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Different ≠ Inferior: Dropping the Cross-Cultural Superiority Complex

Your culture calls light blue and dark blue simply “blue.”

Another culture has two different words for it.

Your culture crumples its toilet paper.

Another folds it.

Another uses no toilet paper at all.

Your culture bows.

Another shakes hands.

Another kisses on both cheeks.

Cultures are different. But none are inferior. And none are unnatural either.

Here’s why.

Stranger Danger

One of the most dangerous ideas in the history of man has been that different equates inferior.

Why is this thought dangerous?

Well, for one, if you view your foreign counterpart as inferior, it goes without saying that you consider yourself superior to him/her.

And when you consider yourself superior, you may try to impose your ideology on the other. That’s happened throughout history, time and again.

When you consider another inferior, you may also justify treating them as such. Treating them like animals.

You may enslave them.

You may abuse them.

You may slaughter them.

It’s a sad reality, but this idea of inferiority is the catalyst to such horrors in our world.

Many of the most heinous crimes against humanity have been committed because of the prejudice that one’s own culture is superior to another’s.

But it isn’t.

Be Fascinated * Give Life Meaning

Cultural norms are natural to their own culture. And they are often a beautiful representation of that culture.

Seeing cultural differences in this light – as natural and beautiful to the culture – will make you more adaptable and successful in a multicultural environment. Adopting this view will help you manage differences (some of which may appear to you as cumbersome or even incomprehensible when compared with your own norms and values).

If you are living and working in a foreign culture, your success depends upon identifying cultural differences and accepting them as they are.

Do not view them in the positive or negative. Such shades are counterproductive.

Instead, take the view of John Hooker who said in his book, Working Across Cultures:

“I have neither the wisdom nor the desire to pass judgment. For me every culture is a source of fascination, because it must encompass all of life and give it meaning.”

And, as with most life-encompassing meanings, none are “less than”. They are the heart of a people, a culture, and should be respected as such.

Next week, we’ll talk about how cultural conditioning creates these differences.

Maybe She’s Born with It: Genetic Versus Acquired Behaviors

Last week, we talked about the evolution of color perception.

Why were traditional societies without the color “blue” in their vocabulary? Was it due to their culture? Or their genetics?

That’s exactly what researchers Paul Kay and Brent Berlin set out to investigate.

Inferiority

As discussed in our last post, the scientific community previously assumed that the so-called genetic inferiority of “primitive” societies resulted in a lack of color perception – and thus a lack of color language.

It was only in 1969 that Kay and Berlin took a deeper look.

In researching the languages of twenty ethnic groups, they collected the groups’ color descriptions, using twenty different color chips. In this way, they systematically compared these groups’ color vocabulary.

Their Findings

Primary colors were identified across nearly every culture, which suggests that color language is unrelated to retina development or genetics.

Evolutionary research also confirms that the eyes of Hebrews and ancient Greeks possessed the same color vision as they do today.

What Does This Mean?

This means that color language is a cultural norm; there is no difference in our genetics, our vision or our perceived color spectrum.

The difference is only in the language. And while some cultures differentiate distinct separations between certain colors, others don’t.

One example: Blue

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Take a look at this color spectrum.

In the Russian language, what English speakers call “light blue” qualifies as a different color from “dark blue.”

“Goluboy” and “siniy” in Russian, respectively.

Both light and dark blue are the same color in English, just two different shades of that color.

In fact, Russians may be more on point than the Brits on this differentiation. The wavelengths of light and dark blue differ as much as light blue and green.

So, equating dark and light blue makes as much physiological sense as calling light blue green and vice versa.

Now, consider early Russian scientists or linguists studying the English language.

The absence of vocabulary between what they saw as two distinct colors – goluboy and siniy -would certainly have made the English language – and, therefore, the British – seem primitive and uncivilized.

The Russians may have viewed their lacking color vocabulary as a lack of color perception and, therefore, genetic inferiority.

Civilized/Uncivilized

So, does color vocabulary (and the assumed “color perception” that accompanies it) make one culture more civilized than the other?

Of course not.

Whether your language lumps light and dark blue together or it differentiates between the two – or whether you have the color “blue” in your language at all – no color vocabulary is inferior to the other.

We’ll talk more about this next week.

Coloring the World: The Evolution of Color Perception

What colors do you see here?

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What about here?

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Here?

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Here?

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It might surprise you to know that in Homer’s famed works, The Iliad and The Odyssey, he described the sea as wine-dark.

He described sheep’s wool as violet.

And the color of honey? Green.

All of this seems to imply that either the world’s color palette has changed…or, more likely, the human perception of color has.

Old Testament Eyesight

We assume that our world has and will always appear visually the same to everyone. In fact, that is not the case at all.

Guy Deutscher explains in his book, Looking Through the Language Glass, why the world looks different in other languages. 

Deutscher highlights philologist Lazarus Geiger’s 1867 discovery of strange color descriptions in old text.

Along with Homer’s descriptions, listed above, the Old Testament also describes faces that turn green with panic, red horses, and dove feathers in green gold.

These color descriptors are unusual today, and that may not be due to artistic license; rather, the evolution of eyesight may be at play here.

Evolution of Eyesight

Color perception and evolution walk hand-in-hand, according to one of the first research theories into what links the two.

As color perception became more important in developed civilizations (like the ancient Greeks), the human eye’s color sensitivity enhanced across generations.

Take blue, for example.

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The color blue was absent in early text (see the wine-colored sea above). Yet, the color red was everywhere, as distinguishing red was paramount to survival.

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Why?

Red=blood = danger.

Red appears in most old languages and has long appeared in garment dyes. Blue, on the other hand, has always been rare in nature and difficult to manufacture, thus our unnecessary sensitivity to it and its description.

Absence of Color

“The more delicate cones of the retina, which impart the higher color-sense, have probably developed gradually only during the last millennia.”

– biologist Ernst Haeckel, 1878

Darwin’s co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, agreed with Haeckel. He said in 1877 that our “perception and appreciation of color” was a recent acquisition.

When researching language of color in traditional cultures – like that of the Klamath Indians in Oregon and the Nubians in Africa – scientists found similar color descriptors used as in old scriptural languages.

At the time, many in the scientific community assumed this similarity in language between old scriptural color descriptions and those used by what they called “primitive societies” was due to the assumed physical and intellectual inferiority of these groups (a popular belief at the time).

But they would soon discover they were very wrong to assume. Tune in next week to find out why.

Assuming Sameness: How Cross-Cultural Exchanges Can Go VERY Wrong

Tom walks into his potential new Japanese office.

He’s never opened a book on cross-cultural business (I am the Monkey! would be a great start), hasn’t learned anything about the culture, and barely put his shoes on the right feet this morning.

He enters the conference room, dressed casually, and goes to shake hands all around. The Japanese colleagues bow, and Tom bungles through, half-bowing, half-hand shaking.

When this exchange is over, they each present their business cards to Tom in turn. He accepts them with one hand and shoves them into his pocket. He forgot his back at the hotel.

Clearly, Tom was ill-prepared. And he didn’t get the job.

What did he do wrong?

Well, for one thing, he assumed sameness. And by that, I mean, he assumed Japanese culture and business etiquette was the same as his own.

What is “Normal”?

With the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about sameness in a way: all the general themes cultures have in common, from language to politics, from transportation to the arts.

Now, we’re going to talk about the dangers in assuming cultures are all the same.

First off, it’s completely natural to assume that other cultures fall in line with our own.

For one thing, from the time we are children, we’re taught a limited scope of what’s expected and accepted by the society into which we’ve been born; we’re taught our own culture’s values and norms.

We see this scope as “normal.” And when another culture falls outside our limited scope, their actions or ideologies are viewed as abnormal.

So with this implicit assumption that the rest of the world is normal like us, anything different feels wrong.

But, the more we are exposed to, the more our scope of “normal” evolves and grows. If we’re open to it, we learn that “normal” is not a universally fixed concept.

Abandon Assumptions

Success in a multicultural environment begins with abandoning assumptions. You can do this in five steps:

  1. Assume you know nothing
  2. Shed foundational views of right vs. wrong and normal vs. abnormal
  3. Know that you’ve been exposed to a microscopic worldview
  4. Admire the cultural diversity that paints the complex mural of humanity
  5. Recall the Baobab Theory of Culture and connect the dots from the roots to the branches, in order to understand cultural differences

Done Differently

Knowing all this, after abandoning assumptions, what should Tom have done differently during his Japanese meeting?

  • Read a book on cross-cultural business
  • Read up on Japanese business etiquette
  • Dressed formally
  • Bowed, instead of shaken hands (or both, if the Japanese counterparts offered a handshake)
  • Been prepared with business cards, as this exchange is routine in Japan
  • Accepted others’ business cards with both hands
  • Read and memorized the name and important information on each card
  • Placed the card carefully into a business card holder, instead of directly into the pocket

Respect is essential etiquette in Japanese business culture. Anything less is insulting.

By assuming sameness, Tom insulted his potential colleagues and cut short his success across cultures.

Next week, we’ll talk more about acquired and genetic perception and how they form our culture and our understanding of others.

10 Cultural Universals Wrap-Up

Over these past few months, we’ve talked about the 10 Cultural Universals.

These are the ten themes that every culture has in common.

Let’s run through these themes one more time and sum up what we’ve covered.

Geography

From the geography of the Inca culture and how it impacts all other aspects of life in the Andean Mountains.

Language

To the way words and language can color our world – like it does for Russian culture in shades of blue.

Family

From the varied family structures in collectivist and individualist cultures.

Food, Clothing, Transport, Shelter

To the dignity of food with Anthony Bourdain.

From fashion, its trends, and social movements that advance culture.

To how transportation can shape a city and its embrace of greener alternatives.

From how shelters tell stories of culture to the stories told by the nomadic homes of Mongolian yurts.

Values, Beliefs, Rituals

From how we become who we are through the values we consume.

To how cultural beliefs can impact everything from gender roles to healthcare to education.

From how rituals can make death a celebration.

Economics

To how cultural values can influence economic output and shape government for better or worse.

Education

From how educators serve as the front-line in disseminating our culture’s values to our children.

Politics

To how “collapsing events” in politics can inform those very values and provide context to the evolution of our culture.

Technology

From how social media movements are being used as a vehicle of change across the world.

Cultural Expression

To how art, literature, dance, music, sport, and other forms of creative expression have always been used as vehicles of sharing and understanding both the familiar and the foreign.

What’s So Beautiful About These Universals?

The fact that each and every culture around the world has these themes in common.

Regional surroundings help define culture, language and cultural expression communicate to others who we are, politics provide culture structure.

Although from East to West, individuals, societies, governments, and their values are different – very different – we all share these ten aspects of culture in common.

And sharing commonalities is as beautiful a thing as appreciating our differences.

Next week, we’ll talk about the dangers of assuming sameness. Stay tuned.

10 Cultural Universals: Cultural Expression

When talking about culture, this is the 10 Cultural Universals category that first jumps to mind.

Art, music, literature, sport, and any other vivid representation of culture falls under the category of cultural expression.

As one of the loudest and most dynamic parts of culture, expression is the paint pallet that brings the picture to life.

Art.

blog53-2Where would Mexican muralism be without “the big three” – David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco?

The Mexican Revolution spurred artworks with a political and social message. Beginning in the 1920s, the Mexican muralism movement lasted more than fifty years.

Artworks were often commissioned by the government, itself, and were mainly large and colorful storytelling pieces, celebrating Mexico’s rich history, coupled with the moral degradation of imperialism, dictatorships, and war.

This form of cultural expression illustrated the importance of history and politics to the Mexican people in this era of change. The bold colors and lines of their pieces also showcased the artistic and cultural aesthetic.

Music.blog53-1Flamenco music and dance in Spain is one of the liveliest representations of an already lively culture.

The dance, which is one full of controlled movement, intense facial expression, and dramatic costume, experienced its golden age from 1869 to 1910 but is still very popular today.

Along with evocative singing, the Spanish guitar, hand drums, and the Flamenco clap, known as Palmas, the experience of Spanish music and dance draws the emotions of the performers and the audience into one powerful crescendo.

Literature.

blog53-4Nikolai Gogol. Anton Chekhov. Leo Tolstoy. Fyodor Dostoevsky.

The Russian soul is best expressed in the works of its greatest writers.

Literature is a canvas of cultural self-reflection. Many of the greatest authors of any given time or place know just how to record and express what their culture is in that moment…and across the ages, as well.

Dostoevsky said the Russian soul was a dark place, and Alexei K. Tolstoy captured that place in one beautiful quote:

“It is sad, yet joyful, on a silent summer’s night, in a voiceless wood, to hear a Russian song. Here we find unlimited sadness without hope. Here, also is unconquerable strength and the unalterable stamp of Fate; here, also is iron predestination, one of the primitive foundations of the Russian national identity, through which much can be explained which seemed inexplicable in Russian life.”

The great literary masters are able to articulate the very essence of what it’s like to be Russian.

And if that isn’t the power of cultural expression in a nutshell, then I don’t know what is.

Creative expression is the living and breathing spirit of a culture. It breathes life into society, explodes onto the canvas, and serves as a monumental representation of who we are as one.

10 Cultural Universals: Technology in Action

Last week, as part of our series on the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about how technology informs and accelerates culture.

In this post, we’re going to expand on that.

But we’re not heading back to the Dark Ages to do so. We’re going to stick with modern technology.

More specifically, social media.

The Arab Spring

Mohammed Bouazizi.

Not many people know his name. But what happened to this young Tunisian merchant is what lit the flame of the Arab Spring – a tension that had been tightening for years, due to discontent and instability in places like Tunisia, Syria, Libya, and Egypt.

The police required Bouazizi to pay a bribe in order to sell his merchandise. Bouazizi took the matter to the governor, but he refused to listen.

So, Bouazizi lit himself on fire.

The Protest Spreads

Bouazizi’s plight was shared.

The people of Tunisia, and many states in the region, were facing government corruption, limited education, poverty, and high unemployment.

The youth were stirring, there was unrest. And they used the tools that only they – and few in government – understood: social media.

Via YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, young people organized protests, spread their mission, and started to fight the hard fight.

Research on the use and impact of social media during the uprising has been done, as this was one of the first cases of its use in a grassroots movement.

The Dubai School of Government surveyed Tunisians and Egyptians about their use of social media during the uprisings. The answers of 86% of Tunisians and 85% of Egyptians led to the report’s conclusion:

“Growth of social media in the region and the shift in usage trends have played a critical role in mobilization, empowerment, shaping opinions, and influencing change.”

At the height of the Arab Spring, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was removed from power. A win for the movement, at the time.

But now, some areas of the region are even more unstable. And governments have cracked down on social media use.

While this Arab Spring may not have resulted in a successful overthrow of power and corruption, social media did give those who were silent so long a voice.

Social Media Movements

#BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #MyStealthyFreedom.

Things are changing. Many are finding their voices.

And technology, in the form of social media, is largely generating this change.

People are sharing their experiences and learning from others’. People you know, strangers from all over the world.

While it’s unclear yet where progress will lead for some of these movements, it is clear that things will out. It’s clear that the things that matter, these serious cultural issues, will no longer hide in the dark.

They will no longer be ignored.

10 Cultural Universals: Technology

Technology.

It accelerates and informs our culture.

Sometimes, it evolves slowly.

Sometimes, it evolves at the speed of light.

Sometimes, it is light.

When we talk about technological development, we’re not talking only about technology as we know it today. And by that, I mean computers, the Internet, and everything associated with the word “tech”.

We’re talking about the evolution of aspects of daily life across time, which can manifest in many technological forms.

What forms?

Technological Development

Technology involves the evolution of the way we, as humans, live and interact with the world.

How we make ends meet.

How we get from here to there.

How we share our lives and record history.

Some examples of technological evolution:

  • Transportation: the wheel->carts->roads->road networks->bicycles->trains->automobiles->planes.
  • Communication: oral tradition->written word->telegrams->telephones->email->text->instant message->social media->videocalling.
  • Industry: the invention of steam power->the use of steel and iron->development in coal industry->advances in engineering->development in chemical industry.

These are just three areas of our technological evolution that have changed cultures all over the world.

How Do Technologies Change Culture?

As Charlie Gilkey put so eloquently in his article, “Technology and Culture Influence Each Other”:

“As much as technology is created from the fabric of our culture, technology also creates the fabric of our culture.”

Let’s take one of our examples from above to illustrate this.

Communication

Just imagine how different life was way back when the only means of communication was oral tradition.

Instead of instantly sharing one’s thoughts with all the world, Bob had to travel to George’s house in order to deliver a message.

Communication, therefore, took much longer, the audience was limited, it relied on memory, and it likely relied on more forethought too, because, due to these limitations, it was infinitely more important that Bob conveyed his message correctly the first time.

Then, there was written word. It could be conveyed and delivered to the recipient with more directness and accuracy.

Next, telegrams. Then, telephones.

When telephones were invented, you could call up your mom and ask her when you had to be home. And now, you can even see her face when you do so.

Communication has taken on new, more instant forms – from emails to texts to IMs to Tweets. These more instant means of communication can rapidly impact culture. In fact, they’ve created tsunami waves in the form of social media movements.

For instance, as described in “Fashion, Tradition & Cultural Clothing Movements,” a social media movement in Iran has and is changing the status quo when it comes to women wearing hijab in public.

Such movements are so impactful that they are altering the tides of history.

We’ll talk more about that next week.

10 Cultural Universals: How North Korean Politics Shape Culture

Imagine you live in a culture whose politics are totalitarian, whose leader has a cult of personality.

Imagine you have to triple-lock a door and put a blanket over windows so that no one catches you watching the latest Stephen Seagall movie.

Imagine you have a buddy system at school to ensure that you’re never alone.

Or that a cellphone is considered a luxury, but it only grants you access to the state-run media, not to the world wide web.

Imagine how you would be forced to live, if a toe out of line meant a stint at a “re-education center” for you and your family. You’d certainly follow the rules, enthusiastically praise your gracious leader and, with enough political and cultural conditioning, you may even believe the propaganda fed to you.

This is North Korea.

Cult of Personality

Last week, in our series on the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about how collapsing events might lead to a change in cultural values.

For North Korea, a series of collapsing events culminated in the Korean War and the armistice signed in July of 1953.

The result is today’s North Korea, where totalitarianism and “the Great Leader’s” cult of personality reigns supreme.

This personality cult is rooted in the past, beginning in 1948, when Kim Il-sung took power, and growing with each and every Kim

While democratic leadership has its own brand of the “cult,” the Kim family takes their “right to lead” leaps and bounds beyond normalcy.

Kim Jong Un, for instance, is believed to be the grandson of a god-king. He is called the “father of the people” – that title, accompanied by a song by an all-girl rock band, entitled “We Call Him Father.”

And what happens when a citizen doesn’t praise him as such?

Penalties exist for those who do not respect the regime properly.

And for those who outright criticize them?

Well, there really are re-education centers and much worse to silence dissent.

The Results?

Mina Yoon, who defected from North Korea in 2010, said that the totalitarian system in the country limits individual pastimes.

“The idea of ‘free time’ is not really common. Then, even if you do have free time, there aren’t many things to enjoy anyway.” – Mina Yoon

American journalist Suki Kim who taught English at an all-boys school in North Korea said  that the terror is palpable there.

“The level of fear is unimaginable. It’s possible to be both happy and terrified all at once, and I think that’s the case for many North Koreans.” – American journalist Suki Kim

This is how politics can shape culture to the extreme. Next week, we’ll talk about how technology comes into play.

10 Cultural Universals: Politics

Politics in Culture

Democracy, communism, socialism, totalitarianism.

The politics of a nation shape its values and are shaped by them.

The cycle is continuous and feeds itself: culture feeds politics, and politics feed culture. This cycle is only disrupted by some huge collapsing event.

What do I mean by “collapsing event”?

I’ll give you an example.

Germany & WWII

One obvious example of this is WWII.

When Hitler and the Nazis gained control, so did their political values: anti-semitism, the concept of an Aryan “master race,” and the formation of a “New Order.”

“There are only two possibilities in Germany; do not imagine that the people will forever go with the middle party, the party of compromises; one day it will turn to those who have most consistently foretold the coming ruin and have sought to dissociate themselves from it…there are only two possibilities: either victory of the Aryan, or annihilation of the Aryan and the victory of the Jew.”

Adolf Hitler, Munich (April 12, 1922)

This was the first of the collapsing events: the Nazi takeover.

In 1945, another collapsing event would occur: their defeat.

And 44 years later, in 1989, would occur another collapsing event in Germany – this one almost a literal one – the fall of the Berlin wall, which separated East Germany from West Germany.

It was this collapsing event that eventually led to the Germany we know today: a federal parliamentary republic, an influential leader in Europe and the world, and the fourth largest economy.

This example demonstrates that politics can momentarily distort a culture’s values, can lead to evil acts. But, ultimately, if the majority’s values are good and strong, politics cannot destroy the true nature of a culture.

As long as that majority does not remain silent.

Collapsing Event

You can probably determine from the above example what a collapsing event is.

It’s a moment in history that almost entirely collapses the status quo, keeps the good or the bad (depending upon the values of the dominant group), attempts to eliminate the “other,” and starts building the status quo again from the ground, up, under newly installed values.

This is politics in culture.

Oftentimes, a collapsing event occurs through war and violence. In fact, one might look at politics as a war for cultural values.

Political Movements

A few more examples of collapsing events across history:

  • American Civil War – Abraham Lincoln led the North in defeating the confederates to preserve the union and abolish slavery.
  • Cultural Revolution – Chairman Mao Zedong’s attempt to preserve Communist ideology by destroying some of China’s capitalist past and tradition and silencing (and often publicly humiliating) community intellectuals and thought leaders.
  • Execution of the Romanov Family – The Bolsheviks murdered the family members of the last living tsar dynasty to end imperialism in Russia.

The list is endless, and the bodycount is often devastating. These events create a turning point in history, where the established values are disrupted or altered, altogether.

And as we all know, values are the fundamental roots of culture. They define us.

Next week, we’ll talk about how politics, values, and culture collide in North Korea.