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.


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.


1. Comfort

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

3. Health and fitness


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?

Elements of Culture: Attitudes towards Time

Last week we scratched the surface of what language means in a culture, and how our different languages shape and are shaped by what we value and believe. Today we’re going to tackle a specific area of value and belief, and see how our differences there drastically affect our behavior.

Again, the point of all of this is first to examine our own culture, to understand why we feel the way we feel and act the way we do, and second to understand the underlying beliefs and values that make people from other cultures feel and act the way they do. We want to stop judging the world based on our culture, and learn to accept (and hopefully value) the worldview of other cultures.

So…what’s all this about time?

Attitudes Towards Time

Which do you think is more important: the past, the present, or the future? Which do you spend the most time thinking about?

How do you decide what to do each day? Do you make advance plans and schedule things out to meet goals? Do you tackle whatever comes up and respond to the need of the moment? Do you make spontaneous plans?

How late do you have to be before you feel bad about it? How bad do you feel when you’re late? How often does that happen?

How late does someone else have to be before you feel upset? How upset do you feel? How do you feel when someone slows you down or makes you late? Does that question even make sense to you?

An important aspect of any culture is how it views time. Any given culture may be oriented toward the past, the present, or the future. Cultures place different values on schedule vs. relationship. They view appointments through the lens of punctuality or approximate time. Some view time as a commodity to be handled and others do not.

Let’s dive deeper into just one example. I’ll take one from my own upper-middle-class American culture because I know it the best.

“Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable.”

Heard that one? Often touted by business professionals and other “successful” people as the best possible way to live your life and achieve everything you should, it’s meant to be taken as advice so obviously good that it’s practically common sense.

I’m not going to argue it one way or the other because my point here is to understand, not to judge. So whatever the value of the end statement, let’s examine what’s underneath it.

What assumptions does the statement rely on? I’ll just name a couple.

1. A deadline or appointment is a clearly defined obligation that should be met.

2. It is possible to arrange your life in such a way that you are early to appointment/deadlines if you try hard enough. (Failure to do so is a personal failure.)

What values does our statement reveal? Again, just naming some.

1. Efficiency. Everything happens more smoothly and more gets done in less time if a schedule is strictly adhered to. Getting more done in less time is the main goal.

2. Self-determination. It’s important to take control of your own life.

3. Achievement. It’s inherently good to achieve as much as possible.

4. The future. Whatever I have to leave behind now to be on time will be worth it because the future gains are more important.

Then we can dig down one layer further to some of the beliefs underlying those assumptions and values.

1. The belief that the world allows me to have control over my own life.

2. The belief that accomplishing more will make my life and/or the world better.

There are more beliefs involved, of course, but just those two are hugely foundational.

Now imagine that I don’t believe those things. Imagine I believe that accomplishments don’t ultimately make any difference and only relationship matters or that I believe that the world is completely beyond my control and whatever happens is just what happens. Imagine how that would trickle back up to the behavioral level, to how punctual I am and how I view the punctuality of others.

From a different cultural point of view, an obsession with being on time can seem misguided and exhausting, or arrogant to the point of delusion.

Common sense is not so common after all.

Look back at the questions I asked in the beginning. Can you identify the values and beliefs that underly your answers? Can you see ways that others might answer those questions differently than you? Can you begin to imagine what values and beliefs they might hold that would cause their different behaviors and feelings? How could understanding those things help you bridge the gap if you have to work with someone like that? Or teach them? Or learn from them? Or live with them?

It’s interesting to note that while my culture values accomplishment over relationship (to the point that we often view relationships AS accomplishments), I can choose other values for myself. In fact, I’ve done just that. I have chosen to reject that element of my culture on a conscious level and place higher value on the people around me than on what I get done. We aren’t slaves to our culture, after all.

Breaking away is hard, though. When I’m getting work done and someone I love interrupts it, I have to consciously choose to remember what I value, to willingly set my work aside and make a different priority. Someone from a more relational culture would do it without a second thought.

And though I no longer consciously hold to the belief that it’s my accomplishments that will make everything better, I still end up largely structuring my life around schedules and punctuality. Because those things feel comfortable to me. And as long as I don’t let that rule me or derail the conscious choices I’m making, there’s no reason not to go with what feels comfortable.

As I said before, there’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with living by a schedule; it only causes problems when I think it’s inherently better than living any other way.

Is it better for me? More relaxing? More satisfying? Sure.

But am I better than someone who doesn’t live that way? Nope.

Elements of Culture: Language

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” 
 George Orwell, 1984

Nine years of living in South America made Nate and I weird in many ways. One of the more obvious is the strange blend of Spanish and English we use with each other. To most people it’s incomprehensible, but to us it’s a necessity for true communication.

“How are you?”

“Eh, I’m okay. Tengo fiaca. I should work, but I just have no ganas.”

“Did you read that article?”

“Yeah, I don’t dispute his facts, but that guy’s opinion was really chocante.”

English is our native language, and even when we lived overseas, it was the language we used to primarily communicate with each other (more on that later). Still, when you learn a second language, you gain vocabulary for certain concepts that don’t exist in your first language.

Tengo fiaca, I’m temporarily unmotivated, feeling sleepy/lazy. But really none of those English words exactly express the feeling. I don’t feel lazy. I have fiaca. What I don’t have are ganas (desires/wants) to do anything.

Something that is chocante rubs me the wrong way, but it’s more like it…bashes into me. It hits me in an uncomfortable spot. It’s… It’s one of my favorite words. Learning that word in Spanish was like scratching an itch I was only vaguely aware existed. Finally, a way to express that exact feeling.

(It goes both ways, of course. There are plenty of concept that English expresses best. I discovered this the first time I tried to explain fundraising in Spanish. The activity exists there, of course, but all the words I tried to use felt slightly off. There’s nothing like inadequate communication when you’re talking about money.)

Obviously, language is a huge part of any culture, and it’s the single most obvious difference between us. But language is so much bigger and more complex than most people realize. Think about the dictionary definition: language is the system of communication used by a particular community or country. A system of communication. A whole set of rules and methods to understand each other. And we’re not using the same ones.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who treat translation as an issue of changing their English words into words in another language and presto! communication! But understanding another language goes way beyond knowing sets of words and grammatical rules. It requires understanding a culture’s view of the world.

Let’s look at the different elements of language and how they reflect (and possibly affect) our way of thinking.

Vocabulary and Syntax

Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.

 Benjamin Lee Whorf

In the 1930’s Benjamin Whorf claimed that the language we speak actually determines what we are able to see or hear or understand. Whorf’s theories of language are disputed in scientific circles today, and I’m not planning to dive into that debate. It’s fair to say, though, that even if our language doesn’t determine what we physically perceive, it does shape how we think about what we perceive.

Think about vocabulary. In Spanish, there are two words for what we call “blue” in English. Azul is darker blue, and celeste is light blue (sky blue). When we lived in Argentina, we found that people think of azul and celeste as being just as distinct as blue and green. I said their flag was azul and white. No, it isn’t, they said, it’s celeste. Right, I said, same difference. They looked at me like I was crazy.

Studies done with native Russian speakers (Russian has a similar distinction between light and dark blue) showed that they could more quickly identify the difference between light and dark blue than they could between shades of dark blue. What does that mean? That on some level, having a word that identifies a color affects the readiness with which you see the color. You see what you expect to see, and you mostly expect things you have a name for.

In other words, being able to name something makes it more immediately real to us.

Even more complex is the way our grammar and syntax affect our thinking. In the first few years in Argentina, I often struggled to find the correct Spanish grammar for phrases like “If I had done….something else would have happened.” It wasn’t until I had to wrack my brain to come up with complex grammatical structures that I realized how often I talked in hypotheticals like that. And it turns out that while there technically exists a way to say that in Spanish, native Spanish speakers didn’t even really know how to tell me what to say. Because they hardly ever talk about the past like that. Over time, instead of getting better at the grammar, I got better at thinking like an Argentine, which is to say I stopped saying things like that as much. What’s the point in discussing what would have happened if the past were different? What happened is what happened.

(For the record, I still talk that way in English, though. I literally think differently in Spanish than I do English.)

On the other hand, Spanish uses a subjunctive voice (indicating that an action isn’t exactly real) which we don’t use in English. Espero que vaya al cine lunes. I hope that I will go to the movies Monday. In English, the grammar for my wish to go to the movies is the same as the grammar I would use if I knew I were going to the movies. In Spanish, “I will go to the movies” uses a different form than “I hope I will go to the movies.” Is it possible that our lack of subjunctive in English affects the way we think about the power of our wishes and hopes? I would say yes. At very least it reflects a different attitude about it.

Conversational Rules

Language is not a genetic gift, it is a social gift. Learning a new language is becoming a member of the club – the community of speakers of that language.

‒Frank Smith

When Nate and I moved home from Argentina, we discovered that we had become rude. One of us would start to tell a story and the other would interrupt to continue it, only to be interrupted by the first speaker, and back and forth until we had told the whole story by talking over each other. Neither of us were offended by it at all. But it didn’t go over so well when we interrupted or spoke over our friends and family.

Of course, it wasn’t actually an issue of being rude. In Argentina, everyone talks this way. You don’t wait for someone to stop talking before you start. When you are ready to jump in to the conversation, you jump in. If they want to finish what they were saying, they will finish anyway. No one cares that two people are talking at once. Talking is the national pastime, after all, so the more the merrier. As a foreigner you soon learn, if you don’t “interrupt” you’ll never really get to participate in the conversation at all.

Each culture has its own conversational rules like this. Taking turns versus speaking over each other is only one possible difference. There are many others.

How do you enter a conversation? Is a greeting necessary? Do you make small talk first? Do you get straight to the point?

Do you speak about one subject at a time or many subjects at a time?

Do you speak directly about the topic at hand or dance around it? Do you avoid controversial topics or address them openly?

How do you leave a conversation?

How do different settings and levels of relationship affect these conversational rules?

While each individual may have their own style and way of answering these questions, it will be largely influenced by their culture. The rules of what is acceptable and what is rude are all there, largely unspoken, but still understood by all natives of the culture. Following them will barely be noticed, but breaking them causes disapproval every time.

Methods of Storytelling

Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things.

 Flora Lewis

A couple of years ago, I read the book Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It’s a fantastic book, and you should read it. One of the most fascinating parts to me was the storytelling style. Achebe is African, and he’s telling an African story. He also tells it in an African way. It’s the story of one man’s life, but it wanders around, giving details about his surroundings or side stories about side characters, taking a very long time to eventually include all of the main events, and then at the end, just when you are wondering what the point of any of this was, one little line stabs you in the heart. That line wouldn’t have mattered without the whole wandering story. It’s a masterpiece.

Hemingway could have told the whole tale in three pages. It would have been the exact same story, but it wouldn’t have meant the same thing.

We call that difference linear storytelling versus circular storytelling. You know how they taught you in school that a story absolutely has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end? That’s cultural, friends. That’s linear storytelling. And that’s my culture, so I love it. It feels organized to me and efficient, and everything makes more sense and is less confusing.

But many cultures would disagree. In cultures where circular storytelling is the norm, the building of a story takes in more than just the events happening, and the organization doesn’t come from time but from relationship. When I mention one thing it makes me think of related things, so I tell about those, and those lead to other things, which eventually relate back to the first thing, and now you understand the first thing better because you’ve seen how it fits with the rest. It’s not an efficient way of imparting information, but why would efficiency be more important than understanding a thing in its full context?

Many, many cultures employ circular storytelling. Kids sitting in your classroom, people at your workplace, your neighbor down the street. They aren’t muddled and distracted, as those of us from linear storytelling cultures often think, but are communicating in the way that makes the most sense to them.

Nonverbal Communication

“When the eyes say one thing and the tongue another, a practiced man relies on the language of the first.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

We’ve all experienced the power of nonverbal communication. How different is the meaning of the words, “Excuse me,” depending on the tone in which they are said and the gestures and facial expressions that go along with them? The same words can communicate apology, polite request, disapproval, defensiveness, or anger. No one ever tells you that a certain tone means a certain thing, but you know all the same. You absorbed that knowledge as a small child.

Nonverbal communication is as blatant as gestures and nonverbal noises, as instinctive as facial expressions and vocal tone, and as unrecognized as proximity and posture.

Of course, in different languages and cultures, the nonverbals are different, too. The same gesture that means “F- off” in one country means “I don’t know” in another. Eye contact is respectful in one culture and disrespectful in another. Standing close while talking is warm and friendly to one set of people and aggressive and invasive to another. Understanding what people intend to communicate by these things is critical to understanding anything they say.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.

 Nelson Mandela

I spent my last summer in college studying Spanish in Argentina. It was a university program designed to immerse students in the language. In addition to taking classes, we lived with Argentine families. One of my best friends was in the program that same summer, and since there was a shortage of host families, we agreed to live together in the same household. Knowing we would share a room and a schedule, the program director cautioned us ahead of time not to take advantage of the opportunity to speak English. In fact, they had us sign a learning contract that we would only speak in Spanish for the two months we were there.

If you’ve had a roommate before, you know how important communication is, and you can probably see where this story is going.

Things got rough. Our Spanish was improving every day, but even as we learned the words to say what we needed or express opinions, we struggled to communicate emotions accurately and understand nuance. For a few weeks, we nobly held to our contract as the tension built, and then one night, it all came boiling up. I remember our Spanish getting more and more halting as it got more and more heated until the moment I finally said, “Forget it. We have to talk about this in English or we’re going to kill each other.”

The relief was nearly instant. After a couple of hours of conversation in our native language, our conflicts were resolved.

Language is hard-wired into our hearts and our minds. It runs through all the bonds between us. If we’re ever going to understand each other, we have to start with understanding that.

You may never learn to speak Arabic, but how much better would you understand your Arabic neighbors if you learned about their nonverbal cues and asked them what things they find hard to communicate in English? You may need a translator to tell you what your French-speaking Haitian co-worker is saying, but only you can listen for the worldview behind his words. And even if you never master Yoruba, you can forge a bond with with an African student just by attempting a few simple phrases in the language of his heart.

Language may be the river that separates us, but it can also become the bridge that brings us together.

We just have to be willing to get down in the mud to build it.


Want to read some more about this?

“How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?”

Does the Language I Speak Influence the Way I Think?

Are we all really the same? (Part 2)

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.

I won’t recap the whole context for this conversation. You can find Part 1 here.

I do want to say again, though, that as we look at the less tangible things we have in common, I’m talking about what I believe to be true about the world. I know most of you reading will share enough cultural context with me that you’ll understand and mostly even agree. But it’s important that we realize that what we take to be “facts” are always based on beliefs. Belief in the validity of the scientific method or the accuracy of certain historical records is still belief, and it isn’t shared by everyone.

The three areas of commonality below are all vital if we’re going to reach true cultural understanding. They are also all based on a set of beliefs not everyone shares. This is why the conversation feels so impossibly difficult.

I know. Hang with me. We’re almost done laying our foundation.

Our brains function in the same ways, producing uniquely human desires and emotions that we all share.

I’m not a neuroscientist, so I won’t attempt to define this too scientifically. As far as I can tell from my research, even neuroscientists have a hard time agreeing about how our brains work. We do know, though, that the human brain is something unique. While there are animals that have similar brain structures, ours operate with a complexity that gives us cognitive function, memory, and emotion not shared by other creatures. We do share it with each other, though. Our brains may look different, but they work in very similar ways.

First, no matter what our physical differences, we share basic instincts and drives. We all want to be safe and to be healthy. We all want the ability to provide for our basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. We all feel the drive to reproduce and to keep our offspring safe and healthy.

Note that I am saying we desire these things and feel these drives. We don’t all act on our desires or instincts (i.e. we all feel the urge to reproduce on a biological level, but we don’t all have children). We certainly don’t act on them in the same ways. We don’t all define safe and healthy in the same way. We don’t define basic needs isn’t the same way. We don’t have the same belief about our ability to have those things, and we don’t assign the same meaning to having them or not having them. (Whose fault is it that you do or don’t have children? What does it say about you that you do or don’t have children? What does the number of children you have say about you? We answer those questions very differently.)

Beyond instinct, our human brains lead us all to experience certain emotions. Sadness, joy, fear, and anger are common human experiences. Though those emotions are triggered by different things and expressed in different ways, the emotions exist in all of us. When any of us experiences loss, he experiences grief. When we are in danger, we experience fear. How we interpret that experience will vary, but on some level, what is happening in our brains and bodies is the same.

Humans are also wired to be social creatures. We all desire to be loved and accepted and a part of something bigger than ourselves. Perhaps neuroscience doesn’t provide much proof of this, but the scope of human history bears it out. Family, tribe, nation. Humans group together and find great significance in being a member of a group.

We certainly don’t share the same definition of what that something should be or of what it would look like to be loved and accepted. What we’re willing to sacrifice for the group varies, along with the importance we place on its needs over our individual needs.We don’t agree on the purpose of a group or its permanence, but once we are a part of something, our family or tribe, we do all invest ourselves to some degree in the safety, health and provision of that group. In other words, we all “love” our “families”, however we are defining the two words.

Of course, this basic commonality is one that racism has violently and blatantly attacked. Racist systems are built on the belief that one race is superior, actually has higher neurological function, than another. We claim to be capable of better thinking, better decision making, and so we should be in charge. (Sexism is based on a similar belief, of course.) “Science” is used to support this. Look at the differences in brain size or shape. Look at the results of IQ tests or other evaluations. Racist systems have asserted that “inferior” races don’t reason as well as we do, don’t actually feel the same emotions we do, that they don’t feel the same drives we do. Those assertions are the justification for tearing families apart and for taking away the right to self-determination. Slavery throughout history is the most obvious example of this, but even where slavery is outlawed, we find a million variations of the notion that there is no point in giving certain people money or power because they just wouldn’t know what to do with it.

I reject any and all rhetoric that would imply that others don’t feel or don’t need. I reject the belief that because of my race or gender, I am biologically superior or inferior to someone else. I acknowledge that we all have different capabilities (there is infinite variety in brain function), but I reject the ideology that you can detect those capabilities by looking at my gender or the color of my skin. (Beyond that, I reject the ideology that my capabilities are what determine my value. More on this later.)

We all are a mix of good and evil.

Yes, I am asserting that there is such a thing as good and evil. It’s not necessary here to define those terms. Whether you think good is promoting the survival of the human race and evil is detracting from it or whether you think those concepts are defined by God or you have some other moral code, everyone who isn’t a complete nihilist operates on the assumption that good and evil exist. That said, under any definition of the words, there is no person who is completely good at all times in all ways, and there is no person who is always only evil. We all have strengths and we all have weaknesses. We all help sometimes and we all hurt sometimes.

Just as that is true for individuals, it’s true for cultures. There is no innocent people group and no wise people group. None of us holds all of the goodness or all of the truth or all of the genius. To say we do is to be arrogant to the point of absurdity. Equally, though, none of us is utterly evil, without a shred of truth, or incapable of any valuable thought. Perhaps in some cases there is very, very little, but the human mind and experience is too complex to claim that we don’t each at least stumble on some truth at some point.

This is an important common ground. Acknowledging our shared fallibility is what enables us to listen to each other. And agreeing to listen is where this all begins.

We are all of equal value.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Thomas Jefferson

Here is the crux of the issue, the foundation of everything, and it’s precisely here that we run into the most actual disagreement.

Every human being has the same intrinsic worth and value. Each member of the human race is worth exactly what each other member is worth.

This belief is foundational to my culture. As an American, I was taught that all men are created equal. As a Christian, I believe that God is the one who created us and our value comes from him. Because he decided to love us, we are lovable. Because he decided to value us highly, we are valuable. He says we all have equal value. Therefore I believe that we do.

Not everyone believes this, though.

Consider this: the word value is an economic word. How do you measure what someone is worth? How do you measure what anything is worth? The value of something is what someone is willing to pay for it.

So yes, I believe in a God who was willing to pay his own son’s blood for the human race, and it follows that I believe we are extremely valuable. But if you don’t believe in that God? Or in any God?

What gives each human value?

Is it how much they are loved by other humans? Because not everyone is loved equally. Is it how much they contribute the survival of the human race? Because not everyone contributes equally. Is it merely the value of every living thing as a piece of the whole? Then perhaps we all have equal value but also each animal and plant and rock has equal value with each of us.

Each of those beliefs (and many more) are held by real people. When you dig down to the bottom of our beliefs MANY of us don’t believe we’re all truly equal. And our behaviors reflect this belief, even if we don’t want to own it.

I’m sorry, Thomas Jefferson, but this truth is not self-evident. (And even you, slave owner that you were, didn’t really think it was.) We have to find a basis for the truth of our equal value, or it doesn’t exist at all.

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

-George Orwell, Animal Farm

That’s some heavy, philosophical stuff. If you’re still reading, thanks for sticking with me. For the next couple of weeks we’ll lighten up and have more fun trying to understand culture on a practical level. But we had to start here. We had to look at what we believe about this conversation before we could have the conversation.

It’s important to build from the ground up.

Or at least, that’s what makes cultural sense to me.

Are we really all the same? (Part 1)

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.

Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?

-Shylock, The Merchant of Venice

Every person I’ve ever spoken to after their first trip to another country says some version of the same thing: “It was so amazing to see that under all the differences, those people are just like me.”

This idea comes up again and again in discussions of race and culture. “If only we could understand that at the core, we’re all the same.” “We may have a million little differences, but we have the important things in common.”

It’s a compelling thought, an encouraging thought. It feels like the seed of a solution to our battles over race, gender, nationality. If only we could see past the color of someone’s skin and the way they dress, the food they eat and the language they speak, we’d discover the unity of all mankind.

But is it true?

Is our culture just a layer covering over some essential humanity, so that we could learn to dig past it and get to our true selves?

Are we all essentially the same?

Remember, culture is defined as the values, beliefs, and behaviors that are shared by a group of people.

So, let me ask you a couple of questions. Who are you without your values, beliefs, and behaviors? Do you have an essential self that is separate from what you cherish and what you believe and what you do?

I submit that there is no way to ever actually strip those things away, and that if you could, you would no longer be you.

The notion that we could set aside our cultures and get back to some essential inner self is not rooted in reality. Not only is our culture entwined with our self, our culture informs our very understanding of what is essential. It taught us what “self” means.

And yet, in tension with that is the truth that we are all human beings, and as such, there must be some things in common, and that commonality must matter.

I believe it does. I never argue with those who say that we are all the same (unless they are trying to use that to shut down the discussion). The discovery of our common human traits is the beginning of understanding because it’s the beginning of caring. Like it or not, we find it nearly impossible to take interest in things that have no connection to ourselves. That means I have to see that you and I are alike in some way or I don’t care about you enough for me to want to work to bridge our differences. I have to believe that there is some common ground on which we could learn to stand.

Seeing our sameness is a beautiful first step toward each other. It’s only when we are content for it to be the last step that it becomes a lie.

So in what ways are we truly the same? Where is our common ground?

Let me tell you what I believe we all have in common. I specify that it’s what I believe because it would be dishonest to present this as objective truth. My views of what it means to be human, like everything else, are shaped by my culture. I won’t apologize for that, but I will be sure to be honest about it. There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’m going to start with the most basic, most physical aspects of this question. Then in Part 2, I’ll explore the question of less tangible commonalities.

We have the same home.

The Earth is what we all have in common.
—Wendell Berry

We are all sharing this one planet. I don’t think any sane person would object to listing this as a commonality. For better or worse, we live on this giant ball together.

We look up at the same moon and are warmed by the same sun. We are subject to gravity and depend on the oxygen contained in our atmosphere. We pass through day and night. We have access to a finite number of plants, animals, and minerals. We are born here, we live here, we die here.

It matters. Across cultures, you see that we all have some relationship with the sun, moon, and stars. Across cultures, we interact with the ideas of day and night. Across cultures we create explanations of the same natural phenomena.

Of course, our explanations are wildly different. We don’t all experience our planet the same way. Our days and nights are not the same length or filled with the same darkness and light. Our exposure to variety of plant and animal life is not the same. In the frozen north, fire may be the most valuable substance on earth, while in other places it is water or earth or even suitable air.

We don’t have the same beliefs about our place on this earth or the earth’s place in the universe. We don’t have the same beliefs about where it came from or how long it will last. We may all be here right now, but for some of us, our life on earth is all that there is to existence (and therefore of defining importance), while others believe in an afterlife in which they are not confined here, and still others see a future for humanity in which we physically leave this ball behind. Accordingly, we don’t believe the same things about our responsibility to the earth or its responsibility to us.

For all that we share a home, if you heard us describe it, you’d think we were from different planets. Still, we do have some shared experiences, even if we interpret those experiences differently.

We’re made up of the same stuff.

DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music. 

 Richard Dawkins

As I understand it, we have 99.9% of our DNA in common with all other humans. The physiological differences you see are all found in that tiny 0.1% of variation. We are made of the same materials and put together in the same way. As a result, we all have certain needs and we all live with certain limitations.

We need air to breathe, water to drink, and food to eat, as well as some way to regulate our body temperature. No matter where you live or in what time, no matter your culture or gender or economic status, your body requires oxygen, hydration, and nutrients. Without them, you won’t survive. Your body can’t do whatever it wants. It can’t fly and it can’t run faster than two legs can carry it. Your body can’t go anywhere it wants. The pressure at the bottom of the ocean is too much for your cells, and the cold of the arctic would end you.

Of course, we’ve developed techniques and technologies to meet those needs and bypass those limitations, and we don’t all have the same access to those. Even more basic, we don’t all define the range of our physical needs in the same way. We don’t all need the same kinds of nutrients, for example. We don’t even differentiate between need and want in the same way. And we don’t all accept the same limits or have the same resources to stretch them.

So yes, if I don’t understand anything else about you, I should at least be able to understand your need to breathe and to drink and to eat. Of course, animals share those same needs, too. As a common ground to stand on, DNA doesn’t help much. Science tells me that I also share 60% of my DNA with a banana, and God knows I don’t have much empathy for fruit.

We all experience pain.

“When we fully understand the brevity of life, its fleeting joys and unavoidable pains; when we accept the facts that all men and women are approaching an inevitable doom: the consciousness of it should make us more kindly and considerate of each other. This feeling should make men and women use their best efforts to help their fellow travelers on the road, to make the path brighter and easier as we journey on. It should bring a closer kinship, a better understanding, and a deeper sympathy for the wayfarers who must live a common life and die a common death.” 
 Clarence Darrow

We all bleed. We all get diseases. We all die.

If ever there is anything that should make us see ourselves in someone else, it is watching them suffer pain. You sneeze, you vomit, you cut your finger. I have visceral memories of those exact experiences. Empathy, seeing myself in you, is never easier than when you are sick or wounded.

All cultures have had to deal with sickness, with injury, with death. These are common human experiences, and we do see that common influence on our values, beliefs, and behaviors.

The problem, of course, is that in order to deal with the reality of pain and death we’ve constructed a multitude of worldviews and coping mechanisms, and those constructs are intensely important to us.

We don’t all explain pain and death the same way. We don’t agree about where it comes from or why it happens. We don’t agree about the degree to which we control it or are responsible for it. We don’t value the same responses to pain and death. We don’t believe the same things about sickness, and we don’t define health in the same way. We don’t have the same expectations for life or death or what comes after our death.

Perhaps pain is the common language of our bodies, but our minds are translating it into a million dialects, and those translations are vital to our sanity and survival. Right where we should be able to come the closest, we find that we have the hardest time meeting each other because neither of us dares to let go of what has enabled us to cope so far.

So what is my point? Why break this down in so much detail?

I’m trying to lay the foundation for our conversation about culture. Under our language and worldview and systems of belief, there is the physical us. When I look at only that, I come to two conclusions:

1. On the level where we can easily see our similarities, we see little to no unique humanity. Our physicality (us on the meat level) is what we most clearly have in common with other humans, but it’s also what we have in common with other life on Earth. We live on this planet, need the basic building blocks of life, experience physical damage and die. So do puppies and whales and tarantulas. So do ferns and trees and mold, for that matter. If we are coming together on this level, if we are meeting as animals. Perhaps there is some value in that, but it isn’t the goal I’m reaching for.

2. We need each other to survive. If there is one thing we find when we look at our physical selves, it’s that we can’t stay alive for long alone. The planet is big, and it’s dangers are many. Our human bodies are relatively frail and our needs are constant. Sickness and injury come from all sides. We need each other to survive all of that. Even if we set aside all emotional need for society, we need other humans just to keep our bodies alive. As a reason to keep searching for common ground, it’s pretty compelling.

It’s only a start, though. As I said at the very beginning, I’m not just looking to survive. I want to live at peace and find the truth. I want to be more than a pack of animals who work together to stay alive. So in Part 2, I’ll look at some less tangible things we have in common, some uniquely human things, I hope. You can tell me if they’re all in my imagination.

Why am I talking about culture instead of race?

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.

(Read about why you should care here)

Race is a volatile topic in our country and around the world today. It’s serious, and it needs to be talked about. There is real discrimination that takes place on the basis of skin color or other supposed racial characteristics.

As a white woman, I don’t know what it feels like to have people take one look at me and assume I’m a single mom. I don’t know what it feels like to be talked down to at my kids’ school. I don’t know what it feels like to be afraid when I get pulled over or to fear daily for my son’s life and future. I don’t know what it’s like to be called names in public or to have people lock their doors when I walk by. I do know that those things are real and that they are devastating. Racism is alive and well and causing destruction every day. To pretend otherwise is to be a part of the problem, and I have no intention of ever doing that.

What I also know is that there is mass of people (I want to say a majority, but unfortunately, I don’t dare) who reject that racism and want things to change. I talk to people every week who don’t think race should matter and who want to learn how to live at peace with everyone. But nearly all of them struggle to know how to do that. They truly believe that all men are created equal, but they can’t stop feeling deeply uncomfortable around people of other races.

They don’t know how to bridge the divide. Why? Because their problem is way more than skin deep.

Without a doubt, people make assumptions based on physical characteristics like age, gender, skin color, hair color or style, clothing, etc. We call that stereotyping, and it’s the first step toward racism. In my experience, though, it’s relatively easy for us to identify our stereotypes and work to correct them.

I say relatively easy only because there’s something way harder to wrap our minds around: culture.

Culture is what offends us, what threatens us, what terrifies and angers us.

Let me show you what I mean.

Take an average white American living in the midwest. (I say midwest only because that’s where I live, not because the problem is worse there than anywhere else.) He’s had very little real interaction with other races and cultures, but one Saturday, a moving truck pulls in and a Hispanic family begins unloading their furniture into the house next door. Very likely, even with the best of intentions, he will begin to make assumptions about these new neighbors. His assumptions will be based on the stereotypes he’s absorbed over the years.

The assumptions might be negative: “Oh great. The new neighbors are Mexican. They probably don’t speak English very well and it will be hard to talk to them. They’ll play loud music and drive too fast through the neighborhood.”

But the assumptions might also be positive: “Oh great! The new neighbors are Mexican! They can help me with my Spanish! They’ll bring delicious food to our block parties!”

All this on a first glance. Both versions are stereotypes because he’s assuming certain behaviors just based on how the neighbors look. He could be wildly mistaken. Reality is that there’s really no way to avoid those kinds of instinctive reactions, and so far, it hasn’t hurt anyone. He has time to adjust his thinking. Our midwesterner may be apprehensive about Hispanic neighbors, but he doesn’t hate them.

Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. He doesn’t mind having neighbors of color. He’s determined to be accepting. As a friendly midwesterner, he goes over and introduces himself. Here’s where we move from race to culture. We’re stepping past how someone looks and having our first interaction with their behaviors and the values and beliefs that drive them.

The family is dad, mom, grandmother, a teenager, and two smaller children. When our midwesterner tells them his name and welcomes them to the neighborhood, they smile, and the parents beckon the teenager over to translate. They tell him their own names. They aren’t Mexican. They’re from Honduras, but they’ve lived in the US for a few years. The Midwesterner asks if they need any help moving. They say no, they are fine. He heads back home and notices throughout the afternoon that they work for hours unloading everything, and that even the kids are helping carry large mattresses and heavy furniture. He doesn’t understand why they didn’t let him help.

As time goes on, their behavior begins to be annoying. Every Saturday they have lots of friends over. Sure enough, the music is loud. Worse, they park a dozen cars on the street and make driving difficult. Often they block his mailbox and sometimes his driveway. When they do, and he has to go ask them to move cars, they are always very friendly about it and invite him in and offer food and drink, but the language difficulty is awkward and they make him wait forever before actually moving the vehicle. (And it never stops them from doing the same thing the next week.) After less than a year, our midwesterner is actively thinking of moving away. When the house down the street goes up for sale and he sees a hispanic family looking at it, he calls a realtor.

Is our midwesterner racist? Honestly, no. It wasn’t their race that he had a problem with. It was their culture.

Because imagine the scenario is different. Imagine that the family looks exactly the same. They have brown skin and dark hair. The grandmother lives with them, and Spanish is their native language. But this family is from the capitol of Mexico. They lived in a wealthy part of town, and both parents have university degrees. They’ve moved to the US for the father to take a job as an engineer and the mother to work at a local university. Their English isn’t perfect, but it’s passable. Their son plays soccer with the midwesterner’s son. They meet up at the mailbox and chat briefly some evenings after work. They discover that they both love Indy car racing. Sometimes the family has large parties and loud music, but the first time it happened, they apologized the next day for the noise. After nearly every party, they bring over leftover pastries. Our midwesterner gets annoyed sometimes, but overall, they’re friendlier neighbors than most. He’s glad they moved in and hopes to get to know them better and even learn more about their Mexican culture.

See? He isn’t racist. He isn’t opposed to people from other countries or with other skin color. When they’ve adapted to his culture, even if there are still some small differences, he likes them. It’s only when the cultural gap is too wide that he isn’t prepared to deal with it.

Now, if you are reading this and you are a white American, there’s a decent chance you’re thinking, “No, it’s not the culture of the Hondurans that he had a problem with. It was their rudeness. No one wants inconsiderate neighbors. It has nothing to do with culture.”

That is the basis of almost all serious cultural clashes. Your attitudes or behaviors don’t just seem different to me, they seem reprehensible. I’m not just inconvenienced by them, I’m angry because you consistently show that you are a bad person. In turn, that affects our future interactions. And so the divide grows.

This is why we need to understand culture. Because that Honduran family? They aren’t inherently rude. They’re just doing what is normal in their culture. Having family and friends over as often as possible. What are silly little details like quiet and sleep and convenient parking compared to enjoying life with the people you love? And if your neighbor comes over, you invite him to join the party! Sure, you’ll move the car, but you don’t want to make him feel unwelcome by hurrying to carry out his request and get rid of him. Make sure he gets something to eat and drink first. It’s a little hurtful that he never stays, but you won’t hold it against him that he’s wound so tight. He’s probably just used to being alone, poor guy. His friends and family hardly ever visit.

Clearly this is also a generalization. Maybe they aren’t that wonderful of people. Some Hondurans are jerks just like some Americans are jerks. But the point is that the actions I described above aren’t inherently inconsiderate. They’re just considering a different set of values.

And in this example, our Midwesterner is at least aware that a cultural interaction is taking place. He knows his neighbors come from another country. How much worse is it when a black family moves in and begins acting in a similar way? They’re African-American, have lived in the same state their whole lives. Theoretically they’re from the same culture, and therefore the only difference is skin color. Except they aren’t and it isn’t. They do have a different culture, and their behavior is also being informed by a different set of values. Though it’s harder to see, this is still more about culture than about race.

If I understand that, will I still be annoyed to come home and find my driveway blocked by a car? Of course I will. Just because you understand something doesn’t mean you like it. But understanding what’s going on from my neighbors’ point of view is the first step toward being able to communicate with my neighbors in a way that will actually be helpful. Maybe I need to stay at the party a time or two and get to know them. Maybe I need to get to know their cousins and uncles who come over every week. Maybe I need to let them get to know me. And then maybe one day I’ll be able to tell them how I feel about the parking as a friend and not an irritated stranger. Maybe.

My hope is that if we can begin to understand culture, it will shed new light on issues of race. If I recognize the vast cultural differences that exist even between members of the same race, maybe I can wait to get to know someone before making assumptions based on their appearance. As I develop the skill of looking under behaviors for the values and beliefs that inform them, maybe I will find it easier to lay down my ever-ready defenses and give people the benefit of the doubt.

I don’t want to ignore racism; I want to attack it from a different angle.

I want to undermine it at its roots.

Culture: Why should you care?

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

The Secret

That’s the actual pile of shoes inside my front door right now. And that’s more contained than usual. As far as I can tell, chaos is not contained to any one life stage. The following was originally posted on less-please.com in 2017. As that lovely site is no longer available, and since I desperately need the reminder from time to time, I’ve posted again here.

“How did you do it?”

Now that my kids are a little older, moms of younger kids sometimes ask me this, gently probing for the elusive secret to my arrival at this stage of greater sanity.

I understand why. I’ve felt it, too. The certain knowledge that there is some key to winning at parenthood, one that others have found but that’s always just out of my reach.

Can I tell you a story?

It was late morning in our house outside the slums of La Plata, Argentina.  

I was on the couch combing my four-year-old’s tangles. My husband stood in the doorway watching out for street dogs while our puppy sniffed around for the right spot.  The two-year-old was playing, the baby was sleeping, and we had 20 full minutes before we had to leave the house. Peace and harmony.

Then it all happened at once.

The dog caught a scent and took off running. My husband followed, leaving the front door open. The two-year-old announced that he had wet his pants and solved his own problem by stripping off his clothes just as the baby woke up and began to cry.

It was the classic dilemma of motherhood: the baby needs me, the toddler is naked, but if I let the preschooler go now, she’ll walk around all day with a matt of thistles on top of her head. God help me, I prioritized the hair.  

I was still reassuring myself it was the right choice when the two-year-old, stark naked from the waist down, walked straight out the open front door. 

I know, you saw that coming, but can I confess it was a minute before I noticed? Fortunately for my son, though not my pride, a passing neighbor saw the half-dressed, unattended child and came over to shoo him away from the open sewers and back inside the house.

Then, this being Argentina, the neighbor stayed and chatted for a while.

“How did you do it?” the question goes. (What do you have that I’m missing?)

You want to know? I can tell you exactly how I did it.

I did it holding an angry preschooler, while a baby yelled in the back room, a two-year-old ran around with his butt in the wind, and a near-stranger looked on and asked how I was enjoying the recent sunshine.

That really was it. I did it messy, I did it loud, and I did it overwhelmed.

I did it like a lunatic.

I did it like a mom.

That woman sitting on the couch while three small humans exposed her every weakness? She didn’t know any secret.

And that is the best part of the story. The part where the freedom is found. The part where my pride got broken down enough to realize the truth:

There. Is. No. Secret.

There is no magic key that unlocks your best life. There is just getting up every day and living it.

Nothing could be simpler (or more difficult).

My best, happiest, most freeing days as a mother have ended with me slumped on the couch, laughing until I cry. (Or, let’s be honest, crying until I laugh.)

Then I let go of my dream of perfection and I remember the stuff of my real life.

I remember the screw ups. Like the time I thought a sweet hummingbird was in my kitchen when it was actually a giant moth that terrorized my children. Or the time I left the window open at night and a stray cat came inside the house where my baby was sleeping.

I remember the chaos and the clutter and the couch stains and that somehow we still get to the end of every day alive and loving each other so much it hurts.

Because wherever we live and whatever we’re like,  as parents we only ever have to do those two things: love them and keep them alive.    

Our life looks different now.  The kids are taller and can do things like mow the lawn and discuss important novels and tie their own shoes.  The house is slightly cleaner and a whole lot quieter. But we’re still doing it the same way. Still riding waves of chaos and craziness, of homework and hot tempers.  Still providing entertainment for our neighbors.

We’re still alive, and we’re still in love, and that’s the only secret we know.