We Are Defined by Our (Cultural) Boundaries

Studying other cultures and cultural differences provides self-insight.

Posted May 16, 2013

Recently, my friends Hazel Markus and Alana Conner published a book on culture.  It isn't a book on exploring cultures or talking about why you should always accept a business card from a Japanese business man with two hands and admire it.  Instead, Clash talks about eight cultural conflicts and frames those conflicts as paths to self-knowledge.  In other words, it describes the self, and our individual cultures, as relative.

Often, we when we think about culture and cultural differences, we are looking for or are offended by the inevitable generalizations that come up.  Too often, culture is seen as a byproduct of race or ethnicity.  If you have a certain look, you are from a certain culture.  And, if you are from that culture, you hold certain beliefs.  But, this is an outwardly-looking view.  With this book, you could not only look outward to understand why two other people aren't getting along, but also look inward to better understand what you expect and assume about the world around you.  This self-insight can help you better navigate our increasingly global world.

For example, one distinction discussed by Markus and Conners is the distinction between Americans from different parts of the United States.  People from different states have different expectations and assumptions about how things should be done, and even what things should be called.  Oftentimes, it is only when a person comes up against another way of doing things that these assumptions become apparent.  I attended Carleton College, a liberal arts college in Minnesota.  Within my first two days of being there, I realized that possessed an assumption about rain.  Coming from California, I expected that it didn't rain in the summer and that when it did rain, it would rain all day.  When I woke up on September 2, to a downpour that lasted 20 minutes, that assumption was revealed to be false.  Similarly, freshman orientation week was filled with arguments over whether a carbonated beverage was "Coke", "pop", or "soda", and whether mint ice cream with chocolate chips was properly labeled "mint chip" or "peppermint bon bon".  There was a particularly colorful discussion in my dorm about "duck, duck, goose" vs. "duck, duck, gray duck".  The point is, only be coming into contact and comparing my assumptions to others did I realize that my assumptions were just that -  my view of how things should be and not necessarily the truth.

Of course, the differences between the coastal states and the heartland, between the blue states and red, are more than just what to call Cokes.  For instance, last January I was in Louisville, Kentucky.  I was born in Lexington and have family roots in Appalachia and family still in Kentucky.  I was driving with a man who was born and raised in Northern California.  He couldn't see why anyone would want to live in Kentucky.  I pointed out the cost of living, the slower pace of life, the closeness of family, the lack of congestion, but all he could see was that there was no ocean to surf in.  He had an assumption that everyone shared his values of personal fulfillment over familial ties. 

Why is it important to understand your cultural background beyond your race and ethnicity?  Because if you understand yourself, you are better prepared to recognize and embrace alternatives.  For instance, research by William Maddux has shown that people who have significant multicultural experiences are more creative.  Also, if you understand where you are coming from, you may be more understanding of conflicts that are arising, and be able to address those conflicts in collaborative ways. 

In culture, as in all things, learn about others, compare yourself to them, and learn about yourself.

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