Cultural Confusion – Why Are They Like That???

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…

  1. Nearly 1/2 of the population of New York City do not speak English at home.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


Culture is woven of many threads. History, religion, geography, background-1422310_640traditions, 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:

  1. MATERIAL – Economy, production, technology
  2. SOCIAL – Behavior, manners, interaction, communication
  3. 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.

question-310891_640The 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 face-805559_640cultural 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 analysis-1010888_640possible. 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.

Why Do We Do The (strange) Things We Do?

Why do we shake hands, clink glasses to toast, blow out birthday candles and hold wakes when people die? With their origin rooted in the distant past, many of our customs seem nonsensical if you think about it. But who stops to think about it? Isn’t it time to wonder why????

Why do we shake hands?

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 9.54.49 AM

There is evidence of handshaking as early as the 2nd century BC. The origin is uncertain but the popular theory is that early Romans grabbed forearms when they met to make sure the other was not hiding a weapon up his sleeve. That gradually turned into a handshake that is now used around the globe in greeting, bidding farewell, and as a symbol of agreement and sportsmanship.

Why do we clink glasses to toast?


Clinking glasses as part of a toast also dates back to ancient times. Killing your guest was once a popular way of gaining property and power. To make sure his drink hadn’t been poisoned, a guest would pour some of his libation in the host’s glass and they would drink together. If a guest simply clinked his glass against his host’s, he was expressing trust.

Where do birthday customs come from?


Early Europeans believed that evil spirits were attracted to people on their birthdays. Friends and family gathered to shower the birthday person with good thoughts and wishes to ward off those nasty demons. In hopes of winning the king’s favor, people began to shower him with gifts as well as good wishes. Eventually, that practice was adopted by common folk. A crown was bestowed on the birthday person making him/her royalty for the day.


A cake with candles became part of tradition because candles were believed to have the magical ability to grant wishes; smoke carried the wish to heaven. To this day, we make a wish as we blow out our birthday candles.

Why do we hold wakes?

Long ago ale was served in lead tankards at the local tavern. If one drank too much, the combination of lead and alcohol could result in lead poisoning. When that happened, the imbiber would pass out for several days, be mistaken for dead and buried.

Coffins were not buried too deep then and a severe storm could literally raise the dead. Floods brought wooden coffins to the surface, winds tore them apart. That’s how it was discovered that some of the coffin lids had scratch marks on them. The terrible realization that people had been buried alive led to several ways to avert it happening again.

First, the dead were laid out at home for a couple of days.  Family and friends  would gather, eat and drink, and make lots of noise to see if they could wake the dead. Thus began the custom of holding a wake.

bell-523611_640A second precaution was to tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, thread it through the coffin, up through the ground and attach it to a bell. Someone would sit in the graveyard all night (the “graveyard shift”) to listen for the possible tinkling of a bell. And that’s how some people came to be “saved by the bell.” The newly alive dead person usually headed straight back to the tavern where he was hailed as a “dead ringer.”

Fact or fiction? People had a real fear of being buried alive back then. Frederic Chopin’s last words were: “Swear to make them cut me open, so that I won’t be buried alive.”

Our customs and traditions may seem strange if we stop to think about them, but they have deep roots in culture and history.

“A civilization is a heritage of beliefs, customs and knowledge slowly accumulated in the course of centuries.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Warning! Don’t Trust Your First Impression

Next time you’re in a group of strangers – a restaurant, a lecture hall, walking down the street – look around. Let your glance rest on each individual. As it does, notice the thoughts that pass through your mind

How could he let himself get so fat?
That guy over there looks like Uncle Bill.
I like that dress. She has great taste.
That man looks successful.
Did she look in the mirror before she left the house?

people-1099795_640 (1)

We are judging people ALL THE TIME. It’s an automatic, unconscious reaction springing from the amygdala. That’s a part of the brain commonly known as the primitive or reptilian brain because it is akin to brains of reptiles that existed 200 million years ago. 

The amygdala is iguana-1057830_640the source of territorial instincts and primal emotions such as fear, greed and aggression. It existed in early man long before the rational mind evolved, and it reacts much faster.

When we meet people, the reptilian brain makes a snap judgment as to whether they are friend or foe, can help or hurt us. A message to accept or reject shoots to the conscious mind and corresponding feelings arise. We make decisions based on those feelings without knowing anything about a person or situation. That’s why our first impression can be dead wrong.

We decide very quickly whether a person possesses …traits we feel are important…even though we have not exchanged a single word with them. It appears we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way. Psychologist Alex Todorov

scroll-315451_640It all goes back to our earliest days on earth when survival depended on instantly detecting and responding to danger. A charging tiger demanded a fast response – one that got feet moving before the conscious mind knew what was happening.

The primitive brain was a lifesaver for our ancestors but can cause unnecessary conflict and division in our world. We still tend to reject people based on differences like race, religion, and appearance. While first impressions can provide valid clues to a person’s nature, they can also make us reject people worth knowing and trust people we shouldn’t. 

Consciously we know better than to automatically trust someone we just met, but we are hesitant to question our automatic rapid assessments. While first impressions can be insightful, they are not to be depended upon because they are based strictly on superficial evidence:

Spoken word accounts for 7% of an impression
of voice = 38%

= 55%

The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities. Machiavelli

Put It to the Test 

Choose a television program you haven’t seen before. Turn the sound off and watch the characters. Notice how quickly you judge them strictly by appearance – looks, clothing, body language, facial expression. You instantly like/approve of some characters while taking an instant dislike to others.

If you take an instant dislike to someone…  

you may be seeing a trait you don’t like in yourself
making a negative association from your past
categorizing and generalizing people
feeling jealousy or envy

A lot of critics are lazy. They don’t want to look closely and analyze something for what it is. They take a quick first impression and then rush to compare it to something they’ve seen before. Willem Dafoe

Our perception is tinted – and sometimes tainted. We have opinions that were formed in the past by culture, peer groups and gossip. woman-1172718_640Individual likes and dislikes are motivated by personality and conditioning. We are also influenced by our emotions, the mood we’re in at any given moment. Everyone is a unique combination of memories, feelings, beliefs and values that dictate first impressions. They reveal more about us than the other person.

First impressions can be dead wrong and dangerous. They prevent us from truly seeing and knowing people. They lead to faulty decisions and lost opportunities. Fortunately, we also have a rational mind that can temper or override instant assessments. Don’t deny your first impression. It is automatic and will be heard. But it doesn’t  have to have the last word.