Home » Political Related » “Conditioning”: a contributing factor in the notion of the Two Solitudes – Introduction (#275)

“Conditioning”: a contributing factor in the notion of the Two Solitudes – Introduction (#275)

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Canadians are more connected and informed regarding other aspects of their own country than at any other time in history.   Canadians (both Francophone and Anglophone) are more bilingual that at any other time in their history.  Canadians travel more within their own country than at any other time in history.  Why then do the Two Solitudes continue to exist?

I firmly believe it comes down to a question of “conditioning”.

Conditioning is a very powerful concept.  It is what often dictates people’s thoughts, and consequently their actions.

Conditioning is the concept that we live certain experiences so frequently, or that we are so used to hearing from others how situations or realities work that we come to believe they are true.  Furthermore, conditioning makes it so we are unaware that alternate realities, truths or experiences are possible.  In other words, conditioning is the “mental” mould in which we grow up, without realizing that

  • perhaps our own mould is not correct,
  • perhaps our own mould is not the only mould that exists, or
  • perhaps our mould does not give us the complete picture.

An “ingrained prejudice” is different from “conditioning” in two senses:

  1. A prejudice is a sentiment we harbour, despite being offered prima-facie (obvious) evidence which contradicts our prejudice, and
  2. Unlike “conditioning”, in the case of an ingrained prejudice, we refuse to give up our incorrect or incomplete views once we are made aware of an alternate or more complete truth.

In the above definition, the word and is quite important.  If we give up and change our incorrect or incomplete views, and adopt more truthful or complete views, we no longer are prejudicial, despite whatever “conditioning” we may have experienced.

Understanding this notion is one of the first steps to resolving the Two Solitudes.  Progress will not be made in resolving the Two Solitudes unless people know that they hold incorrect views which need to be resolved (and never forget that one’s views lead to one’s actions).

I can give you a benign example using my own experiences from living abroad.

I lived and worked in the private sector in mainland China for many years.  I lived in a community with few other foreigners.  I would go about my daily life, spending time with my Chinese friends, doing my shopping, and driving to and from my company’s facilities just as I would in Canada.  But the twist came from the fact that I was fluent in Mandarin Chinese, that I had immigrant status in China, and that I integrated to a large degree into a Chinese lifestyle (I felt I was an immigrant, and as the saying goes, when in Rome… ).

But invariably, after many years of acting and being “just as Chinese as the guy standing next to me”, I would run into many cases in which I was treated quite differently by strangers.  They believed they “should” view and treat me differently – and ultimately it was owing to the colour of my skin and my origins… I was white, and I was from Canada.

I would walk into a restaurant, and staff would clamour over themselves to look for a fork and knife to put in front of me (there was no way they thought I’d ever be able to use chopsticks).

I would attend a business lunch in a restaurant with new business counterparts.  The moment I would walk into the room, people would see I was white, and they would scurry off in a tissy to try to find someone to act as an interpreter (because in their minds, there was no way a white person could speak Chinese).

I would go to the grocery store.  I perhaps was the only white person who had ever shopped in the grocery store.  As I would pay for my groceries, a gaggle of people would hoard around my shopping basket to see what food “white people eat” (I could never figure out how a group of 10 people huddled together behind me could ever think that I would not notice that they were gawking at my grocery basket, by way of simply turned their gaze away when I turned around to look).  There were always more than a few surprised faces when people saw my grocery basket was full of Jiaozi, dragon fruit, lychees, zhuazhu, shanyao, ximiantiao, and other Chinese foods, just like theirs.

I would take my car into the garage to get the brakes fixed, and the service clerk would tell me that she heard that I bought a new pair of shoes a couple week earlier at a sale in a department store for $48.00… simply because everyone in town was all talking about “what the white guy does, buys, and how much he is willing to pay”.

Did I find it frustrating to live in such an environment day after day, year after year?  You bet I did (it was a major factor in deciding when I was ready to leave China after so many years, despite having had immigrant status, a house, vehicle and interesting career in China, and having tried my best to integrate as any immigrant should).

Did I get used to it?  Yes.

Did I like it?  No.

But I really didn’t have a choice.

Was I able to live with it?   Yes.

Why?  Because I took solace in the fact that I had a group of very close (Chinese) friends and (Chinese) colleagues who I spent my time with, and who were always there for me (as I was for them).  That in itself helped me to put up with all of these other daily “irritants”.

But what truly allowed me to mentally cope with all of these other “irritants” was that I understood that strangers around me were “conditioned” from birth to hold specific believes about foreign white people.   It was not racism – nor did I chaulk it up to racism.  I knew that exposure to my reality and background were almost non-existent for these people.   I also knew that people’s views changed towards me the longer I lived in my adopted community.  More importantly, people were willing to change their views about me and people of other races and origins.

I knew their prior conditioning came from many sources:  what they saw in movies and in television, the types of news stories they were exposed to and the slant those news stories took, what teachers taught them (this had a huge influence on people’s beliefs, because teachers themselves imprinted their own conditioning onto their students), as well as what history taught them (despite the fact that history and the present can often be two completely different realities).

Now imagine if an ethnically Chinese immigrant to Canada were to walk into Swiss Chalet or McDonald’s, and the staff were to scramble like mad to try to find and throw chopsticks at them.  Imagine if this person’s grocery purchases became the subject of curious gawks from all those behind them in line-up at the check-out counter at Loblaw’s.  Imagine if a Chinese Canadian went to Canadian Tire, and the service counter clerk blurted out that they knew where the customer purchased their sunglasses and for what price, simply because everyone in town was talking about it owing to the fact that the person was ethnically Chinese.  Imagine if non-Chinese people were to shout very loud, and very slowly at a Chinese Canadian because they had it in their mind that the Chinese Canadian would not be able to speak English (or French).

Would such actions occur in Canada.  No way! (at least they better not!)  Why do they not occur?  Because the public and individuals, through exposure, are “conditioned” to know better.  Society has been long exposed to realities which lead them to believe that such acts would be unfounded, unnecessary and nonsensical.  But if non-Chinese Canadian were to act in such a manner, and were they to deny the realities presented to them over time, then their actions would be a blatant case of prejudice – and I would think we could call it racism.

But I refused to apply the word “prejudice” or “racism” to strangers in my community in China who treated me in the above manner.   I knew they were conditioned to believe that they should view me in a certain way.   But I also knew that their views of me would change if they were exposed to the greater picture, and if were given a fuller set of facts.  And you know what?  After living in a community of perhaps 50,000 people for several years, little-by-little people did come to know me.  Over time their views of me (and other non-Chinese people) did change.   Eventually I was treated much more as a normal member of the community, especially by people around town who had regular contact with me..  But it did take a while, a lot of exposure, repeated interactions, and many many discussions.

The notion of Canada’s Two Solitudes work in much the same manner.

Anglophones often hold notions about Francophone culture that they have been conditioned to believe are reality.   Francophones often hold notions about Anglophone culture that they have been conditioned to believe are reality.

But what strikes me, as someone who has lived a large chunk of his life (since the age of three) living between both cultures, is that these realities are often false.   Our false views of realities about the other linguistic group’s world is not a deep harboured prejudice (stemming from strubborness), nor is it racism.  Rather, it is a question of “conditioning” owing to a lack of exposure.

This conditioning comes from our respective languages group’s media, news, education systems, from a language barrier in an of itself, from geography / long distances which prevent face-to-face interaction, and from the imprints left upon us by others who themselves have been “conditioned” into believing certain false realities.

I’m going to go out on a very sensitive limb here by trying to sum up what those false realities tend to be… …

At the risk of overgeneralizing, pertaining to unilingual Anglophones’ societal conditioning:

I would say that the single largest false reality they hold is the belief that most aspects of Québec society are exposed to, and experiencing all the same things that Canada’s Anglophone society is exposed to and experiencing – and thus they believe Francophones are placing equal emphasis on all the same matters as Anglophones Canadians.

Again, at the risk of overgeneralizing, pertaining to Francophones’ societal conditioning:

I would say that their single largest false reality is that they believe they are aware of what is happening in the rest of Canada or in the minds of Anglophone Canadians across the country.  They often falsely believe they understand Anglophone Canada’s various regional, provincial and societal contexts – be it on a national level, or at a street-level context.  In essence, Francophones often incorrectly view Anglophone Canada was one giant monolithic block.  Yet they are often not aware at all of the many different realities within Canada or the regional nuances in Anglophone Canadian society.  And the largest misunderstandings pretain to how Anglophone Canada’s various realities and nuances share much of the same story as Québec.

When examined separately (on the basis of Francophone versus Anglophone conditioning), both of these conditioning contexts are very different from each other.   Both give rise to very distinct angles from which to view the notion of the Two Solitudes. 

But understanding this difference is key to trying to overcome and bridge the Two Solitudes.

Oh, and one quick afterthought…

In China, people are super polite and love to compliment you.   People were very kind and would say to me “Your Chinese is so good” (even if it wasn’t)…  to which I would sometimes respond in Chinese “Gee, yours’ isn’t so bad either”.  My response would invariably always lead to laughs… people in China love that kind of sense of humour (and even though my Chinese wasn’t perfect, I did live there for a long time and it was fairly fluent, and certainly good enough to do 100% of my work in Chinese, and to live in Chinese… just as an immigrant to Canada would pick up our language fairly well after living here for several years).

Along this same theme, two weekends ago, I accompanied a friend of mine to Niagara Falls.  He is originally from Montréal but now lives close to Toronto.  His friend from Matane (in Québec’s far Eastern Lower-St-Lawrence region, the last stop before you hit the Gaspésie region) came to Toronto from Québec the night before and was going to join us to see Niagara Falls.  When I met the person from Matane for the first time two weekends ago, he look at me and say “Wow, your French is really good.  I’m surprised, considering you’re from Alberta!  You don’t even have an accent”.  Out of habit, I defaulted to my old China response.  I responded in French “Gee, yours isn’t so shabby either, but you seem to have a bit of a weird half-way-type of a Gaspésie accent”.

He didn’t laugh — I don’t think he found my comeback joke very funny.  I’m not sure if he was a bit surprised that an “Albertan” picked up his accent, or if his silence was his form of telling me I went a bit too far in my description of his accent.  Looking back, I think he found me a bit snarky (which wasn’t really my intention)…  But upon reflection, I perhaps shouldn’t have said it.

Regardless, his little remark “considering you’re from Alberta” was a prime example of the Two Solitudes staring me straight in the face (I guess the thought never occurred to him, or his schooling / social background never made him aware that that there could be people who can grow up in French in Alberta, and who are thus aware of these things, just as an Anglophone from BC would be able to recognize a Newfoundland English accent).

Needless to say the next few moments between me and him were sort of an awkward silence, until I took the initiative to change the topic and start chatting as if our initial exchange had never happened.

I guess it goes to show that “conditioning” truly is as much a part of Canada’s Two Solitudes as it can be between other cultures around the world.

Over the next few posts, we will look at some of the specific aspects of conditioning which contribute to the notion of the Two Solitudes — some aspects which people should perhaps be made aware of, and which need to be overcome.




  1. Emile says:

    Quick correction here: Matane is actually in Gaspésie. The region “border” is in Ste-Flavie, about halfway between Matane and Rimouski.

    Nevertheless, very interesting post!


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