I’m back where I love to be, starting a new book and building the world where my story will grow. Background work for this new project has me digging into the history of conquest and nation building, and my research is intersecting directly with the rest of my life, where I’m an active member of a community focused on valuing diversity. Culture and identity are on my mind, and I find that where I live both things are misunderstood or, more often, never considered. That’s why for the next couple of months I’m using this space to open a discussion of culture: what it is, why it matters, and how we bridge cultural gaps. This whole conversation a bit like trying to move an ocean with a child’s bucket, but being destined to fall short is no reason not to begin. And so we dip our bucket in.
Yes, I do know that I’m a middle class white American. I feel a little ridiculous and a lot unqualified to write about cultural divides. I’m tempted to pile up my research (the books I’ve read! the countries I’ve visited!) but none of that gives me any right to speak with authority. So I won’t try. I’m intensely aware that I don’t know what it feels like to be a marginalized minority. I know my knowledge has huge gaps and lacks scholarly depth. Let me assure you, I’m not here to lecture or to have the final word on anything.
I’m here precisely because I am white, and I’ve discovered that “culture” is a word people who look like me barely understand at all. For centuries, we’ve had the privilege of ignoring other cultures because we have the power to insulate ourselves. But ignoring other cultures is hurting us, and most of us don’t even know it. I want so badly for my own people to open our eyes and begin to understand what’s really going on in the world.
I think we’d find that it’s more terrible and beautiful than we ever imagined. I think facing that would make us better, happier people.
With that in mind, I’m not really going to tell you why you should care about culture. I’m going to tell you why I care. You can do with that what you will.
Before I can talk about caring about culture, I have to tell you what I mean by the word.
Culture is defined as the values, beliefs, and behaviors shared by a group of people.
Some people include attitudes, thoughts, and feelings into that list of shared traits, and that’s certainly all true, but I think keeping the definition simple makes it more useful. In my book, attitudes, thoughts and feelings can fall under the categories of values and beliefs, so I’ll develop them later.
It’s also important to note that our definition says culture is shared by a group of people. While my individual values, beliefs, and behaviors are simply my personality, the values, beliefs, and behaviors I share with the groups I belong to are my culture. This is true for enormous groups (residents of the United States, caucasians, women) and also for small groups (my school, church, or family). Every group has a culture. I’ll explore the implications of that in another post.
So why do I study culture?
I want to understand culture so I can live at peace.
The world is small, and I can’t help but come across people from other cultures just while going about my day to day life. I see them the second I step out my front door. I shop with them, buy from them, work with them. My kids sit next to them in school and play baseball together. I meet them when I walk in the doors of my church and when I take my dog to the park and when I go to the movies.
This isn’t just because I live in an ethnically diverse neighborhood; this would be true if I lived in the whitest of suburbs (though certainly to a lesser extent). Remember our definition of culture? I value what my groups value and believe what my groups believe. Which means that every time I talk to someone who doesn’t share my religion, who had different educational experiences, or who didn’t grow up in my family, I’m having a cross-cultural experience to some extent.
I’m not saying that to be ridiculous. I’m saying it to explain why misunderstanding and miscommunication are a daily part of all of our lives. The people around me, to one extent or another, don’t share my values and beliefs. That’s why they don’t do exactly what I would do. The more I can grasp this, not just to accept that it’s true but to learn to understand what is driving people, the easier I will find it to let go of my frustration, anger, and fear. It’s not a solution to those feelings; it’s only a first step, but I’ll take any steps I can get.
I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of being annoyed with everyone. I’m tired of feeling defensive. I’m tired of walking around angry at the way others act. I’m tired of looking at the world with dread, of feeling like I have to choose between ignorance and outrage.
No amount of empathy is ever going to make me agree with everyone. No deep understanding will take away the pain of being hurt by their actions. But disagreements don’t have to be wars, and wounds can heal.
I want to learn to understand people, not so that I can approve of everything they do, but so I can make peace with them. So I can make peace with myself.
I want to understand culture so other people can live at peace.
It’s a fact of life that just by living out my own values and beliefs, I’m unconsciously hurting people around me. Does that sound depressing? It is, but it’s also true.
For example, in a way that would make my German ancestors proud, I deeply value efficiency. I plan my days to get the maximum result from my time and energy. That means that when I run into the grocery store for some milk, I’ve budgeted five minutes to check that off the list, and then I’ll be off to do the other fifteen things I’m accomplishing before 3:30 pm. If the checkout lady is friendly and wants to chat, I’ll smile and give cheery answers, but I won’t linger to talk. I might even brush her off. If this is a woman whose culture values relationship over efficiency (as is likely), my behavior will feel rude to her. It’s not a deep wound or a horrible offense, of course. We’re strangers, and it was a two minute exchange. But that interaction was a negative part of her day.
Did I do anything wrong? No. From my cultural perspective, I followed all the rules and was even quite friendly. In fact, from my cultural perspective, it would be ruder to stop to chat because I’d be slowing things down for the people in line behind me. This all seems so obvious to me that without an understanding of culture it would never even cross my mind that it felt different to the checkout lady.
The point here isn’t whether or not I’m wrong. It isn’t even to answer whether or not it’s better to stop and chat. The point is that without understanding culture, I don’t even know to ask the question.
Obviously, most cultural offenses I’m giving are bigger and more important than that one. If I’m not ever questioning myself, I have no hope of being less offensive.
I want to understand my own culture, the values and beliefs that drive me, not so that I can change them or even adapt them to never offend anyone. That would be unhealthy even if it were possible (and it’s not). I want to understand my own culture so that I can be more aware when those offenses come, so that I can heap love and reassurance over them, can open communication to clear the air, can apologize when necessary.
I want to understand culture so I can see truly.
This is where it gets real.
The universe is a vast and intricate, beautiful and fascinating place. I believe that in that way it is a reflection of the God who made it. I want to absorb as much of it as I can. I want to experience my life. I want to understand truth. I want to know and be known, to love and be loved. I want to leave this earth better than when I came.
I can’t do any of that when I only ever see from my limited point of view.
It’s the old story of the blind men who come across an elephant for the first time. One feels the tail and says, “It is a rope.” One feels the leg and says, “It is a tree.” One feels the side and says, “It is a wall.” One feels the trunk and says, “It is a snake.” Then they proceed to stand still and argue over what this new creature truly is. One calls another a liar. Justly offended, that one hits the other in the face.
The solution is obvious. They need to take the time to feel what the others have felt. They need to work together to circle the elephant and discover how each part they touch fits together with the others.
If I want to understand life, understand the universe, understand God, I have to accept that I am blind, that I only have two hands, and that I am experiencing one tiny aspect of a much larger truth. The more I can listen to those who experience something much different, the more truth I can find. Not that I take their experience as truer than mine (this isn’t a tree, but it isn’t a rope, either). But I can grasp that this is bigger than I ever thought, and maybe I slowly begin to piece together what I’m dealing with.
I need people from other cultures in my life. I’m incapable of seeing clearly without them. And the more I struggle to understand them and to reconcile their point of view with my own, even when the differences are ultimately irreconcilable, that struggle brings me closer to what’s real and true.
Could I isolate myself and never experience any of the pain of cultural clash? I could, though it would be difficult in our shrinking world. Could I pretend that cultural clash isn’t what’s actually happening and attribute everyone’s actions to ill intent? I could, and most people do, to their great unhappiness. Could I engage in cultural clash and use all the resources I have to make sure I come out the winner? Yes. That’s what’s been happening since the beginning of time. It hasn’t worked out great for the world.
I reject all of those paths. I reject them because at the end of each one, I will have lost something immensely valuable. I will have lost the chance to find unity in diversity. I will be left defensive and lonely and believing a truth so small that it has become a lie.
So I’m just going to keep exploring this idea of culture, I’m going to keep searching for understanding. If you want to search with me and would like some opinions more expert than my own, I’ve put a short list of resources below. Or just hang out with me for the next few weeks, and we’ll try to piece some of this together.
It’s a place to start.
- Understanding Culture (Excellent PDF put together by the National Institute for Urban School Improvement)
The Art of Crossing Cultures by Craig Storti
Cross-cultural Dialogues by Craig Storti
Foreign to Familiar by Sarah Lanier