10 Cultural Universals: Tuktuks, Gondolas, & Travel

From tuktuks in Thailand to gondolas in Venice, transportation takes on unique forms across the world. And these unique forms epitomize local culture.

Part two of transportation in our series on the 10 Cultural Universals will outline two compelling forms of transport and how they influence local culture.

The TukTuk

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Versions of a tuktuk, also known as an auto-rickshaw, can be found everywhere in the world, from South America to Asia. But tuktuks are particularly emblematic of Thailand.

Though they originated in Japan, they were embraced by Thailand, where they were imported during the 1930s. Eventually, the Thais took over production and Thai-made tuk-tuks were born.

Bangkok is packed with the three-wheeled open-air motorcycles. The smaller ride can wheel in and out of narrow alleyways and amongst all the traffic, where a traditional four-wheeled cab might get squeezed.

While these taxis should logically be the cheaper option, tuktuk drivers know what they’re doing.

As Greg Rodgers of tripsavvy put it, “The road-hardened drivers are experts at somehow convincing travelers to pay more than they normally would for a comfortable, air-conditioned taxi to go the same distance.”

This is the culture of Bangkok. An overabundance of colorful tuktuks and their tuktuk drivers, trying to make a buck off of fresh-off-the-boat types.

Haggling is part of the game, part of the culture. But, as Rodgers notes, unless you know what you’re doing, a traditional metered cab is probably a cheaper and more comfortable option.

The Gondola

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Certain iconic forms of transport spring to mind when thinking of a specific place or culture. The gondola is one of them.

Navigating the city’s historic canals, the gondola – and the singing gondoliers who guide them – is emblematic of Venetian culture. 

Dating back to 1094, the gondola’s structure was specifically designed to navigate the shallows of the Venetian lagoon. By 1562, gondola culture had evolved and been so embraced that the boats were excessively ornamented, so much so that legal restrictions were placed on their decoration. Thereafter, they became uniformly black and were allowed only three types of flourishes – a prow, a curly tail, or a pair of seahorses and a multi-pronged ferro.

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In the early years, gondolas were often shared among four people – three gondoliers and a fourth man who remained onshore to book the gondola for public transport.

Nowadays, gondolas are almost exclusively a tourist attraction – one that can bring in around $150,000 annually for your average gondolier.

That’s not without putting in the work. The profession is now controlled by a guild, where training and a comprehensive exam is required. Not only must gondoliers be incredible oarsmen, they must also have adequate foreign language skills, and intimate knowledge of Venetian landmarks and history.

Needless to say, this form of transport – like unique forms in many other places in the world – has become a cornerstone of the city’s culture.

When you think gondola, you think Venice.

When you think tuktuk, you think Bangkok.

When you think bicycle, you think Amsterdam.

This is how culturally significant transportation can be.

10 Cultural Universals: Transportation Culture & Social Movements

Amsterdam is a bicycler’s paradise.

Motorbikes are ubiquitous in Bali.

Knowing your way around the subway or the Tube is essential in NYC or London, respectively.

People all across the world have a common need: to get from here to there.

Whether on foot, by bus, or aboard a gondola, the methods of travel in every nation or region are unique and practical to the culture born there.

Last week, we discussed traditional clothing and how clothing culture evolves with the times.

This week, we’ll take a look at transport and its evolution, a topic which falls under the same umbrella of basics – along with food, clothing, and shelter – as part of our series on the 10 Cultural Universals.

Practicality and Culture

Each culture has its own public and preferred methods of transport. These methods vary across regions, based largely upon two things:

1) Practicality – the most functional mode of transport, considering the landscape and infrastructure of the area

2) Social norms & values – the social norms and values that drive these transport choices

The favored method of transport is often chosen due to the type of transport culture that’s cultivated in any given region. It’s also chosen based upon practicality (which usually influences why society cultivates that type of transport culture, in the first place).

The Bicycling Capital

Let’s take Amsterdam, for example.

‘Bike Street: Cars are Guests’

Amsterdam is often called “the bicycling capital of the world,” and this is largely due to a social movement that happened in the ‘70s.

While prior to WWII, bicycling was already the predominant form of transportation across the Netherlands, car ownership exploded in the ‘50s and ‘60s and was soon so popular that roads were congested, and bicyclists were literally shunted to the side.

With more motor vehicles zipping around, the number of road fatalities sky-rocketed. 3,000 people – including 450 children – were killed by drivers in 1971.

‘Stop the Child Murder’ Social Movement

This is when a social movement formed, called ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ (Stop the Child Murder). The movement’s name was derived from journalist Vic Langenhoff’s article of the same title, which he’d written after his own child had been killed on the road.

The Middle East oil crisis of 1973 also informed the move toward reinstating bicycling as the primary form of transport. As the Dutch’s reliability on foreign oil was shaken, the motor vehicle seemed less sustainable than previously thought.

Thus, the Dutch government renewed their investment in bicycling infrastructure – with more cycling paths, smoother biking surfaces, parking facilities, bike-sharing programs, and clear signage and lights.

Biking is now a daily part of most Dutch people’s daily lives, which means that children grow up with this cycle-centric primary socialization. This makes for a homegrown biking culture, ever popular in a world promoting greener transport options.

In this way, Amsterdam’s traditional and revitalized biking culture is ahead of the pack, and forward-thinking “smart city” cultures are following in their bike tracks (see: Barcelona, Mexico City).

Next week, we’ll discuss transport culture further.

10 Cultural Universals: Fashion, Tradition & Cultural Clothing Movements

Last week, we talked about the dignity of food culture with tips from Anthony Bourdain.

This week, we’ll discuss another topic within the same theme of cultural fundamentals: clothing.

Grouped together with food, shelter, and transport, clothing is one of the 10 Cultural Universals.

It’s easy to understand why.

Clothing viscerally represents culture in a way that’s often traditional, fashionable, and practical, all at once.

Clothing tradition also evolves with the times, as we’ll discuss in the section below, entitled “Cultural Clothing Movements.”

Tradition

In many parts of the world, traditional clothing has gone by the wayside, traded in for modern Western clothing.

Or, in some cases, traditional dress is worn only for special occasions, like births, weddings, funerals, or other big life events.

In some parts of the world, however, traditional clothing is still everyday wear.

For instance, it is not uncommon to see the Newar people of Nepal wearing traditional woven clothing in everyday life.

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Women’s dress is called Kurta Suruwal and includes a patterned blouse, covered by a draped scarf, and loose pants cinched around the ankles.

If married, women also wear Tika – a red powder – on the browline of their forehead.

Fashion

Many Nepali men, on the other hand, have transitioned to Western wear. It’s more common to see men wearing jeans and t-shirts or button-ups than it is to see them in traditional garb.

In this way, some part of Nepali culture has moved away from the traditional to what might be considered modern fashion.

Cultural Clothing Movements

Sometimes, culture evolves as social freedoms do. Often, it takes a movement to progress these changes.

For instance, in the case of forced hijab in Iran.

For nearly forty years, Iranian social codes have obliged women to wear the hijab in public. This has been Iranian law since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

But recently, with the help of social media, widespread protest of forced hijab has compelled some to shed or revolt against this cultural tradition.

This protest is not a complete rejection of the tradition or the hijab, itself. Rather, many believe it should be a woman’s right to choose whether she wears the hijab or not.

Masih Alinejad is one of the advocates driving this movement for social change. Alinejad started a Facebook page in 2014 called My Stealthy Freedom, in which she posts pics of Iranian women out in public, removing their hijabs.

While the regime has cracked down on the revolt, the campaign for freeing women of forced hijab is going strong and may just result in a cultural clothing revolution.

This is how clothing traditions evolve and how culture, inevitably, changes.

10 Cultural Universals: The Dignity of Food (tips from Anthony Bourdain)

Anthony Bourdain said it best:

“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that food is one of the 10 Cultural Universals. Along with shelter, clothing, and transport, food is a fundamental part of culture that celebrates it in a big way.

Through food and travel, Anthony Bourdain deeply inspired those of us who are interested in exploring, learning about, and understanding other cultures. He saw the power and dignity of food and how, among so many other things, a meal brings all of humanity together.

In deep respect and honor of Bourdain’s tragic passing just a couple weeks ago, I’ve compiled and condensed some of his greatest words of wisdom regarding food, culture, travel, and life.

#1: “I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food, for me, has always been an adventure.”

Food, just like life, should be an adventure.

While traveling or living abroad, you may face a meal that’ll make your stomach turn. But sometimes, you must take risks. Sometimes, you must grit your teeth and take that first bite.

Rejecting someone else’s food can feel like a personal rejection – or even a cultural rejection.

Accepting it, even if it’s not to your liking, shows your hosts that you care enough to make the effort and that you respect what they’ve created.

#2: “I’m not afraid to look like an idiot.”

Perhaps one of the most useful tips for travelers or soon-to-be expats is to be not afraid to play the fool.

My book, I am the Monkey, stresses this theme. It’s humbling to remember you are the odd-one-out looking in, not the other way around.

As the monkey, you must learn to be comfortable dropping your guard.

This goes for learning how to eat properly in other cultures too.

Never used chopsticks? Go on, give it a try. Sure, you’ll look clumsy at first, but soon enough, you’ll be capable.

The point is – you must not let feeling foolish get in the way of learning.

If you do, anxiety will be your roadblock to success across cultures.

Follow Bourdain’s advice and don’t be afraid to look like an idiot. In fact, embrace it.

#3: “I don’t have to agree with you to like you or respect you.”

Food is unique to the culture in which it was created, which is a beautiful thing.

Sometimes, the dish is not always pretty. But, more often than not, it’s the one aspect of a culture that can make all of us drop our pretenses, if we’re willing, and just appreciate each other, human to human.

And “dropping our pretenses” doesn’t mean we must stop talking, stop learning.

While sharing a meal, keep the conversation alive, like a pro:

“I don’t go in asking hard-news questions, but incredibly enough, again and again, just by sitting down with people over food and giving them a platform where I can listen to them, they say extraordinary things that can be very political in their implications.” – Bourdain

Keep talking. But more so, listen.

Sharing a meal with someone already demonstrates that you like and respect them, even if you don’t agree with their intrinsic beliefs.

Whenever you’re abroad, take a deep dive into your host’s food culture. Share a meal with locals.

You may just find that food is more than filling; it’s a teacher of compassion.

“Food may not be the answer to world peace, but it’s a start.” – Bourdain

 

10 Cultural Universals: Rites of Passage & Familial Roles

Last week in our ten-part series of the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about family structures.

This week, we’ll continue our discussion of family by identifying the roles of family members and rites of passage across two cultures.

Let’s travel to Mexico and Algeria to experience them both.

Familial Roles

Roles of family members form the structure and the line of authority within a family.

Mexico

The Mexican family is patriarchal and follows traditional gender roles. The father is the authoritarian figure, while the wife is generally submissive.

This cultural trend is believed to have developed from the 16th century Spanish conquistadors’ treatment of native women. After they’d been impregnated, they were treated with violence and threats of abuse in order to be made subservient.

The resulting “mestizo” children grew up with this devaluation of women normalized, which evolved the roles that exist today, particularly the concept of “machismo.”

Algeria

In Berber culture, traditional gender roles also reign supreme, with men working outside the home and women tending the house and raising the children. The eldest son steps into the authoritarian role of financial caregiver in place of the father, when he retires or passes away.

Grandparents, as well, play an important story-telling role in Berber society.

In the recent past, the entire family – often three or four generations – would gather around the elkanoun (fireplace) and listen to stories of morality told by the grandmother and grandfather.

The stories served as educational guides for their family, especially the young children.

Rites of Passage

Mexico/Latin America

A quinceañera is a rite of passage in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Central and South American countries.

During this huge 15th birthday party, which is both a social and religious event, the family celebrates the young woman’s passage from girlhood to womanhood. The celebration is also meant to highlight how meaningful society and family are in the life of women.

A mass, attended by her family and godparents, commences the celebration, followed by a large party with music, dancing, and food.

During the party, the young woman might present her younger sister with a doll as a symbolic gesture of passing from childhood to adulthood.

Algeria

In Algeria, a boy’s first haircut is celebrated with a big party to which all of the family is invited.

The wisest, oldest male member of the family – usually the grandpa on the dad’s side – cuts the first strand, and a traditional bread called lamsemen is cooked and placed on the young boy’s head.

Often, the grandma says to the child, “You will be strong and fat, like the bread.”

During Carem (Ramadan) the first time a child fasts, they are placed on the roof of the house during the Call to Prayer. There, they eat their meal – a special dish of eggs and bercoukes.

These are just a few important rites of passage and familial roles across cultures. Next week, we’ll talk about FCTS (food, clothing, transport, and shelter), some of the very basic aspects of culture.

10 Cultural Universals: The Role of Family in Culture

We’ve talked about geography and language and their relationship with culture over the past couple weeks.

Family is the third universal in our ten-part series.

Whether you’re from a culture which is centered around a nuclear family or one that embraces an extended family model, the family unit is an integral part of your cultural and your personal development.

This is why family dynamics are a common focus of cultural studies. From family member roles to labor division to rites of passage, culture begins at home and the family is its core.

Collectivist vs. Individualist

While there are obviously many family structures across cultures, let’s focus this discussion on two main distinctions: collectivist and individualist cultures.

One of the main ways in which these groups differ is in their family dynamics. Individuality is obviously stressed in individualist cultures, while interdependence and conformity are valued by collectivist cultures. And these dynamics are prevail within the family.

As Marcia Carteret, M. Ed., writes in “Cultural Differences in Family Dynamics”:

“Individualistic cultures stress self-reliance, decision-making based on individual needs, and the right to a private life. In collectivist cultures absolute loyalty is expected to one’s immediate and extended family/tribe.”

In other words, collectivist cultures put the needs of the family/group (the collective) before individual needs.

Nuclear vs. Extended

In examining the prevalence of nuclear and extended families in developing and developed countries, the un.org writes:

“The presence of two adult members per household in developed countries is an indication of the predominance of the nuclear type of family; on the other hand, the presence of more than two or three adult members in a household in developing countries indicates prevalence of an extended type of family or of a nuclear family with adult children present.”

The nuclear family is composed of parents and their children. This model is commonly followed by Western cultures and developed countries. Children are often raised to become independent and move out on their own when they reach adulthood.

The extended family model is often found in collectivist cultures and developing countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, as well as in Hispanic and American Indian cultures. In this model, the extended family – including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – are an intimate part of the familial network.

Whereas individualist cultures prize privacy and independence, with the nuclear family living separately from the extended family, collectivist cultures often share the household across generations. In a multi-generational household, you might find three or more generations cohabitating. Grandparents might live with their adult children and grandchildren.

In some of these households, the eldest son brings his new wife to live with his parents at home. The daughter-in-law submits to the mother-in-law.

“Relatives” unrelated by blood may even play a significant role in the family, with tribal leaders being consultive beings in American Indian families and godparents serving this role in Hispanic families.

Next week, we’ll talk more extensively about familial roles and rites of passage across cultures.

10 Cultural Universals: The Link Between Language & Culture

Last week, in our ten-part series on the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about how geography can influence culture. This week, we’ll take a look at the link between language and culture.

Does our language influence the way we see the world? Or does the way we see the world shape our language?

Research suggests that it’s a little bit of both. Here are just a few examples of how culture and language are bound.

Colors

A study done by Lera Boroditsky, Stanford University professor of psychology and Frontiers in Cultural Psychology editor in chief, highlights how the Russian language distinguishes between light blue and dark blue tones.

And, interestingly, corresponding tests showed that Russians are, in fact, able to distinguish between shades of blue better than non-Russian speakers.

Is this because the language calls them to distinguish between dark and light, or does the language reflect the way the Russian people view color?

Time

In the 1940s, linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf studied a culture’s concept of time based on language. He found that English-speakers objectify time by placing it in countable chunks – minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, etc.

By conceptualizing time in this way, English-speakers view it as something that can be lost, wasted, or saved.

Those cultures that look at time as a continuous cycle do not speak of it in such terms. The Hopi language – a Native American language spoken in Arizona – is one such culture.

Other ways in which time is viewed differently across cultures: the Aymara language in South America flips time on its axis, considering the past to be in front of them and the future behind. Mandarin, too, considers the past to be above and the future below.

Do these linguistic concepts of time influence the way we live our lives?

Cause & Effect

Stanford’s Caitlin Fausey studied how language can influence eyewitness memory of cause and effect.

Spanish speakers often use passive voice when speaking about an accident that occurred. For instance, if Sam broke a dish, they would be more likely to say “the dish broke” or “the dish was broken,” leaving Sam out of the action, altogether.

English speakers, on the other hand, are more likely to use the active voice, saying, “Sam broke the dish.”

This has been shown to shape how a person from either culture recalls events. English speakers are more likely to recall who broke the dish, while Spanish speakers recall only that it was broken.

This linguistic trait is only in the case of accidental events, not intentional ones, so a Spanish person is just as likely to recall who broke the dish if it was intentional as their English counterparts.

These are just a few of the ways that language shapes culture and/or culture shapes language. And they highlight the importance of studying the language of any culture into which you wish to integrate.

10 Cultural Universals: How Does Geography Impact Culture?

Last week, we glanced at the 10 Cultural Universals. For the next several weeks, we’ll take a closer look at each of them, in turn. Let’s start with geography.

Let me paint a picture:

It’s the 16th century. The astounding Andean Mountains serve as the backdrop to the epic uprising of the Inca culture – a culture that sprung up in the highlands of Peru and thrived for three centuries.

Surprisingly, for being such an important empire – and perhaps the largest in history – technology isn’t so advanced as to include wheeled vehicles, partially due to the terrain and lack of draft animals to pull plows and wagons.

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And yet, still, the Incas create enormous architectural structures and road networks that stand to this day. Their diet is primarily vegetarian, and they produce agricultural innovations – like warehouses to conserve grain – that aid their culture’s survival in this difficult environment. The government, too, does their job to drive the empire to greatness, enforcing labor management and organization strategies that are crucial to their success.

Of course, clothing in the highland is warmer and often made out of wool. The textiles are woven or knitted and are never tailored, held together, instead, by metal pins. Clothing styles indicate the status of the individual, with commoners wearing garments of coarser textiles.

The bodies of the Inca people, as well, have physically adapted to the high altitude, with an increase in red blood cell count and lung capacity.

As you can tell, geography plays a major hand in directing the Inca’s cultural formation and development. All of this is studied in cultural geography, one of the 10 Cultural Universals.

Cultural Geography

Defined as “The study of the relationship between culture and place,” in Dartmouth’s words, cultural geography:

“Examines the cultural values, practices, discursive and material expressions and artefacts of people, the cultural diversity and plurality of society, and how cultures are distributed over space, how places and identities are produced, how people make sense of places and build senses of place, and how people produce and communicate knowledge and meaning.”

Rooted in Friedrich Ratzel’s anthropogeography, the study of the relationship of a culture with its natural environment began in the early 20th century, with the intent to understand social organizations and cultural practices in relation to place and environment.

This includes such topics as the isolation or interconnectedness of a culture, clothing, traditions, government, economy, religion, etc., all with respect to its geography.

Cultural geography looks at how groups adapt to their environment, but also how they shape the landscape, through architecture, agriculture, and engineering.

New Cultural Geography

In the late 1980s, ‘new cultural geography’ challenged the above approach by expanding these areas of research. New cultural geography looks more broadly at the many ways in which culture impacts places and everyday life.

“Othering,” imperialism, colonialism, religion, and nationalism are studied to determine how these practices impact the locale, including various groups’ sense of rejection or acceptance in society.

While the study of culture and geography is as ever-changing as a landscape, one thing’s certain: culture and geography are indelibly interconnected.

The 10 Cultural Universals

The word, “culture,” covers a broad spectrum. Sometimes it’s easier to understand what falls under the umbrella of culture by drawing more definitive lines.

When you talk about culture, what topics can you expect the discussion to encompass?

These 10 cultural universals are a start.

10 Cultural Universals

  1. Geography – Location, location, location. Location defines so many aspects of a culture – from the clothing worn to the food prepared and eaten – that it would be remiss not to consider geography when discussing culture. The landscape of the region, the natural resources it offers, and of course the rich history generated from the region all impacts a culture’s evolution.
  2. Language – Language is significantly important to culture and can afford those studying any social group some insight into what’s important to them (think: polite language, masculine/feminine use, slang, etc.). When discussing language, you should also consider the group’s written language, body language, sign language, and numbers systems.
  3. Family – Family dynamics are a key part of cultural studies, from the roles of each family member, child to grandparent, to the rites of passage that members undergo. Labor division across genders is also part of this cultural universal.
  4. FCTS (food, clothing, transport, shelter) – The basics of survival form the skeletal structure of culture. Think architectural styles, building materials, modes of transport, traditional and everyday cuisine and clothing, etc.
  5. VBR (values, beliefs, rituals) – We’ve talked extensively about values in this blog. That’s because they are the roots of every cultural baobab. This category also includes the rituals, beliefs, and religious practices of a culture, such as myths and legends, ceremonial rituals and holidays, and stances on contemporary science versus traditional beliefs.
  6. Economics – Jobs, the market, finance, goods and services, production, consumption, and distribution are paramount to societal development and quality of life, making a group’s economy a cultural universal.
  7. Education – This category includes not only formal education, but societal education – i.e. passing cultural values, survival skills, and various types of training onto youth.
  8. Politics – The type of government and the organization of a society, from rule of law to the enforcement of these laws, form the group’s hierarchies, structures, and most important institutions. The politics of a nation can also determine whether that nation is prone to war or peace.
  9. Technology – Technology available to a culture – tools, weapons, digital technology, etc. – contributes to all aspects of everyday life, as well as to the bigger picture, the way the culture operates.
  10. Cultural Expression – This is often the category that first springs to mind when the word, “culture,” is used. That’s because art, music, literature, sport, and every other form of cultural expression is the most bright and vivid rendering of the culture’s essence, its spirit. Creative expression brings culture to life.

Now that you know what constitutes “culture,” we’ll put each of these universals under the microscope in the coming weeks.

Adoption: True Cultural Integration

How long would you need to live in Africa to find termites delectable?

Over the course of the past few weeks, we’ve talked about what types of norms you should adapt, which norms you must adapt, and what to do when you can’t adapt.

And, while adapting does demonstrate respect of your new culture, true cultural integration involves adopting.

Adopting vs. Adapting

What’s the difference between adopting and adapting?

Let’s take a look at our Monkey Strategies:

behavior

Adapting means to adjust your behavior in order to fit into a foreign society. It means following cultural norms, if only for the time you’ll be living and working in a culture, to demonstrate your respect and dedication to cultural understanding and sensitivity.

But adopting takes integration a step further. Adopting means to actively accept a certain behavior, norm or value as your own.

To put it another way, when you adapt, you’re a monkey swinging from the branches and limbs of the cultural baobab – picking monkey fruit from the norms, the visible part of culture.

When you adopt, you dig down into the roots of the baobab – the values, the invisible part.

Truly adopting another culture’s values means you are taking them into yourself. They are rooting within you and becoming part of you.

This may mean you’ve shed some of the cultural values that were taught to you from birth. This may be a conscious choice, and it may change the very core of who you are.

When it does, you’ve entered the final stage of cultural integration.

Adopting Another Culture

When you become part of this new culture, the culture becomes part of you.

But this isn’t likely to happen in the blink of an eye. Like an actual adoption, the process takes time. And as I mentioned, it is a choice to adopt; you can’t be forced to do so. Nor is adoption necessary to be successful in a foreign culture.

But it does make things easier. Once you adopt, you’ll no longer feel culture shock, because two cultures’ values and norms will no longer be conflicting within you.

Reaching this stage makes you global citizen. You’ll feel a deep connection to this new culture into which you’ve integrated, and you’ll also obtain freedom from and valuable insight into your own culture.