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.

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

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: 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: Economy

When the economist, Adam Smith, wrote in his 1776 book, Wealth of the Nations, that each of us contributes to a self-regulating system by pursuing our own personal interests, his idea of “personal interests” was not exclusively financial or material.

He understood that cultural values were involved in economics.  

German social scientist, Max Weber, defined this more clearly during the early 20th century. He examined how certain cultural values influenced economic output.

One example he gave was the Protestant culture.

Reformation teachings in the religion called for congregants to gain wealth, and in doing so, the Protestant work ethic and teachings produced a stronger economy than did, for instance, the Catholic counterpart.

At that point in time, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain – all Catholic countries – had weaker economies than Great Britain and Germany – countries with a larger Protestant population.

Culture Impacts Economy

The plain fact is some economies fail while others succeed. And the success or failure of an economy is largely dependent on culture.

For any given culture to prosper, economists look at a checklist of necessities for economic development. These include:

  • Good governance
  • Stable political system
  • Straightforward laws, enforced honorably
  • Efficient and uncorrupt government officials
  • Available land for businesses
  • Less bureaucracy when it comes to applying for business permits
  • Foreign investment

For an economy to develop fruitfully, these requirements must be fulfilled.

Values, Tastes & Desires

As Francis X. Hezel, SJ, writes in his article, “The Role of Culture in Economic Development”:

“Modern technology alone will never be able to turn around an economy and to boost the standard of living among a population. The development of a mindset, with accompanying values and habits, is a big part of the equation.”

The study of cultural economics examines all this.

Cultural economics differs from traditional economics in the examination of how and why individuals make decisions.

Traditional economics sees decision-making as producing explicit and implicit consequences.

Cultural economics sees decision-making as something arrived at through trajectories involving regularities accrued over the years that direct the individual in decision-making.

Our tastes, our desires are informed by our culture. This begins during primary socialization and continues to be enhanced by the environment we grow in. We internalize these tastes and desires and they inform our future wants.

Individuals and societies have culture-driven wants, needs, desires, and values, all of which drive the economy and the culture, thereby producing economic evolution – or stagnation.

Learn more about the 10 Cultural Universals.

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: Hearts & Hearths, How Shelters Tell Stories of Culture

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Yurt, adobe, Siheyuan, izba, stilt, igloo, turf.

Some of these housing types, you may recognize; others, you may not. But each of them illustrate character traits of a culture…that is, if you’re willing to look closely.

Along with food, clothing, and transport, shelter is a basic cultural element in our series on the 10 Cultural Universals.

The homes we choose to live in tell a story of who we are. They are historical artifacts that provide archeologists a look into the past, and they are modern snapshots that inform others about who we are and what we deem most important in life.

Whether the focal point of a home is the kitchen, a social room, or even a temple built within, our hearts are revealed by our hearths.

So let’s take a look at both.

Hearts & Hearths

What can a shelter tell us about the culture and about life in a region?

Here are some things to consider when discussing the cultural elements of shelters:

  • Climate – The climate of the region determines the needs of the home. Stilt houses in Cambodia, for example, to avoid flooding, or thick insulation in locations with hard, cold winters.
  • Structural materials – Structural materials for homes are best sourced locally. You’re more likely to find bamboo used in construction in Asian countries than in the West, or adobe clay in the desert than in the arctic.blog43-6
  • Social elements – Whether the residence is built around a courtyard, likethe Siheyuan homes of China, or is set up with individual rooms for more independent and private living or a single room for more commune-style living,  the social elements of each culture determine a home’s layout and design.
  • Aesthetic – From the vaulted ceilings of Italian homes to the bamboo roofs of Bali, from the ornately designed doors of Icelandic turf houses to the homey thatched cottages of England, the aesthetic and architecture of a home is obviously the most eye-catching and expressive element of the culture. Aesthetics tell us what the culture finds beautiful and most comfortable.

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In essence – and in reality – home is where the heart is. Each form of shelter is a monument to the people. This is why homes around the world inform our understanding the people who inhabit them and the culture they engender.

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.