When Cultures Collide: A Profound Conflict of Values

We’ve talked about what can happen when physical or time limitations prevent full cross cultural integration. We’ve talked about what can happen when your own discomfort with another culture’s norms gets in the way of adapting.

But what happens when there are certain behaviors and norms you don’t want to adapt to due to your own deep-seated cultural values?

This is where cross cultural issues can cause some real friction.

The Headscarf

One example is, of course, the cultural norm of wearing a headscarf.

In some Muslim countries, it is not government mandated for women to wear a headscarf (hijab). Unless you’re visiting a mosque, it’s an optional behavior, for native people and for tourists.

However, if you visit or work in a Muslim country where women must wear a headscarf by law, like Saudi Arabia, then you are faced with a norm rooted in cultural values that directly contradict your own.

While wearing a headscarf is easy enough to do, it’s the values that the headscarf symbolize that many Westerners reject. Freedom of choice is the foundation of Western culture.

If you refuse to adapt to the practice in a country for which it is law to wear the headscarf, or in a country which, more or less, abides by the religious practice, you may not ever fully integrate into the culture, and you may face legal punishment.

What do you do in this case?

To Adapt or Not to Adapt

To adapt or not to adapt, that is the question.

If you are someone who is living and working abroad, and you’re interested in fully integrating into the culture (and I’m guessing you are, if you’re reading this blog), then when facing conflicts like this one, where you feel you will betray your own values by adapting to another’s, you have two choices:

  1. Avoid the situation, altogether; or,
  2. Explain your rationale

In choosing #1, you would refrain from travel to countries where hijabs or burkas are required.

The latter choice is more of a gamble. You must explain your rationale in a way that does not diminish your foreign counterparts’ cultural norm or tradition.

And no matter how diplomatic you are about it, you’re assuming that your foreign counterpart will respect your rationale…which won’t always be the case. 

Not Optional

Some adaptions may not be optional. Awareness and acceptance won’t be enough in situations where cultural values and norms run deep.

So, when living and working in a foreign culture, do your homework beforehand and come prepared to adapt your behavior regarding strict norms and values, whether they fall in line with yours or not.

Norms & Taboos: Right vs. Forbidden

You cannot depict Mohammed in any form in a Muslim culture.

You cannot handle meat, fish, or eggs as a Brahmin in Hindu society.

Why?

Because both are taboo.

Taboos are a type of social norm which are far more serious than folkways or mores. They are so entrenched in a culture’s DNA that the behaviors are inherently banned.

Unlike folkways (right vs. rude) and mores (right vs. wrong), taboos are completely forbidden.

Religious Imagery

Jesus Christ is often represented in icons, sculptures, paintings, and other religious artworks.

Buddha is depicted as a rotund man, frequently in meditation and at peace with the world.

Various Hindu gods and goddesses are shown in full color at religious temples and in books.

However, as with many Islamic traditions, it is strictly taboo for anyone to depict the prophet Mohammed, because doing so is thought to “encourage the worship of idols,” as the BBC puts it.

This taboo is so strict that it hedges into law (a social norm we’ll discuss next week) and, if violated, is met with a death sentence.

This illustrates how serious taboos can be. Along with laws, they are the strictest social norms of any given society.

Food Taboos

Food taboos appear in most societies, as well. These, again, can often be the result of religious doctrine.

As Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow writes in his 2009 article, “Food taboos: their origins and purposes”:

“Most religions declare certain food items fit and others unfit for human consumption. Dietary rules and regulations may govern particular phases of the human life cycle and may be associated with special events such as menstrual period, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and – in traditional societies – preparation for the hunt, battle, wedding, funeral, etc.”

The author goes on to say that food taboos are illogical when compared with each other, as one group might consider a food “unfit” for consumption, while another group deems it fit. And both groups survive. On the surface, there seems to be no logical explanation for why certain foods might be harmful for one human and perfectly safe for another.

However, dig a little deeper, and you’ll find a culture’s history often explains its dietary taboos and customs.

One example given is Jewish dietary laws, which include fasting days and kosher eating, along with other traditional unifying food taboos.

As Benno Meyer-Rochow notes:

“Any food taboo, acknowledged by a particular group of people as part of its ways, aids in the cohesion of this group, helps that particular group maintain its identity in the face of others, and therefore creates a feeling of ‘belonging’.”

This is the very definition of social norms, in a nutshell. They maintain identity, provide cohesion, and enable members to belong to something bigger.