At one time, a group of volunteers visited a tribe on the banks of the Amazon River. Their goal: improve the health and sanitation of the native peoples. The first thing they told the tribe was to boil water for fifteen minutes to significantly reduce disease.
Their directive was totally ignored. Dismayed, the volunteers approached the translator. He explained that he was unable to convey the message to the people because they had no word for boil and didn’t measure time in minutes.
Clear and simple directions to one culture were incomprehensible to another.
Today we don’t have to travel to the jungles of the Amazon to find a different culture. Diverse cultures are mixing in every city in the world…
- Nearly 1/2 of the population of New York City do not speak English at home.
- According to a study by BBC Radio, Toronto is the most diverse city in the world. With 51% of its residents born outside Canada, it is home to 230 different nationalities.
- Singapore with less than 6 million residents is the most religiously diverse country.
Diversity is everywhere. As people move around the globe, they take their culture with them.
WHAT IS CULTURE?
Culture is woven of many threads. History, religion, geography, traditions, values, laws, language, climate, food, environment, and the economy are just a few. One anthropologist estimated 637 major subdivisions of factors that shape a culture. They are commonly divided into three categories:
- MATERIAL – Economy, production, technology
- SOCIAL – Behavior, manners, interaction, communication
- PERCEPTUAL — Attitudes, values, beliefs, religion
We see only about 10% of a foreign culture on the surface; dress, food, manners. There is a vast cultural foundation underneath the surface: acquired knowledge, beliefs, values, perceptions, and ideology. Common values unite people in their outlook, behavior, and moral perspective. A shared belief system gives people an agreed upon understanding of how the world works and how they should respond to it. Transfer those people to a different country/culture and radically disparate ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, polite and impolite can clash.
Communication – the way we relate, create, explain – is one area we may experience that clash. Most English speaking cultures prefer direct communication: clear information, yes and no answers. They like to get straight-to-the-point while Asians find that rude. They prefer to ease into a conversation with talk of generalities. They are reluctant to directly express disagreement.
The American head of an international office in China found that his secretary rarely followed his orders even though she said yes to all his requests. He discovered that “yes” simply meant she heard him. She thought it would be rude to say she didn’t understand him or was not capable of doing what he asked.
Whether it be via the spoken word, body language, art or music, communication can bring people together – or drive them apart. An innocent mistake like making a physical gesture that means good or okay in some cultures is considered crude in others. Idioms in one language don’t always translate as intended.
When Pepsi posted their slogan “Pepsi Brings Good Things to Life” across billboards in China, they didn’t realize it translated to “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave.”
Social etiquette is another area where confusion and conflict can arise. The comfort zone – the personal space we like to have around us – varies from culture to culture. Western societies are individualistic. They value independence and the pursuit of personal happiness. Other cultures are group oriented, more focused on collective goals and interests.
There are cultural differences in the way we perceive time and relate to it. Westerners see it as fixed; they value punctuality.
In warm climates, time is generally perceived as fluid: things will get done; if not today, sometime.
We are so indoctrinated with our culture from birth that it seems we are born with cultural biases. But culture is not innate. It is learned, acquired from the family and society into which one is born and grows up. Our differences develop because the ingredients that make a culture can vary drastically from place to place. As a result, our perception, the way we communicate, our rituals, food, and dress can be so diverse as to make us appear like we are all from different planets. The irony is we all think we’re right.
A man was appointed circuit judge in a small, rural area. He was determined to be the most honest, fair-minded judge possible. His first case was a dispute between neighbors over boundary lines. As he listened to the first man, he started nodding his head and saying, “That’s right. That’s right.” The second man jumped up and cried, “But you haven’t heard my side.” When he proceeded to lay out his case, the judge was soon nodding and saying, “Oh, that’s right. That’s right.” The court’s marshall leaned over and whispered to the judge, “Your Honor, they can’t both be right. “Ah, that’s right,” the judge agreed. “That’s right.”
But maybe they can be. At the very least, we must admit that everybody is right from their point of view. The problem is that one point of view is often too narrow to perceive and respect the other side.
Like it or not, the world is changing drastically and rapidly. Understanding different cultures and lifestyles is essential to living peacefully and solving some of the problems the world faces. There are no easy answers to those problems. Perhaps there are no answers at all. Cultural, religious, and territorial differences have been at the root of conflict since human history began. What we can do – each and every one of us – is lessen the hatred in our collective consciousness. We can seek to understand rather than condemn. We can endeavor to build harmony in our own families and communities. And before judging anyone too harshly, we would be wise to remember the words of Abraham Lincoln…
Don’t criticize them; they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.