I had a powerful reminder the other day of the fact that we all live in cultural bubbles. The “cultural bubble” refers to the socio-cultural context in which we typically immerse ourselves. You can think about your cultural bubble as existing at the immediate or micro-level, which refers to your immediate relationships and family systems. At the intermediate level, it refers to your community and socio-economic status. And at the largest macro-level, your cultural bubble refers to the social identities that we carry (e.g., I am a White American Male), and the various religious-socio-political-legal-media narratives to which we ascribe. Whereas it is usually pretty easy to see outside your cultural bubble at the micro and intermediate levels, to step outside your cultural bubble at the macro level you need to make deliberate efforts.
One of the best and most reliable ways to get perspective on your cultural bubble is to interact with people who live in very different bubbles. For example, a couple of years ago, I traveled to Costa Rica for a couple of weeks. In the context of a conversation with a Costa Rican, I identified as being an American. The response I received was, “In the Western Hemisphere, we are all from America. You are from the United States.” In my bubble, America and the United States are essentially synonymous. From the vantage point of someone in Costa Rica, that is reflective of an insensitive nationalistic bias that is perceived by many to be prominent feature of folks from the United States.
A more recent context of reminding me of my cultural bubble was a revealing conversation with my good friend and colleague Dr. Elena Savina. Elena is a core faculty member in our Clinical-School doctoral program and is from Russia. She received her doctorate in developmental and educational psychology in Russia and taught there as a professor for several years. She then came to the US to receive her second doctorate in School Psychology. I knew from past conversations that Elena was quite upset about the developments in Ukraine; however, this was the first time we got a chance to discuss it. in depth What followed was an eye-opening exchange, reminding me of the nationalistic bubble in which I live.
Dr. Elena Savina
For starters, she had a very different image of Vladimir Putin than I did. Whereas my vision was of a masculine, power-hungry individual, she saw him as a bright and warm man who cares a lot about his people and country. Indeed, she was visibly frustrated by the portrayal of Putin in America (oh, wait, I mean the United States).
As an educated woman who has lived in both contexts, she is highly conscious of the way information is filtered in the Western media, and how certain pieces are left out and others are framed in a very biased way. In our discussion, I brought up “Pussy Riot” as an exemplar of Putin’s crack down on free speech. She sighed because for her (and many Russians), this interpretation completely lacks basic knowledge of the Russian Orthodox Church traditions. People’s behaviors inside churches are highly regulated and ritualistic. Even minor departure from those regulations may be seen as great disrespect. She argued that if they understood this, Westerners would see that Russia’s reaction to Pussy Riots’ actions can be absolutely justified given that they desecrated the Church. Indeed, I was not fully aware of the fact that much of the problem stemmed from this kind of transgression.
Moving more to recent events, we turned back to Crimea. Elena pointed to how it was presented to the Western audience as “Russia’s annexation of Crimea”. Yet this linguistic framing is very different than how it was perceived by the majority of Russians and Crimeans. For them, Crimea was reunited with Russia. Elena pointed out that this interpretation would be easy to see with a minimal history lesson and the video of the thousands of people in Crimea with tears of happiness after they knew that they would become a part of Russia once again. Unfortunately, Western media filtered out this aspect of the story to an enormous degree.
Elena educated me that it is an important time in Russian history, as they are in the process of redefining Russia’s cultural identity. It is a time when Russians not only want to believe in their country, but also to know well who they are and to have a distinct role in the global community. She also shared with me Russian culture is incredibly nuanced and complex, pointing out the words of the Russian poet, Fyodor Tyutchev, who said:
You cannot understand Russia with your mind
You cannot measure it with a common yardstick.
It has its own special stature – you can only believe in Russia.
My point here is not that one version of reality is more correct than others (although this clearly is sometimes true). The point of the blog is that we inevitably live our lives in cultural bubbles, and we are shaped and moulded by that context. We need frequent reminders that information (or a lack of it!) is a powerful tool that shapes the ways we think about other people and cultures. Because we live in cultural bubbles and because we have tendencies as humans to think of “others” in simplistic, generalized terms, we are very vulnerable to assuming our perspective is “true” while completely failing to recognize the biases and filters that are operating in our context.
One option, of course, is to reject this knowledge and perspective. Thinking about the complexity of others’ lives raises much political complexity. Many fear, for example, that by understanding and empathizing with others, we would become nationalistically soft and weak. Some might even reject listening to analyses like the one presented above because it seems to be an attempt to legitimize a Russian perspective at a time when it is crucial to be boxing Russia in. This politically nationalistic stance is just too simplistic for me. I believe we need to embrace the macro-cultural perspective and operate from that vantage point.
What can be done to become more culturally minded?
Today, we need a new type of consciousness, called global consciousness, which is an ability to place our experience in broader cultural contexts and to construct our identities as members of global societies. We need to foster curiosity about and knowledge of world cultures and world problems and an ability to understand our own and others cultural perspectives. New era of globalization needs enlightened global citizens who appreciate complexity and diversity of the world beyond their immediate cultural environments and make educated inferences and decisions.*
* I went to place this blog in a Psychology Today category like culture or society, and thought it was revealing that there was no such category. That is a problem...culture is HUGELY relevant for human psychology.