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: Education

What role do educators play in society?

Teaching reading, writing, arithmetic. Sure.

But they teach our children and young adults other things too.

In many ways, educators are charged with teaching our youth about the basic tenets of our culture.

Socialization

We talked a lot about primary socialization in earlier blog posts.

According to sociologyguide, education has both tangible and intangible results. Specific skills are learned, but so is knowledge, judgement and wisdom.

“Education has as one of its fundamental goals the imparting of culture from generation to generation. Culture is a growing whole. There can be no break in the continuity of culture.” – sociologyguide

Education begins at home and continues through schooling. It is here and there that a culture’s heritage is passed on through social institutions, and it’s transmitted this was through each and every society, making it one of the 10 Cultural Universals.

Education is delivered through many forms:

  • Curriculum
  • Relationships (teacher-student, etc.)
  • Extra-curricular activities
  • Communication of values and skills – i.e., discipline, teamwork, cooperation, respect, duty, etc.

These taught skills, both tangible and intangible, are designed to enable children to understand their culture and to help them integrate into the world.

Cultural Education Clash

Different cultures see the world differently. This isn’t in error. It’s how culture is perpetuated.

Matthew Lynch, Ed.D., talks about that in his article, “Examining the Impact of Culture on Academic Performance.” He writes:

“A person’s culture and upbringing has a profound effect on how they see the world and how they process information.”

Lynch describes Richard Nisbett’s studies on the difference between Eastern and Western thought.

In The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently, Nisbett found that the Chinese and Japanese view the world in a holistic way, seeing objects with respect to their relationship with other objects, while Americans view the world in distinct parts or classes of objects, defined by rules.

In this way, learning, in and of itself, also differs across cultures. There are a number of theories as to why and how, some of which are discussed in Lynch’s article. But the one we’ll outline here is the cultural difference theory.

The Cultural Difference Theory

This theory suggests that children growing up in different cultures likely learn in different ways.

You might take our example from Primary Socialization V: Conflict Resolution.

The conflict between Ahmed, Khalid, and Ann illustrates that learning and education in some areas of the world is a communal effort, while in other areas, study is independently geared and self-driven.

This is why, when working in a cross-cultural environment, one must always be aware of different traditions of learning and approaches to education.

If you’re aware of how individuals in a culture have been taught to learn, you will be better able to teach; to work with and/or manage them successfully.

10 Cultural Universals: Rituals, Seeing Darkness in a Whole New Light

Bhutan is known as the happiest country on Earth.

And yet, the peaceful Buddhist nation, sandwiched between India and China in the Himalayas, is preoccupied with death.

People of Bhutanese culture think about death five times a day. And, surprisingly, this doesn’t provoke negativity or darkness; it brings happiness and joy.

The Bhutanese understand that death and life walk hand-in-hand. And their quasi-celebration of death is best represented in their rituals.

Rituals, Values, Beliefs

Rituals, tied in with values and beliefs, are part of the 10 Cultural Universals.

Rituals are shared events, often traditional, that are unique to a given group or community.

As UNESCO puts it:

“They are significant because they reaffirm the identity of those who practice them as a group or a society and, whether performed in public or private, are closely linked to important events…to a community’s worldview and perception of its own history and memory.”

How do Bhutanese rituals reaffirm their identity and demonstrate their perception of death?

Death Ritual

Death rituals in Bhutan are so enriching, because Buddhists believe not in death, but in reincarnation. Therefore, the focus is on the rebirth of the soul into a new life; not on the death and ultimate termination of the departed’s life here on Earth.

According to Eric Weiner’s BBC article, “Bhutan’s Dark Secret to Happiness”:

“Ritual provides a container for grief, and in Bhutan that container is large and communal. After someone dies, there’s a 49-day mourning period that involves elaborate, carefully orchestrated rituals.”

The rituals during this 49-day period are performed to help ensure that the departed soul improves its state in rebirth. Although praying happens every day of these 49 days, the more elaborate rituals occur on the 7th, 14th, 21st and 49th after the departed’s passing.

Rituals include 108 prayer flags being erected in the deceased’s honor. The local astrologer is also asked for their recommendation on a favorable cremation day prior to the 7th day ritual.

The gewa, or “feast of giving,” occurs on the 21st day. One person from each household in the village attends the feast.

In a wonderful article, written by Kunzang Choden, Choden explains how Buddhist beliefs inform these rituals:

“Buddhists believe that a person’s consciousness has to be separated from the dead body. This is done by a religious practitioner through a powerful ritual: phowa. All the rituals and rites that follow are not so much for the body, but for the consciousness, which may hover around the family because of attachments.”

These acts are also a sort of grief cleanse for the living, with one man calling the 49-day process “better than any antidepressant.”

And the death rituals do not end at the 49th day. Every year for three years following a death, prayer flags are erected in the departed’s honor, with rice, alcohol, and other items offered up by family, friends, and other attendees.

This is how values, beliefs, and rituals can blend into a culturally-rich experience that caters to the soul.

10 Cultural Universals: Beliefs

Imagine you’re in the Amazonian jungle.

You’re with a tour group, camera in hand, thrilled to spot a colorful exotic bird or a dragon in antiquity. You’ve got your finger on your camera’s shutter button as if it were the pulse of culture.

And that’s when you see culture in all its natural glory:

A woman standing, alone, extracting the fruit of nuts from a palm tree, cracking them open with ease.

When she turns, she is shocked to see a tourist group descending upon her. You and the crowd surround her, not asking for permission to take her photograph. Simply click-click-clicking away, capturing culture on camera.

The woman drops the nut on the jungle floor and appears to be having a panic attack. In complete shock, she cannot breathe. She breaks down. She works herself up into such a state that she has to be taken to the hospital.

The episode leaves you and your fellow tourists wondering, “What frightened her so?”

Range of Beliefs

Beliefs are often interconnected with values and rituals, which is why all three are grouped together in the 10 Cultural Universals.

Cultural beliefs range from seemingly trivial superstitions to more significant and impactful convictions.

Let’s take, for instance, the Chinese belief that the number, 4, is bad luck. This superstitious belief is rooted in the language of Mandarin – “4” (, SÌ) sounds like “death” (, sǐ) in Chinese.

This is why you won’t find a 4th floor button on a Chinese elevator. A superstition, seemingly trivial to others, but it does affect building construction throughout China.

More impactful beliefs – such as beliefs about gender roles, healthcare, education, etc. – are much more involved.

For instance, religious faith and belief sometimes holds unexplainable healing powers, which the believers site as miracles. In some cases, the health of patients who are provided a placebo improves with no explanation.

What heals them? Is it belief? The Holy Spirit?

As Eric Vance writes in Unlocking the Healing Power of You:

“Scientists have known about the placebo effect for decades and have used it as a control in drug trials. Now they are seeing placebos as a window into the neurochemical mechanisms that connect the mind with the body, belief with experience.”

Beliefs can also have far-reaching consequences, if ill-informed.

For instance, sometimes cultural beliefs interfere with health-seeking behavior.

According to an article published in the African Journal of Disability:

“In a study on the abuse of disabled children in Ghana, the cultural belief that disabled children were cursed, led to such severe stigmatization that children were often hidden away by their parents, or left at a river to die.”

Cultural beliefs are often innocuous, but they can sometimes be harmful. As they were in the case of the Amazonian woman.

All-Powerful Beliefs

The scenario detailed in the intro actually happened to Michael J. Balick, PhD, Director of the Institute of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden when he visited Brazil.

In his own words, Dr. Balick explained what had so frightened the woman:

“She was convinced that the people had stolen her spirit. And it was the belief, not the clicking cameras, that caused the physical reaction.”

What we believe at our core is so deep-seated that just such an ambush of our beliefs can make us physically ill.

This is one reason why understanding another’s cultural beliefs will make you more sensitive to how they walk through the world. You can then apply this understanding to alter behaviors that, in another culture, might be considered harmful.

10 Cultural Universals: You Are What You Eat, How Values Become Culture

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: what we value is who we are.

We’ve talked extensively about values in this blog. That’s because they are the roots of every cultural baobab.

They define our culture, and they direct our social norms.

This grouping of the 10 Cultural Universals also includes beliefs and rituals, which tie in with values in ways we’ll discuss in upcoming posts.

You Are What You Eat

What we are fed as children – in the forms of both formal and informal education – is, more often than not, what we accept and value as adults.

As Kilroy J. Oldster wrote in Dead Toad Scrolls:

“A great deal of the global stimuli that we view comes to us without major effort. Daily a person scans and screens a wide barrage of solicited and unsolicited material. What information a society pays attention to creates the standards and principles governing citizens’ life. A nation’s discourse translates its economic, social, and cultural values to impressionable children.” 

Our national discourse, what we project and adulate as a society, the meaning and importance we place on certain beliefs, ideals, and attitudes – these are the things our children consume.

We are what we eat. Our children will become what we feed them.

Education vs. Ignorance

“The right to a quality education is, I believe, the perfect path to bridge the gap between different cultures and to reconcile various civilizations…Ignorance is by far the biggest danger and threat to humankind.” – Moza bint Nasser

If we feed children quality food, in the form of education, they will value knowledge, critical thinking, and the ethics and moral teachings therein.

If we feed them garbage, in the form of false narratives, baseless “facts”, and unwarranted prejudice, they will value conspiracies, groupthink, and stereotypes.

A culture creates its own values and also consumes them.

So, remember, whatever values you cultivate within your culture should be cultivated with care. Values are meant to keep society healthy. They’re meant to show what integrity means to you as a people and to show others what you stand for.

What We Eat

Like social norms, the beliefs and rituals of your culture are what actualize our underlying values.

Beliefs are what we eat; rituals are how we eat.

Rituals, especially, are values in action.

We’ll talk about both in the coming weeks.

10 Cultural Universals: The Yurt, A Nomadic Home

Last week, in our series on the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about how shelters are illustrations of culture.

A shelter’s attributes inform you about the area’s climate, the structural materials inform you about the type of resources available in the region, the layout informs you about the social elements of the culture, and the home’s architecture and design inform you about the culture’s aesthetic sensibilities.

To put it simply, structures are incredibly informative in the study of culture.

In today’s post, we’ll take a virtual walk-through of one of these shelters and learn a little about the culture within.

Design

The Yurt is a circular home in Central Asia, emblematic of nomadic Mongolian tribes.

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In the 13th century book Travels in the Eastern Countries, Guillaume de Rubrouck wrote of the yurt:

“They [the nomads] put their houses on wheels, and woven rods are used as walls for their homes. The walls are enclosed on the top forming the roof of the house. They are covered with white felt and it is often coated with lemon or bone powder to make it sparkle.”

Rubrouck goes on to say that the black felt opening in the rooftop is designed elaborately with themed illustrations.

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A felt wall hanging at the home’s entrance is also a norm. These wall hangings are usually colorfully artistic renderings of birds and other animals, trees, and vines, revealing the importance of nature to the Mongolian nomadic tribes.

Materials

As forever-travelers, nomads need a home that can spring up out of transportable materials, which the yurt can do, although it’s also used as a more permanent structure.

The wooden frame of a yurt is collapsable and is often draped in animal skins or wool felt, which keeps the cool in during summer and the heat during winter. The wool felt is obtained from sheep often shepherded by the nomadic pastoralists, while the timber to form the structure cannot be found on the steppes, which don’t have trees, and must be sourced through trade in the nearby valleys.

Modern yurts also have a double layer of canvas to protect from the elements.

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The structure includes three to five orange mesh walls, depending on the size of the yurt. The sloped roof with a hole in the center is a primary feature, allowing for a chimney when cooking or heating the home.

The yurt also has a wooden floor, covered by carpets, again for insulation.

Learn

As you virtually walk through the yurt and learn of its build and design, what do you learn about the nomadic Mongolian peoples who inhabit these structures?

Tell me in the comment section.

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