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Understanding Culture

25 September, 2015 - 11:52

When my parents came to the United States in 1979, their world became vastly different than what they had known. Before their arrival, they lived in a small hilltop, tribal village in the mountains of Laos, like many of their ancestors before them. They had the simplest tools for doing their work and for living their lives. The natural world provided everything they needed. If they wanted to use the bathroom, they went outside—not to an outhouse but to the woods. When they were hungry, they cooked the meal in a pot over a large fire pit. When relatives asked them to attend celebrations and notified them that the celebration meal would begin sometime when the sun was to set, my parents knew that the path of the sun would let them know when they should leave their house.

There were a lot of assumptions my parents made about their world. When they had to relocate to the United States, they found out how different their assumptions were when they were tested in an environment that contradicted their ways of being. They were not aware of a different way of living their lives, because the norms that shaped their lives influenced their actions and behaviors. The norms helped them to learn that what they did was the correct way to live.

One of their most difficult challenges was to unlearn what they knew in a different context and with different materials and tools that they did not have before. What naturally occurred was a process of culture shock and then a period of acculturation. When my parents’ sponsors showed them how to use the toilet by gesturing what to do and how to flush, my parents were embarrassed. Coming from a culture where modesty is important, they did not know how to respond to the American sponsor’s gestures, yet their embarrassment quickly turned into fascination when they saw how a toilet could dispose of materials.

Interpreting body language became a critical piece of adaptation and learning. My parents found the exaggerated gestures of their sponsors turning on and off the stove “different.” But it was paying attention to the facial gestures and body language that helped them to understand how to operate a stove. They realized certain things were the same across cultures: taking out a pot to boil water, placing it on a heated surface for the water to boil, taking the pot off the surface to let the water cool. The differences, they noticed, were in the equipment used and the timing of the water boiling. What a surprise it was for them to realize that one could adjust and control temperature!

As human beings who are accustomed to behaving (consciously and unconsciously) in specific ways, we often do not recognize another perspective until it is presented to us. Ellen Langer, 1 a social psychologist, says that it is in the perspective of another that we learn to see ourselves—to see who we really are. As an educator and facilitator, I meet people in positions of leadership every day who believe that their perspective about culture and how they should work with differences is the right way and that there is no other possibility for a different way of working or thinking. For example, a participant in my training session, Jacob, felt very strongly about the “invasion” (his word, not mine) of immigrants in his neighborhood. As a result, the city he worked for was increasingly diverse and would need to set up services and programs to meet the needs of the new immigrants.

As a native of the city, Jacob felt strongly that his neighbors needed to assimilate more quickly. As a city employee and manager, he felt excluded that the city would create new services for the immigrants. His issue of conflict here was that he had developed proposals for expanding current services in his department, but they were never approved, mostly because of budgetary reasons. He did not understand why creating “special services for a small population” mattered more than the services for current residents of the city, and he was angry that the funds set aside for the new programming would be large, much larger than his proposed changes.

Jacob, in this example, is bound to his single perspective or viewpoint. He cannot see beyond the situation. And, in fact, when discussing this situation with Jacob and other managers present, other pieces of the story began to unravel. Yes, Jacob had a perspective about immigrants based on his experiences with one immigrant–his neighbor. He used his knowledge and interactions with this person to generalize to an entire population. Additionally, what really mattered to him in his place of work was that he did not feel his ideas mattered. Because every time he proposed changes they were not approved, he took that as a deliberate attack on him. This was not the case at all and he was told this by his peers in the training.

When Jacob was presented with another perspective, he let his guard down. Over time, he was able to focus on the real issue, which was that no matter what your status, creed, ethnicity, or reason for moving to the United States, as a public sector employee it was his role to provide the appropriate services that would meet the residents’ needs.

As leaders, we must make strong efforts to see a different perspective than what we believe and hold to be true. We must challenge ourselves, as Byron Katie 2 says, by asking whether we know what we see to be true is really, in fact, true. And if it is, how do we know that? What stories have we told ourselves? To understand this, we need to look at the “roots of culture” and how our cultural systems have shaped our realities of the world.