“The World is Flat”: How Beliefs Direct Rationale

Say, you grew up in an remote civilization far away from modern industry and technology. Far away from people and foreign thought.

Say, you were born in the middle of the African savannah. The land is flat. Very little in the way of mountains or hills.

You wake up in the morning to the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. It appears on one side of your village and disappears on the other.

Due to your observations, you assume the world is flat and a void exists at lands’ end. Not an illogical or irrational assumption, all things considered. There is no outside influence to suggest otherwise.

Your hypothesis is not unfounded, and it turns into a belief.

The Gods Must Be Crazy

This plays into the plot of the 1980 South African comedy, The Gods Must Be Crazy. 

In the film, a pilot flying over the plains of South Africa tosses an empty Coke bottle out the window.

When a bushman happens upon the shiny object, he believes the gods sent it to him. After all, it did fall right out of the sky.

Oblivious to modern civilization, the bushman’s tribe experiments with the Coke bottle, using it for a variety of daily tasks – in lieu of a grinding stone, for instance.

The traditional community sees the shiny discarded Coke bottle as a prized trophy, being that there’s only one on Earth (or so they think).

Due to the strife caused by the villagers fighting over this bottle, the tribal elders believe it best to return this gift to the gods in order to maintain peace.

A bushman is tasked with walking to the end of the Earth to toss the Coke bottle into the void.

Those of us who live in the modern world – who know that the world is round and Coke bottles are everywhere – likely find this whole idea laughable.

If someone from a Western culture carried a Coke bottle across an entire continent on foot in order to dispose of it over the edge, we’d consider him crazy, irrational, unreasonable.

But to say the same about these bushmen, we’d be wrong.

Walk in the Steps of the Bushmen

Take yourself out of your own cultural baobab for a moment and place yourself in that of these bushmen.

Were they unreasonable in their thinking or did their actions align with their beliefs?

Their actions were rational and justified within their ideology.

Bottles like this don’t exist in their world. A flat world must have edges, so thinking you can discard a bottle off the edge makes perfect sense.

The point is: a person acts logically within his cultural rationale if his actions/behavior is in accordance with his beliefs.

We’ll follow this logic next week.

Acceptance & Explaining Your Cultural Behavior & Beliefs

While adapting or adopting another culture’s behaviors or beliefs will help you integrate, you may instead choose to stop at acceptance through active tolerance.

When actively tolerating a foreign culture’s values or norms, you don’t necessarily have to take the next step.

However, remaining in acceptance means remaining a monkey in the foreign culture.

Although you don’t condemn their beliefs, you retain yours, which means you are different. And your odd behavior will be noted by locals.

Some might even view your conflicting behavior and values as offensive. Then again, you are entering their culture, so you cannot expect them to adapt to you.

But choosing not to adapt comes with a caveat: you must explain yourself.

Otherwise, a monkey moment might derail your success across cultures.

Monkey Moments in Language

A “monkey moment” is an encounter of cross-cultural misunderstanding.

When you choose to continue in your own cultural behavior while practicing active tolerance, explaining yourself to your cross-cultural counterparts is key to diplomacy and respect.

Don’t ignore the disconnect; explain why your behaviors or perspective differs from theirs. Building bridges of cross-cultural understanding allows you to be a monkey without all the negative connotations that come with it.

One specific example involves language: the formality of “you” in some cultural environments.

Consider the Swiss and the German, for example.

Germans are more formal than their Swiss neighbors, which means they use the formal, “sie,” for a longer period of time in workplace settings than the Swiss. Swiss move on to the informal, “du,” much sooner, even with their higher-ups.

For those who come from cultures without this distinction, using “sie” is like using someone’s last name, while using “du” is like being on a first-name basis.

When a German financial manager moved to Switzerland, he insisted on using the formal, “sie.” In doing so, he formed a cultural barrier between him and his team.

The more formal language made him appear less approachable and even arrogant.

Cut to a couple years later: the German manager wanted to enroll his executive team in a Swiss bike race as a team-building exercise.

Though the team excelled in the race, they weren’t remembered for their success: they were remembered for their use of the formal, “sie,” amongst themselves. Some viewed the strange usage as similar to a team captain insisting on being called “Mr. Johnston” by his teammates.

Not only did this tarnish the CEO’s rep; it tarnished the company’s image.

The Explanation

When the CEO finally understood his monkey moment after four years of working with his senior executive team, instead of simply switching to “du” unexpectedly, he explained his behavior to them and his rationale.

Describing how he’d grown up in a traditional German family, he explained that informal language always sounded inappropriate to him in a professional setting. He also expressed that it wasn’t that he wanted to be formal; rather, he wanted to communicate respect to his colleagues. However, being that Swiss culture didn’t view the informal “you” as disrespectful or inappropriate in a work environment, he proposed that from that point on, they would switch over.

Although in this situation, he chose to adapt to the culture’s approach to language, he would have avoided misunderstanding straight off had he explained himself from the beginning.

Still, in the end, his explanation made him a stronger leader and managed to bring his team together.

Active Tolerance: How to Be Tolerant Without Abandoning Your Values

“Business owners with a high tolerance for ambiguity can normally handle new and uncertain situations with relative ease, while business owners with a low tolerance for ambiguity would handle the same situations with more angst and unease.”

Bruce Barringer

In a nutshell, this is the reason to develop your ambiguity tolerance.

As we discussed in last week’s blog post, ambiguity tolerance will save you lots of headaches when navigating the differences and uncertainties of other cultures and events – in business and in personal relationships.

Being able to approach ambiguity in a calm and thoughtful manner prevents unnecessary angst, misunderstandings, and emotional conflict.

However, as with most things in life, tolerance is often easier said than done and when it conflicts with fundamental human values, in some cases tolerating such behaviors can make you complicit in them.

Which leads us to the question…

Is Cultural Tolerance Dangerous?

Objective tolerance of certain aspects of another culture can sometimes walk a thin line between morality and injustice.

There are two dangers:

  1. Accepting values/norms that are inhumane or immoral means accepting injustice.
  2. You may lose your own values and cultural identity when becoming too tolerant.

It may seem impossible then to be both simultaneously too tolerant and immoveable in your own beliefs.

But there’s a middle ground: you might avoid both by promoting active tolerance.

As part of the first strategy for cultural integration – acceptance – active tolerance allows you to preserve your own values/identity, refusing to accept said injustices, while also learning about attitudes and behaviors and seeking to understand why they historically exist instead of dismissing them outright.

Active Tolerance = Respect

Some might consider tolerance as a weakness, a failure to stand up for one’s own convictions.

However, active tolerance is a strength.

It doesn’t mean you must accept things that are fundamentally and morally at odds with your own foundational beliefs.

Active tolerance enables a person to demonstrate all possible respect and understanding for conflicting opinions/beliefs, while also defending one’s own.

Respect and restraint are the essence of active tolerance.

What ignites a wildfire of unconstructive conflict when two people of differing values meet?

It’s not the differences, themselves, but the disrespect and refusal to acknowledge other perspectives and life experiences as valid.

When you “accept” something or someone, their experience or culture, that doesn’t mean you share their experience or agree with their point of view necessarily; it means you are actively making an effort to understand their perspective and not to invalidate their own values, beliefs, and experiences.

You accept that they have theirs, and you respect that they don’t share yours.

When performed correctly, active tolerance doesn’t equate to agreement, but rather to digging to the roots of the many cultural baobabs in this world and attempting to understand them, as well as the personal experiences of the individual.

It’s a willingness to see the world from the branches of another’s tree, even for a moment. Climbing there might not change your own perspective or your baobab’s roots, but it certainly will produce more understanding and growth in your own.

Next week, we’ll lay out an anecdotal example of active tolerance in action.

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: 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.