Cultural Sensitivity

Lately the word “sensitive” is often used to describe someone who gets their feelings hurt easily. It’s become, in some circles, a code word for being touchy or lacking resilience. I know I probably should roll with the cultural punches and let language shift as it shifts, but I hate giving up on “sensitive.” Yes, I could use the word “responsive” instead. I could call this “cultural responsivity,” but what an awkward and clinical-sounding phrase. “Sensitive” means exactly what it sounds like: using your senses to be quick to detect even small signs of change. I love that. When it comes to cultural issues, we should have our feelers out and finely tuned. We should train ourselves to be quick to detect and respond to how someone from another culture feels.

If you’re thinking you’re a long way from being quick to detect and respond, welcome to the club. It’s okay to be at the beginning of the process. Like a butterfly, we all start out as hungry little caterpillars, focused just on ourselves and filling up our own needs every day. We take in our own culture, live off of our little leaves, and it’s all the satisfaction we need. When we realize that this isn’t enough, that’s the first step, the building of a chrysalis where we can take a long look inside. We turn inward and take stock. We open ourselves up to be changed. But we can’t stay there forever either. At some point we have to break free, our new antennae feeling out the world, our new wings carrying us lightly from place to place. In this new sensitive and active form, we not only experience so much more of the world, we also become useful pollinators.

So how do we get there? Metaphors are lovely, but they lack something in specifics. Again, I’m no expert. Too often I am slow to detect and slower to respond to cultural needs. But I’m learning.

Here’s what I’m working on:

1. I pay attention to my own biases. We all have biases. Assumptions about people who look a certain way. Attitudes or words that rub us the wrong way. Behaviors that make us cringe. Actions that we judge as selfish or wrong. And sometimes biases go the other way: personality traits we automatically approve of, demeanor that puts us at ease. We all have biases. Having a bias isn’t wrong. We have to make judgements about the world or we can’t navigate it. What we want to avoid are the twin terrors of being unaware that we have biases or allowing our biases to be based on ignorance.

I try to be honest with myself about my biases. I’ll try to be equally honest with you and name a few. Because of my life experiences, I often find myself biased against people from my own culture. If you are wearing a t-shirt with an inspirational saying on it, my automatic response is to think we’ll never be able to have a serious conversation. If someone tends to talk big about his life and accomplishments, I automatically don’t trust him. Other of my biases stem from my own culture. I hate it when people play their music too loud (sensitive ears combined with white upbringing). I have a hard time not finding it rudely invasive. I often find that I make the assumption that physically fit people have their lives together more than those who aren’t fit. (This despite the fact that I’m not particularly fit.)

Once I’ve recognized these biases, I need to stop and think why I hold them and evaluate their validity. The only reason I associate physical fitness with being in control is because that’s how it was always talked about when I was growing up. I now know it’s a false assumption (in both directions) but still I have to fight it. I’m never going to love loud music (unless it’s mine and I’m in the right mood), but I can acknowledge that it doesn’t represent a character flaw in those who do. And though I’ll not be wearing any myself, I’ve met quite a few white women in inspirational t-shirts who had a lot to speak into my life. Big caveat here: I do not suspend all my judgment. I can allow for big-talkers in the sense of larger-than-life personalities, but even after long evaluation, I have found that most boastful people of any culture are lying. It’s not necessary for me to place my trust in liars in the name of being culturally sensitive. We’re recognizing and evaluating our judgment here, not suspending it completely.

Once I can recognize my bias, I can put is aside long enough to do the next thing.

2. I listen to others. I am working to ask questions instead of making assumptions. Experts (not me) tell us that active listening involves five steps. First we really hear, by setting aside distractions and prejudices and letting someone else speak. Second, we attend to what they’re saying, paying careful attention to nonverbal signals and emotions being expressed. Third, we seek to understand by repeating back what we’ve heard and asking follow-up questions. Fourth, we respond, still not talking about ourselves but rather using our empathy to give a response to what they’ve said. Finally, we remember, following up with them later to have more conversations.

A couple of notes about asking questions:

Leading questions are not really questions. A question that only asks for a yes or no, or a question to which you already have an answer in mind is a leading question. “Do you think being late is okay?” Or even, “What are your thoughts on being on time to things?” when you really just want them to say it’s important. True listening questions give people an opening to talk about their own thoughts and feelings. “How is the pace of life different here from where you grew up?” “How does it feel to you that everyone talk about being on time constantly?”

Try to avoid asking people to speak for their whole culture. It’s fine to ask for them to describe how things are in their neighborhood or country or even to describe the behavior of people around them. But no one should have to be a spokesperson for the attitudes and motivations of people they don’t know. And they don’t know everyone from their culture. Ask instead what their experiences have been, how they feel about things, what motivates them personally. Listen to them as a person, not a representative.

3. I initiate in cross-cultural relationships. I’m not always good at this because I, like many people, don’t enjoy taking interpersonal risk. But here’s the reality: if we all just did what came naturally and easily, we’d all just hang out with people from our own culture. Go look at the cafeteria at your local school during lunchtime. Kids sit with kids who look like them. They just do. And it’s not necessarily about hate. It’s about comfort and security (or the lack thereof).

We’re not kids anymore, but our insecurities do linger, don’t they. If I want to learn how to bridge cultural gaps, I’m going to have to start by, you know, stepping into the water. I have to speak up, to introduce myself, to offer coffee or set up a play date or invite someone to dinner. I have to be willing to be awkward, uncomfortable, and wrong. I will be, but I’ll also find things I love that I never knew existed. I’ll make mistakes and possibly cause offense. Then I’ll get the chance to be humble and apologize and I’ll learn on a level I couldn’t have any other way.

I can’t wait for it to happen naturally (it won’t) or for someone else to make it happen (I’ll be waiting a long time). I have to step up.

4. I intentionally learn about other cultures. There are a lot of obvious ways to do this. I eat food from other cultures. I read books about them or (seldom) watch documentaries. I travel if I can. But this isn’t a purely academic idea. I also reach outside my usual routine and consume art from other cultures. I sometimes listen to kinds of music I don’t normally love and try to understand it. I read books I wouldn’t normally, watch TV shows with characters that don’t look like me, go to movies not aimed at my demographic. If I am allowed to give one piece of personal advice, this is it: don’t just check out things that describe people, check out the things they’re into, explore the art and entertainment they enjoy and try to see why they enjoy them. The art people produce communicates so much about their culture. Give it a try. (And if you don’t know where to start, email me. I have thoughts.)

5. I consider more than my personal behavior and evaluate the systems I participate in. Here’s where I take it to the next level and really spread my shaky butterfly wings. My field of work, my kids’ schools, my local government, my housing association, my church, the organizations I belong to. I want to be thoughtful and honest about all of them. What are their cultural leanings? In what way are they making it difficult for people of other cultures to thrive in them? Is there anything I can do to make the system more culturally inclusive?

We can’t let ourselves believe the lie that we’re only responsible for our personal relationships. Yes, I need to be warm and kind and open and understanding with those I meet. But as much as I would like to think of myself as just an individual (more on this cultural leaning in a future post), I am also a member of a community. Several different communities actually. As such, I have a larger responsibility to see how the bigger system of my community is affecting people. My personal kindness isn’t helping families who can’t get decent housing because of neighborhood rules and standard real estate practices. It’s not helping the students failing high school because it was never designed to teach people like them. It’s not helping single moms get appropriate health care in a system with rules that raises hurdles to access on every side. To help those people, I need to do my part to enact systemic change.

If that feels overwhelming, well, sure. It is. Remember, we’re taking steps here. Don’t worry, you don’t have to dismantle health care this week. For now, maybe just be willing to consider the ways the system is not as culturally sensitive as you are. Set aside your bias about it. Then ask some people not like you what their experiences have been. Listen to what they tell you.

Break out of your self-contemplation. Spread your wings and fly around a bit. Look at your comfortable place from the outside. Put out your antennae and sense what others are feeling.

Be ready to respond.

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Cultural Identity

In order to talk about cultures (the values, beliefs, and behaviors of a group) we’ve made a lot of generalizations. It’s helpful to understand these patterns of value and belief, especially as we consider adapting systems to be equitable for people of all cultures. As we think about our day-to-day interactions with individuals, though, it’s useful to ask ourselves how we know what culture someone belongs to.

Consider four people with the same ethnic heritage and the same country of birth. Just as an example, let’s say all four had parent born in China and all four were born in the United States, in the state of California.

Li’s parents were well educated in China and came to California for the economic opportunity. Both speak fluent English and have successful careers in the tech industry. Li was born after they had lived in the US for several years. She grew up in an upper-middle class urban area, had no siblings, and was educated in private schools. Her family claimed no religion, though her mother encouraged her to be spiritual. Her parents taught her some Chinese, but English was spoken at home. She now attends UC Berkeley.

Min’s parents came to the United States fleeing oppression. They spoke only a few words of English and had no money. Both took labor-intensive jobs in Chinatown in Los Angeles. Min was born three months after they arrived. Min was raised in a lower-class urban neighborhood, is the oldest of two children, and spoke only Chinese until she began attending public school at age 6. Her family is Christian, and were dedicated members of a Chinese-speaking church. Her parents eventually saved enough to open a small business, and Min was expected to work shifts in the business in addition to her studies. She eventually worked her way through college at California State.

Brian’s parents were both born in China but came to the U.S. as small children. Neither speaks Chinese, having grown up embarrassed by their parents’ lack of English skill. They met in college and bonded over their similar background. Brian is one of three children, was raised in a small town in northern California, and played soccer at his public school. His family is Christian and only sometimes attended a large, mostly-white church in town. Though his grandparents only live a few hours away, his family visited them only a couple times a year. His first real introduction to China happened on a trip he took to Beijing with his college soccer team.

Jin’s parents came to California to join his aunt and uncle and work for their business in the tourism industry. Jin is the youngest of four children and the only one born in the US. His parents were determined that their children would learn English, so no Chinese was spoken at home. Jin grew up in a small beach town, attended a small public school, and is an avid surfer. When he was fifteen, his grandmother came from China to live with his family. He became fascinated with the Chinese culture he never knew growing up, adopted his grandmother’s Buddhist religion, and studied Chinese in college.

Li, Min, Brian, and Jin are all Chinese-American. Not only do they share certain physical characteristics, they all are products of the same two national cultures. But it would be a huge mistake to think that these four have the same values, beliefs, and behaviors. In spite of their commonalities, their cultural identities are quite different.

When we talk about someone’s cultural identity, we’re not referring to their genetics. The culture that someone belongs to is the one that shaped them and that they identify with.

Each person’s cultural identity is made up of many factors, and the importance of each factor depends on its significance to the person. Some of the most important of those factors are race/ethnicity (recognizing again that this isn’t so much an issue of genetics as of the way society has defined race), socio-economic status, religion, place of residence, family structure, and degree of personal conformity to cultural norms.

Think about your own cultural identity, starting with what shaped you. What race or ethnicity do you claim? How significantly did you feel your race or ethnicity impacted your life? What was the economic status of your family of origin? How did that compare with the economic status of those you spent the most time with? What religion were you raised in? How important was that religion to your family? To you? Where did you live? In what country and in what region? Did you live in the city or in a small town or in the country? What was your family status? How many parents lived with you? How many siblings did you have? What was your position among those siblings? How much did you fit in with your family’s values? How much did your family fit in with your community’s values?

All of those answers go into forming your cultural identity. And as if that weren’t complicated enough, your cultural identity can shift over time. To be clear, it takes a lifetime to alter the beliefs and values of the culture that formed you, if it ever happens at all, but your behaviors (and then later, maybe, your values and beliefs) will be influenced by the culture you choose to identify with as an adult. Most adults remain pretty closely tied to their culture of origin, but in some cases radical changes can occur.

You may find your cultural identity changing due to your education level, your career choice, your choice of religion, where you choose to live, the status of the family you found as an adult and your adult socio-economic status.

Can you think of ways that you identify with a different culture than you did as a child? How different are your own values, beliefs, and behaviors from those of your parents?

What’s the point of these questions? As I’ve already said, it’s critical that we develop cultural understanding so that we can get past the behaviors of those around us and see the values, beliefs and attitudes underneath. But as we become more culturally aware, we can’t ever use our broad cultural brush to make assumptions about the people we meet. If we do, we fall into the trap of stereotyping, just with more educated language. Generalizations are helpful in understanding groups, but dangerous in understanding individuals.

Always, always, we are truly culturally aware only when we take the time to get to know individuals, when we discover what cultural factors formed them and what cultural identity they choose to claim. We have to allow for complexity and for change.

We have to do the hard work of listening.

Culture and Education

Last week I talked about the terms we use to define and categorize cultures, and I want to take it the next step this week and apply those concepts to a real world environment. I’m going with one I’m pretty familiar with: education. In looking at education as a sytem, for the first time we’re moving past evaluating our personal behavior and we’re evaluating a larger structure with the eyes of cultural understanding.

There is a lot of talk these days about systemic injustices (systemic racism, systemic sexism, etc.), and I don’t think the concept is very well understood. With or without understanding, though, it produces a strong emotional reaction. Emotion is good–it fuels action–but it’s always best if our emotion is coupled with (and based on) solid knowledge.

So what is systemic injustice? At the risk of oversimplification, I’ll define systemic injustice as unfair practices promoted and codified by a social or political system of power.

Does education fit that definition? It easily satisfies the requirements of being a system. Education in America is a codified structure, with laws surrounding how it’s carried out and a hierarchy of power controlling it.

The question of whether the system is unjust requires a more lengthy answer.

The answer could be found in statistics, looking at the racial and cultural breakdown of students who succeed and students who fail in our education system. I personally find those numbers very compelling. But I think we can also take a different approach to the question and use our cultural understanding to see the problem in a very personal way.

As I start to dig into educational practices, I understand that it makes a lot of people nervous. We’re comfortable with our systems. We’ve benefitted from our systems. We know they aren’t perfect, but they’re better than any other system we’ve heard of, so it feels disloyal and ungrateful to tear them down.

I get it. I do. I was educated in public schools in four different states. I got an incredible education. I memorized Shakespeare and dissected frogs and mastered a musical instrument and learned a second language, all without my parents having to pay money they didn’t have. I’m immensely thankful for it. It enabled me to get scholarships that paid for a college education, which enabled me to readily get a job teaching in another public school. Twenty years later, I have three children also being educated in public schools. They are getting a great education. I have benefitted and am benefitting from our public school systems in every way.

But here’s the thing: those systems were built for people like me. Of course I benefit from them. I am a perfect cultural fit.

We need to understand that the education system in the U.S. is the specific product of white American middle-class culture (with influences of white upper class culture because the middle-class yearns to imitate and eventually become them). Even beyond that, the education system in the U.S. is founded more generally on principles passed down from other “cold-climate” cultures in Western Europe.

People of western European descent who had money made this system and they still run this system. It is designed for them, and it absolutely automatically follows that they benefit from it the most.

That’s not an accusation, not something to feel guilty about; it’s just a fact that we need to deal with. Let’s dig into what it means using the cultural terms that we learned last week. I want to talk about school in the language of relationship vs. task orientation, group vs. individual identity, high context vs. low context communication, monochronic vs. polychronic view of time, and internal vs. external locus of control.

Relationship vs. Task Orientation

Think about the structure of a school day. In elementary school, we spend a lot of time teaching procedures and rules, training students to sit still in chairs, to walk quietly in hallways, to make quick transitions from one task to the next. There are good reasons for all of this; it truly helps things go more smoothly. But the fact remains that the emphasis is on getting down to the business of learning as quickly and as efficiently as possible. The emphasis is on not being distracted from the important task of learning by talking to others. Many elementary school teachers are very personally warm and caring and do take time with their students, but their job requires them to produce measurable results: test scores, reading levels, etc. Regardless of the personal practice of teachers, the system values tasks.

This becomes even more pronounced in secondary school, where kids are expected to drop into a class and dive into that subject, then switch to another class in an efficient five-minute transition and start immediately on the next subject. Success is again measured by test scores, and most tests are in an impersonal, standardized, written format. Often information is imparted in a unidirectional way: the teacher lectures, the students read a text book, math concepts are explained on a chalkboard. Questions are for when students don’t understand the material, not a part of the original learning process. Even when we teach the languages of intensely relationship-oriented cultures, we do so in a task-oriented way: memorize a list of vocabulary and a set of grammar rules and take written tests. Again, individual teachers are sometimes exceptions to this rule, but our curriculum is inherently focused on tasks.

Our schools are designed for a task-oriented culture. So what does that mean for students who are from relationship-oriented cultures? They long for more personal connection, they struggle with abrupt business-like transitions, and they aren’t able to show their true capabilities in impersonal and rigidly-structured testing environments. It can be very hard for them to retain information imparted in a task-like manner, where perhaps they would find it more memorable and relevant if more interpersonal interaction were involved.

Group vs. Individual Identity

Success in our school systems is measured by personal achievement. A good student performs well on tests, achieves certain letter grades, and in time begins to compete with other students for certain honors. Work is mostly done individually, and even when group projects are assigned, individual contributions are still measured and grades are often assigned individually. There is no mechanism for rewarding students who contribute to the learning of their companions, and our value on privacy keeps students from even knowing the degree of success of other students or of the class as a whole.

All of our efforts to motivate students involve this individualistic way of looking at the world. We encouraged students to dream big, to pursue their dream, and tell them school is the way to achieve their personal goals. We hold up examples of people who attained personal success: admission to certain universities, high paying jobs, awards, fame. We tell students that they need to work hard and take responsibility for their own education. This is how they’ll succeed and be happy in life. Our cultural value of individualism is the foundation for our educational decisions.

What does this mean for students from group identity cultures? The things they value aren’t even on the table, and many of their contributions get overlooked. They may have trouble setting individual goals for their future, and so they appear aimless and are treated like underachievers. No one is talking about the things that are motivating to them.

High context vs. Low Context Communication

In low-context cultures like our own, everyone is expected to explicitly state their own needs. Communication in American classrooms is very direct. The teacher gives instructions and passes on information, and students who don’t understand are expected to ask questions. If a student is struggling, the expectation is that she will speak up and request help. How else is the teacher supposed to know? He can’t read minds, after all.

But what does that mean for students from high-context cultures? In their native culture, it’s considered rude to point out that someone’s communication hasn’t been clear. In order not to shame your teacher, you’ll give nonverbal indications that you didn’t understand, and they will automatically notice these and provide further instruction. Students from high context cultures will not naturally raise their hand to ask questions or ask for help. Then when they fall behind in class, teachers often become frustrated that they student didn’t speak up, usually attributing this to laziness or lack of caring about their work.

Monochronic vs. Polychronic

Let’s think about the curriculum we use in our schools. Subjects are divided from one another and we study one at a time. We have a time during the day for reading, one for writing, one for math, one for science, one for history, etc. We tackle one task at a time, and then we move on to the next. We design the year to move through the items in each subject sequentially. A topic is taught thoroughly, then tested, then a new topic is introduced.

It may seem like this is the only logical way to handle it, but that assumption betrays our monochronic way of viewing time. Subjects could be covered together, reading and history, science and writing, all weaving in and out of the same lesson. History could be studied by topic rather than chronology, and a history lesson could be interrupted for a foray into the science or literature of the age discussed. Evaluations could be made in the middle of a lesson rather than the end.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with our monochronic way of doing school, but it is tied to our culture. What does that mean for kids from polychronic cultures? They may find it hard to stay focused just on the task at hand, and may be reprimanded for being “off-task.” They may struggle to see the relevance of history or math when it’s studied in isolation from other subjects and not set in the bigger context of their lives. In many cases their distractibility or lack of feeling engaged leads to disruptive behaviors, which get them in trouble or even removed from the learning environment. Obviously, their performance suffers accordingly.

Internal vs. External Locus of Control

Again consider how we evaluate our students. Each is given a series of tests, and his performance on the test describes his success in the system. If students are consistently failing these tests, the first assumption is that they haven’t studied hard enough. More work is given, more pressure is exerted, more time is expected to be spent. Why is that our assumption? Because our underlying belief is that the student has within himself the power to succeed or to fail. Culturally, we have an internal locus of control.

Consider that even the stated purpose of education–to better your life–seems odd to someone with an external locus of control. They have a hard time seeing how their efforts studying books in a quiet classroom is going to have any effect on their real life. Life will happen to them, and no amount of studying is going to change the outcome. They are not motivated to take control of their future by studying hard because their culture and life experience has taught them that the world doesn’t work that way. People with an external locus of control are seeking to enjoy the present rather than enrich the future because, in their minds, the present is all that is guaranteed. Though school still may be a tool for their future success, the students aren’t going to see it that way. Unless school feels like it adds something to their present life, it’s just a place someone makes them go every day. Think about how school is designed. Very little of it is designed to be rewarding now. It’s all about storing up knowledge and achievements that can help you in the future.

You see the point I’m making? Our education system is unfair, whether or not anyone working in it intends for it to be unfair. I’m confident that almost all of them want nothing more than to educate everyone equally. But because of our cultural leanings, we’re helping some people more than others, we’re offering more success to those like us and less to those who are different. Setting all intention aside, that adds up to injustice.

Our schools are full of kids from other cultures, and like ferns struggling to grow in a desert, their environment isn’t hospitable to them. Some will adapt and survive, but none will thrive the way a desert cactus will, or the way they would if they just had access to more water. And since education is the access key to other systems of power, their lack of thriving in that environment has ripple effects throughout the rest of society.

I want to be clear: my goal here is not to criticize the way we do education. Criticism doesn’t create change.

I’m just here to say, one white lady to a bunch of others, that we should admit that school in America is a white lady world. White ladies have a lot of good qualities. One of the best is that most of us desperately want to help others. But I think maybe we sometimes get so stuck in our white lady ways, that we don’t do a good job of providing the help that we intend.

I find it troubling to be a part of a system that helps me and my kids prosper while holding others back. I want to do my part to help others find success and happiness by their own cultural definitions. I believe I’m not alone in that.

I know and work with a great number of teachers, most of whom pour their hearts into caring for each student holistically. Some are already culturally aware and act accordingly. For them, none of what I’m saying is news, and to them, I say that I can see you working to meet your students’ needs and I can see that you are hampered by systems that don’t take those needs into account.

For those who are just learning about cultural awareness, I see that you want to do better and that you are overwhelmed by how much is being asked of you. I see that even what you want to do can’t always be done in a system designed to stretch you beyond human capacity. Teaching may be a calling, but at the end of the day, it’s also a job, and the system determines the job requirements. Once those are fulfilled, there often isn’t much time and energy left over for enacting change on an individual level.

I see you, and I’m committed to helping others see you, too.

May we all join you in changing what needs changed.

Cultural Comparisons

My fourth grade daughter told me the other day that the latest craze in her class is writing those magazine-style quizzes for each other. She had written one for me as an example. ‘Answer these five questions and I’ll tell you what kind of person you are.” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to laugh or cringe at the idea of ten-year-olds applying their vast knowledge of the world to categorizing each other, but I did find their fascination with it interesting.

Categorizing the world is a natural human instinct, a way to figure out where you fit in relationship to everything else. It’s a dangerous habit, to be sure, especially if we cling to our categories and refuse to see the nuance of real life. But categories are useful if you think of them as a tool rather than a rule. There are a lot better personality profiles than magazine quizzes, of course, and the best of them, while not coming close to defining us completely, give us language we can use to understand ourselves and others.

The same is true of cultures. Below I’m going to outline some of the categories most commonly used to describe the “personality profile” of a culture. The list is not comprehensive by any means, but it does give us some language to use moving forward. Note that each category is a continuum, not an either/or proposition. Some cultures may fall way to one end or the other, but most are somewhere in between.

(This isn’t an academic paper, so I’m not citing sources for all of this, but I do want to acknowledge where I got some of these ideas. While this is mostly a collection of knowledge I’ve picked up here and there over the years, some is specifically drawn from the book FOREIGN TO FAMILIAR by Sarah A. Lanier, where the author makes a distinction between hot-climate cultures and cold-climate cultures and shows how they fall on opposite ends of most of these spectrums. Some is also drawn from more recent reading in places like here and here.)

Orientation

Relationship vs. Task

The orientation of a culture indicates which value society tilts towards. In relationship-oriented cultures, connnection to other people is what matters most. These cultures always prioritize a person over efficiency and accomplishment. It’s important for communication to feel good to both parties, and it’s considered rude to dive right into business talk without personal chat first. Even though individuals may be different, society is oriented toward feelings.

In task-oriented cultures, accomplishing tasks takes priority over relationship. Efficiency is highly valued, and taking up as little of someone’s time as possible is considered a sign of respect. In communication, accuracy and directness are desired. Again, while individuals will differ, society as a whole is oriented toward logic.

Lanier says that cold-climate cultures, such as our own, fall on the task-oriented end of this spectrum, while hot-climate cultures fall on the relationship-oriented end. I would certainly say that my slice of American culture is pretty far down toward the task-oriented end of the spectrum (though not, perhaps, as far as the German culture of my ancestors).

You can see what problems arise when relationship-oriented cultures meet task-oriented cultures. The one finds the other cold, rigid, and offensive, while his counterpart sees him as distracted, inefficient, and lazy.

Communication

High Context vs. Low Context

High context communication relies on the surrounding context to provide most of the meaning in communication, rather than relying on the words themselves. High context cultures depend on all parties having a shared understanding of these unspoken communications. In a high context culture, great significance is found in social standing, dress, posture, nonverbal cues, greetings, etc. Who you know matters more than what you know. For clear communication, you must know where you fit in the bigger scheme of society, and where the person you are speaking with fits. The atmosphere in such cultures tends to be more formal.

Low context communication depends much more on the actual words spoken. Low context cultures expect more direct and explicit communication and do not have as many rules governing interactions. Who you know still matters, but what you know is more highly valued. The resulting atmosphere tends to be more casual.

U.S. culture is very low-context, even more so than other cold-climate cultures like England or France. Certainly most Asian cultures fall far on the high-context end of things, and most African and Latin-American cultures are also on that end, though maybe not as far. Argentine culture, for example, is a high-context culture, but in Buenos Aires’s I found it to be significantly less so than what I had experienced in other Latin American cultures.

Communication between members of high-context and low-context cultures is obviously fraught with difficulty. A low-context person who doesn’t know the unspoken rules of their high-context counterpart will miss a good deal of what’s being communicated, misinterpret the message, be confused by the outcome, and often feel intentionally misled or lied to. A high-context person will often not be aware that their low-context counterpart has misinterpreted the conversation, while they’ll find her direct and explicit communication rude at best and confusing and misleading at worst.

Identity

Group vs. Individual

In group identity cultures, who I am is tied to the group (family or tribe) I belong to, and what is expected of me is determined by my role in the group. The group will protect and provide for me, and I do not expect to have to do that alone. In return, my behavior will reflect on the whole group. Direction from the leader of the group is valued and desired by the members of the group.

In individualistic cultures, who I am is determined by me alone. I am expected to have my own opinions and to speak for myself. I am also expected to stand alone and provide for myself. Initiative is encouraged. I make my own decisions, and my behavior reflects on me and not on anyone else.

U.S. culture is very individualistic. Possibly we corner the market on that end of the scale (though we likely share it with Australians). Other cold-climate cultures also fall on that end of the scale, while most hot-climate cultures lean toward a group identity.

The clash of cultures in this category is significant. The individualistic definition of success as personal accomplishment is baffling and selfish to those who primarily see success as the flourishing of the group. In the meantime, individualists are judging group cultures for being restrictive or encouraging laziness and dependence.

Attitude toward Time

Polychronic vs. Monochronic

Polychronic cultures see time as fluid. They like to do many things at once, and therefore have no problem with interruptions because they don’t exactly see them as interruptions. They don’t see time as a commodity which can be wasted, stolen, or lost. Time is simply here to be filled with anything of value. There will always be more time later to do whatever needs done.

Monochronic cultures see time as a straight line. They like to do one thing at a time and complete a task before moving on. For that reason, interruptions are very irritating because they are breaking up the timeline. Time is seen as a very valuable commodity, and schedules are important because they make wise use of the resource of time.

Most cold-climate cultures, including U.S. culture, are monochronic. Most hot-climate cultures are polychronic. The differences in this category are more readily apparent than other categories, making them very common sources of friction but also somewhat easier to identify and treat with understanding.

Locus of Control

External vs. Internal

Locus of control is more often discussed in terms of individuals but there is some value in seeing how it applies to cultures as well. A person’s locus of control indicates the degree to which they feel they have control over their own life versus outside forces controlling it.

Cultures with a strong external locus of control believe that events are not in the control of each individual but of some outside force. Whether those forces are considered to be natural or supernatural, the underlying belief is that what happens is not within human control. This results in a degree of fatalism about life and a tendency to value the present or the past over the future, which cannot be predicted or shaped.

Cultures with a strong internal locus of control believe that humans are capable of controlling what happens to them and shaping their own lives. While outside forces are acknowledged, the underlying belief in human ability to predict and overcome them remains intact. This results in an emphasis on personal responsibility, a value on planning and regulating, and a tendency to value the future more than the present or the past.

The bigger divide here is really between socio-economic groups more than climate based groups. Dominant U.S. culture believes in internal locus of control. U.S. culture in general falls on that side of the continuum because on a world-scale, the U.S. is economically powerful, but the degree to which this is true of various sub-cultures is also generally the degree to which they share the internal locus of control.

These five categories will be the basis for discussion of how close or far we are culturally from others. For example, my white American culture is task-oriented, low-context, individualistic, monochronic, and with an internal locus of control. What does that mean about how I order my life, how I evaluate my success, how I judge others? How does my way of viewing the world compare to others? Which cultures are only a little distant from mine and which sit a world away on the other end of all the continuums?

In the next few posts, we’ll use this new language to look at what an individual’s cultural identity means and how can we take all of our understanding and apply it to the real-world situations we’re trying to navigate. That’s the end goal we’re always leaning toward: more understanding, more compassion, better communication, better choices, better relationships, better systems.

Because this is all fascinating stuff, but it’s in applying the language to real life that we show our maturity. That’s when we stop being children with questions written in crayon and start being productive citizens of the world.

Elements of Culture

It’s been a humbling week for me, the kind where I’m forced to face how little I know and how often I get things wrong. My least favorite kind of week, but, you know, good for me, I guess. With this heavy on my mind, I feel more foolish than ever coming back here for more discussions of culture, a topic very obviously beyond my expertise. But I’m pretty sure this awareness of my ignorance and my many mistakes is actually the best space to live in while talking about culture. In reaching across cultures, getting things wrong is the name of the game. Disconcerting. Humbling. Humiliating, sometimes. But the rewards are worth it.

So here we go.

We’ve done a deep dive into a few elements of culture. Language. Attitude toward Time. Treatment of Space and Distance. Personal Grooming and Presence. Without dragging this series on for months, I can’t devote that much time to all the elements of culture, but you know the pattern now, so let’s look at the rest together, and you can think through your own assumptions about each and how other cultures may be operating on other values and beliefs.

Gender and Family Roles

How do you think boys should behave? How do you think girls should behave? In what ways are your expectations of boys and girls different? In what ways are they the same? How do you think men should relate to women? How should women relate to men? Are there rules that govern their interactions?

Who is in charge in a family? Who should provide financially? Who should care for children? Who should care for the home? How many people should live together in a family group? At what age are children expected to begin caring for themselves? At what age are they expected to leave the home? Who is responsible for caring for aging family members? What kind of care is expected?

There is a reason some families have adult children or grandparents living in the family home. There is a reason some families have multiple people in the workforce and others only have one. Economics obviously plays a large role in that, but so do cultural values. There’s also a reason that gift shops sell “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” signs and Lego makes special girly sets called “Friends.” Like it or don’t like it, cultures have expectations about people’s behaviors. We can shift those expectations, but the idea that we’ll take them away completely is ridiculous.

Taboos

What behaviors are completely abhorrent to you (think murder or slavery or certain sexual behaviors)? What gestures do you find deeply offensive? Are there bodily functions that you consider completely inappropriate in public (i.e. belching, spitting, urinating)? Are there foods you find it offensive (rather than just unpleasant) to eat? Are there habits or vices that would shame you to indulge in? What topics of conversation do you find deeply embarrassing?

Taboos are forbidden activities that are extremely objectionable in a society. They are often religious in nature, but not always. Taboos are so deeply ingrained that once you’ve thought of one, it’s often nearly impossible to imagine someone thinking it was okay. (Who has no problem with slavery? Who is cool with public urination?) But the truth is that there are cultures who don’t share your taboos. If you know me, you know I believe there is truth that transcends culture, so I’m not suggesting it’s fine for some cultures to have slaves, I’m just saying it helps to understand that not everyone feels the instinctive abhorrence you feel.

In American culture, we don’t often think about our taboos and in recent years are even proud of flaunting the old taboos, but that doesn’t mean we have none. Just think of how we shrink from talking about salaries. It’s the most embarrassing of offenses to ask someone how much money they make. That’s private! But why? Do we feel shame about our salaries (too much? Too little?) I suggest it’s because our desire to believe in the equality of everyone is religious in its fervor, and our belief that people’s value comes from economic power is deeply entrenched. Nothing uncovers inequality more quickly than acknowledging a disparity of income, and it’s embarrassing to everyone when that happens. Not all cultures are so invested in the polite charade that we’re all basically in the same economic boat.

Autonomy and Family Ties

Which do you consider more important, the needs of an individual or the needs of a group (family, business team, community)? Do you believe one person should sacrifice themself for the good of all? Do you believe the purpose of a group is to meet the needs of individuals or vice versa? Do you feel that a group has not succeeded unless every individual in it succeeds?

Are you more proud of your personal accomplishments or of the accomplishments of your team or family? Do you feel more valuable for your personal achievements or for your belonging to a certain group? When you decide where to live or what job to take, is that based on the needs of your community or on your own needs?

Who do you consider to be a part of your family? Is there a difference between immediate family and extended family? Do the needs of family members outside of your immediate family feel like a burden? Do you worry about being a burden to them? Do you think it’s wrong to leave family behind to pursue personal goals? Do you think it’s good and right to do so? In a family, whose needs take priority? The kids, the father, the mother, elderly family members?

Status of Age

Does age make a difference in how much respect someone deserves? Who is more valuable to society, children or the elderly? Is growing older a source of pride or a source of shame? When you need help or advice, do you look to those older than you, to your peers, or to those younger than you?

Think about how we talk about age. “Never ask a woman her age?” (Why not? Clearly the assumption is that it is embarrassing to her to be asked. But why?) Once you reach 40 you are “over the hill.” (So it’s all headed down from here?) Look at the number of products labeled as “age-defying.” This way of looking at age as an enemy to be fought is a cultural idea, and it says something about our values.

Attitudes towards Education

What is the purpose of education? To prepare individuals for jobs and economic security? To pass on cultural values and protect society? To spur cultural change by fostering creativity and independent thinking? Who is responsible for education? Parents? Experts? Corporations? The government? What is the best method of education? What is the appropriate age for different kinds of education? How much education is needed? Who should receive the education and at what levels? How do you know when you are succeeding in educating?

We’re going to spend some time on education and culture in the next post, so I’ll leave that one for now, but it’s worth considering that our system of education is based on a culture. In each country, the education system is created and maintained by the dominant culture in that country. The way things are done reflects the values of that culture. This has serious implications for members of minority cultures within the system.

Are you tired of questions yet? We’ve only scratched the surface, and already you can see that your culture affects every aspect of your life. And if that’s so, it’s affecting every aspect of your neighbor’s life, as well. And if their culture is not the same as yours, there is an ocean of things to learn about each other.

Which brings us back to humility.

I’ll swim in this ocean with you, but I have to warn you I’ll be flailing about at times. But for what it’s worth, I’ll let you do the same and I won’t complain if I get splashed. Deal?

Elements of Culture: Personal Grooming and Presence

Want to read about other elements of culture? Start here.

For most people, the word culture automatically includes things like clothing and food, so this one seems fairly obvious. Our purpose here, though, is to understand more than the behaviors (what you wear, how you walk) and try to see the values and beliefs behind them. Why do you dress and act as you do?

Treatment of Grooming and Presence

What are the grooming habits that you would never consider skipping? What are habits you could do without? What do you absolutely have to have done before you leave the house? How do you feel if you go out with no makeup or with your hair a mess? How do you feel if you go out dressed in your best clothes?

What do you wear at home? What do you wear in public? What do you assume about someone dressed more casually than you would? What do you assume about someone who wears bright colors? What do you assume about someone who wears no makeup? What about someone who wears a lot of makeup? Are there styles of clothing that are off-putting to you?

When you walk, do you move fast and with purpose or do you dawdle? Do you walk with confidence through a crowd, expecting others to move aside for you, or do you make room? When you sit, do you take up as much space as possible or fold yourself into little space? Do you sit up straight or slouch? What about when you stand?

What do you think about someone who laughs loudly? What do you think when people don’t laugh at all? What do you assume about a loud talker? What do you assume about a quiet talker? What do you think when someone walks quickly? What about if they walk slowly? Do you notice swagger? Are there ways a person can walk that make you feel uncomfortable or make certain assumptions about them? Do you even notice at all?

There are some obvious elements here which we shouldn’t ignore. Nothing triggers stereotypes more than dress. A woman in a burka. A teenager wearing a hoodie. An old man in a frayed sweatshirt and shabby jeans. It’s important to remember that our culture doesn’t just help determine what we decide to wear, it influences how we judge what other people wear.

Let’s take a look at an example, one that’s changed within my own culture over my lifetime. In middle-class American culture, the style of dress has gotten more and more casual. While my mother’s generation made waves wearing slacks instead of skirts, mine took dress pants and dark blue denim and traded them in for pre-worn, grungy jeans (we’d even wear them torn or cut off at the knees!). Now, as a new generation comes into its own, we all wear athletic clothes on the regular, with leggings and artfully torn jeans when we’re getting fancy.

What can we learn about our culture from our current habit of wearing athletic clothes anytime we’re not at work (when we used to only wear them to the gym)?

First of all, the assumptions:

1. Casual clothes are more comfortable.

2. How I dress isn’t going to affect my ability to have work, to go about my day without hassle, or to be safe. Therefore I can dress however I want with impunity.

Values:

1. Comfort

2. Individuality and personal expression. Everyone should always get to be herself.

3. Health and fitness

Beliefs:

1. People who are physically healthy are better people.

2. I will be happier if I am more comfortable (vs. I’ll be happier if I’m more put together or if I conform with societal norms).

3. No one has the right to tell me how I have to look. (the standard of beauty is whatever I say it is)

Again, we remind ourselves that none of those assumptions, values, or beliefs are objectively true. Not everyone believes that individuals get to define beauty. Not everyone believes that happiness and comfort are synonyms. Not everyone thinks physical health is the highest value or that it’s important to be yourself. Not everyone feels comfortable in casual clothes. Our culture has taught us those things.

The second assumption in particular is an assumption of privilege. If I was more likely to be stopped by the police for wearing running clothes, or if I was worried my boss would see me wearing it and not want to give me a promotion, I’d think differently about my clothes. Those kinds of things are a reality for some people. I may get a side-eye, but my “whiteness” enables me to wear whatever I want without real consequence. People of color often don’t get that same pass, even here within my own culture which values personal expression.

Take that understanding and apply it to other styles of dress and ways of carrying yourself. When a young man swaggers into your place of business, what’s motivating him to take up space? When the woman in the checkout line next to you talks at a volume that makes you uncomfortable, what can you learn about her worldview? When an Asian student refuses to meet your eye, how might that be based on different assumptions than the ones you hold? When the mom next door wears heels to walk her child home every day, what values are on display?

Of course, this is a good time to remember that you don’t really know. You’re making guesses, and many times you’ll be wrong. Training yourself to ask the questions is only helping you look past your own cultural assumptions. Or rather, it’s recognizing that you have assumptions and that they may not apply. It’s not really helping you understand someone else.

We’re going to keep looking at these elements of culture and asking ourselves these questions, but as we do, let’s not forget it’s only the first step. If we want real understanding, that’s going to take something more.

For that, we’re going to have to get to know people who aren’t like us and listen to what they say about their lives.

Elements of Culture: Treatment of Space and Proximity

In case you’re jumping in now, just a reminder. I’m back where I love to be, starting a new book and building the world where the 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 I live in a place where 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.

If you want to start back at the beginning of this series, you can find it here. If you want to look at the first two elements of culture, you can read about language here and time here.

If our goal is to understand each other, we’re just going to keep asking questions and answering as honestly as we can. Ready for another round?

Treatment of Space/Proximity

When you talk to someone, how close do you stand? How do you feel if they stand closer than normal? How do you feel if they stand further away than normal? Do you even notice?

How do you prefer to greet someone you’ve just met? With a hug, a kiss, a handshake, a bow, or no contact at all? How do you greet someone you’ve known a long time? How do you say good-bye?

What difference does it make to the above things if you are at work? What difference does it make if the person is of the opposite gender? What difference does it make if they are of a different social class than you? What difference does their age make?

As with our questions about time, the answers to all the above are largely determined by your culture. Of course, your personality plays a part, as do your past experiences, but the bounds of what feels acceptable to you are determined by the culture that shaped you.

The acceptable distance between people, and what it means when it’s violated, varies widely between cultures, as does the appropriateness of physical contact and the ways those things are influenced by gender, social standing, setting, etc. You seldom think consciously about those kinds of expectations (unless they’re violated), but they are hard-wired into your day-to-day behavior.

As we did with time, let’s do a quick dive into one behavior. I’ve picked one from my adopted culture this time: the Argentine custom of greeting everyone with a kiss on the cheek.

Any new resident of Argentina (and most visitors, too) discovers this behavior immediately. From the first time you are introduced to someone right through every other time you see them, you greet acquaintances and friends by leaning in close, touching their cheek with yours and making a kissing noise. (Believe me, when you are from a more distant culture, it helps to know this in advance. Otherwise, your natural reaction to a near-stranger leaning in for a kiss is to back away. I’m not aware of any culture in which backing away from someone projects friendliness.) When you leave, you repeat the kiss, and you do it with everyone there, individually. It can take some time to get out of a party.

Regardless of the history of this Argentine custom (which is shared by many other cultures around the world), let’s look at some of the values and beliefs that underly it.

What are some assumptions a greeting kiss relies on?

1. Physical contact is a sign of warmth.

2. Showing outward warmth means I place value on this relationship.

What are some values it reveals?

1. Relationship (over individuality) It’s important to take the time to greet you, let you into my personal space, and risk any vulnerability that comes with that because this relationship is my priority in this moment.

2. Personal importance (a kiss is given to each person both upon entering and leaving, acknowledging the importance of each individual in a group)

3. Equality. A kiss on the cheek is an equalizing action. We’re all brothers here.

4. Warmth. The external display of positive emotion is a good thing for everyone.

What are some beliefs that fuel those values?

1. Everyone deserves to be acknowledged and accepted into relationship. (Unless, of course, they’ve specifically done something to become unworthy. You can intentionally slight someone by refusing to greet them with a kiss. But the baseline is acceptance.)

2. A good person shows warmth to the people around him and is rewarded with the happiness that comes from strong relationships.

3. Holding myself apart from others won’t keep me safer (physically or emotionally), but will actually be worse for me.

If you’re originally from a more physically distant culture like I am, think about how your values and beliefs are different from this. Perhaps I believe that everyone deserves basic respect, but I don’t believe everyone deserves access to relationship, so I naturally keep a more wary distance until people have earned my trust. I’ll hug a dear friend, but I wouldn’t hug a stranger. Perhaps I believe that showing warmth is easily faked and has nothing to do with being a good person, but rather, a good person works hard and accomplishes things. Then I don’t care if you just give me a wave and a nod and are on your way. Likely you just have a lot to do, and good for you. Perhaps I believe that a more guarded manner is wiser, that it spreads less germs and leaves me less open to creeps. This would stem from a basic belief in my ability to control my own health and safety.

I know it’s just a small thing. A hug, a handshake, or a nod. But our lives are made up of small things, and while they may be automatic, they aren’t random. Those small things mean something to us, even if we don’t understand what.

Don’t believe me? Try kissing the next person you meet.

Just for fun: the next time you are talking to a friend you feel comfortable with, take a tiny step closer every few minutes. Don’t warn them. See how close you become before you feel uncomfortable or before they step back or call you out. Try it with someone else but step further away. How much distance is between you before the conversation gets awkward or ends?