The more that Armenians had contact with anybody who is different than they are, the more they are not only developing acceptance, but also realizing the great outcomes of meeting diverse individuals.
Thank you for reading,
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., and Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications