The Heroes of Our Own Story: How Cultural Bias Enters into the Teaching of History

We all want to be the heroes of our own story.

And with this desire comes bias.

When entering a new culture, learning to read between the lines of what is taught about the culture’s history will help you better understand their cultural perspective

You may still agree with and believe in the historical interpretation of your own culture, but getting to the roots of another culture means getting to know their view of themselves, which is never more apparent than in their teaching of history.

This knowledge will give you insight into the “why” of cultural norms, values, and traditions in your host country.

To gain this knowledge, learning what is taught is important; but, sometimes, learning what is expressly not taught is even more so.

Russia and North America

“Back in the USSR…”

While it’s obvious that Russian and Western cultures view things differently, what may not be so obvious is their extraordinarily different interpretations of history.

North Americans often view their liberal values of freedom and individualism with pride, and that is reflective in their teaching of history.

They view Marxist ideals and communist values as restrictive on individual liberties and enterprise.

Russian history, however, is taught from a Marxist viewpoint.

It teaches that the American working class – and overseas labor from American corporations – is exploitative.

Like Americans, their view of their own history is also one of pride.

They present their communist system as more egalitarian, distributing wealth more fairly amongst the working class.

While American historians present Russia as oppressive, so do Russian historians present America.

And from an outsider’s perspective, if you’re being honest with yourself and viewing these arguments and their history objectively, you can see truth in both…however, you’re probably more biased toward the history that aligns with your own values and norms.

Japan and China

Japan and China are two other examples of nationalist takes on history.

The Japanese take pride in their long and glorious empire. However, the tragic recent history of WWII and the events surrounding it is often deemphasized in classrooms.

Mariko Oi, a Japanese teacher who studied abroad in Australia, puts this into perspective:

“Japanese people often fail to understand why neighboring countries harbor a grudge over events that happened in the 1930s and ‘40s. The reason, in many cases, is that they barely learned any 20th century history. I myself only got a full picture when I left Japan…” 

According to Oi, only 5 percent of her Japanese textbook (19 out of 357 pages) dealt with the recent history of WWII and the events that led up to it from 1931 to 1945.

A single line was dedicated to the Rape of Nanjing (also known as the Nanjing Massacre) which occurred during the Sino-Japanese war of 1937 when Japan invaded China. That war too was given but a single page.

On the other side of the East China Sea, Chinese students are taught in detail about Japanese war crimes and about the Rape of Nanjing in particular.

And as for other WWII enemies, the subject receives different treatment in American textbooks versus Japanese textbooks. 

The Manhattan Project is often heroically emphasized by American historians who detail the justifications for dropping the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In Mariko Oi’s Japanese textbook again, a single sentence is dedicated to this event.

Cultural Bias in Ourselves

The point of all this is that a nation tends to have a specific view of itself. 

And, in doing so, that nation will cast itself and its history in the best light while deemphasizing certain aspects that today bring shame. 

Cultural bias is difficult to recognize within ourselves. We’d like to think we’re “above” it.

But in the end, we all want to be “right”; we want our values to be right, our norms to be right, and our version of history to be right.

We want to be the heroes of our own story.

Why Learning History is Important to Cultural Integration

History can tell you a lot about the present reality of a culture’s values and norms.

Understanding the rationale in a culture’s roots – the “why” – is often traced to history’s distant past.

Traditions, customs, and behaviors, as we saw last week, have their roots in language, religion, and, lastly, history.

For instance, due to largely voluntary European immigration and forced African immigration, American culture, for instance, became a “melting pot.”

On the other side of the pond, European history has been shaped by multiple major wars.

Languages were spread worldwide through colonization, with English becoming the primary language of Australia and the U.S., while Spanish and Portuguese were spread through Latin America.

China, Japan, Russia – their societies have all been shaped by influential dynasties.

While this common knowledge is useful to have, it barely scratches the surface in regards to learning and understanding a foreign culture.

Respect and Genuine Interest

A deeper knowledge of your host culture’s history demonstrates your regard and respect for that culture.

National pride is an element of every culture; it is part of a group – and an individual’s – identity.

When I moved to the U.S. in early 2000, I viewed the American Civil War like I did that of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, in that it was remote and distant, left in the deep realms of the past.

Due to the volume of European wars, that’s how many Europeans view battles and wartime periods that took place prior to the first and second world wars.

From this perspective, I didn’t think it necessary to study up on U.S. history beyond the broad culture and recent past. 

I knew the basics about the American Civil War – that it was fought between the North and South over the abolition of slavery – but beyond that, I knew not much else, nor did I consider the war to carry much direct relevance (beyond racism and prejudice) in present-day America.

When I relocated to Richmond, Virginia, I realized I was mistaken.

Richmond was the southern secessionists’ capital, and the Civil War is still very much a part of the “recent past” there.

Some view Abraham Lincoln – widely considered one of the United States’ greatest presidents – in a negative light and the Civil War, in general, as “when the North attacked America.”

In 2003, when a Lincoln statue was unveiled in the center of Richmond, it was received with protests by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

You can see why knowledge of the past – and the different perspectives of this shared history by various regions of the United States – would be pertinent to your cultural integration.

Cultural sensitivity about topics that are considered controversial in some areas is necessary to developing and maintaining positive business and personal relationships wherever you set down roots.

Religion & Culture: Individual Vs. Cultural Behavior

During the 1994 World Cup, Heineken took center stage…and not in a good way.

In a bid of inclusion, Heineken printed the flag of every country participating in the Cup on its beer bottle.

Unfortunately, this included the flag of Saudi Arabia, which holds a holy creed, “There is no god but the God; Muhammad is the Messenger of the God.”

Islam, of course, forbids alcohol, so the blunder led to major hostilities in the Muslim world.

Heineken was forced to recall and discontinue this promotion, leading to loss of revenue and a bruised public image.

This is one example of what can happen when a business does not account for religious cultural norms.

Personal Faith Versus Cultural Behaviors

Religion influences both individuals and entire cultures.

Individual behavior is impacted by personal belief, while cultural behavior is often impacted by religious practices and norms.

A Christian attends mass every Sunday.

A Muslim prays in the direction of Mecca five times a day.

A Jew dons a Kipa.

All of these are religious behaviors based on individual convictions. That is, they may not impact an entire society or culture.

So, what types of behaviors do influence entire cultures?

One might differentiate between a cultural behavior and a personal one by identifying whether or not religious norms and values impact even non-believers..

Christmas & Easter

One glaring example of this is religious holidays.

Christmas and Easter are holidays that have become ingrained in Western culture; even those who are not of Christian faith celebrate said holidays.

In such cultures, holiday rituals – like decorating a Christmas tree, exchanging gifts, or even attending church – are often observed by those who do not practice religion.

Despite embracing these holiday rituals which are grounded in religion, those same celebrants may not necessarily routinely attend mass or celebrate any other elements of Christianity.

Particularly in Europe, attending church is often a personal conviction, rather than a cultural one.

The South

Visit the South in the U.S., and you might view mass attendance differently.

In some states or regions, going to church is a cultural expectation. It can improve both your social life, your professional life, and even your political life.

In this way, religious behavior is a cultural element in the South, meaning it is conditioned by the culture rather than by religion itself.

Why Must You Know This Distinction

When living and working in a foreign culture, this distinction between religious individual behavior and religious cultural behavior is an important one.

Behaviors based in personal belief can be disregarded without major repercussions; but those based in cultural belief simply cannot.

Preparing to accept, adapt, and adopt pervasive religious cultural beliefs is an important step in cultural integration.

Religion’s Influence on Cultural Drinking Behaviors

Culture and religion are inevitably intertwined.

Today, we’ll discuss some studies that demonstrate this exchange.

Our first study comes out of America and Canada, in which researchers analyzed whether culture or religion more greatly influenced drinking behaviors.

Canadian Versus American Drinking Behaviors

Past studies had shown that drinking patterns amongst college students differed across countries. 

The difference in behaviors suggests that anything from a country’s public policies to their politics, values, or economy influences alcohol consumption levels and produces different alcohol-related problems within each country.

For example, one study showed that while more Canadian students drink alcohol than American students, heavy alcohol use (5+ drinks in a row for men / 4+ for women) was much more prevalent amongst Americans than Canadians in both past-year and past-week stats. 

41% of American students had drunk heavily within the past year versus 35% of Canadian students, and 54% of American students had drunk heavily within the past week compared to 42% of their Canadian counterparts.

One reason for this may be the drinking age disparity. In Canada, 18 (in some provinces) and 19 are legal drinking ages, while in the U.S., drinking is legal at 21. 

The study concluded that a student’s place of residence may also influence the difference in drinking behaviors:

“In our sample, 52% of Canadian college respondents lived off-campus with parents while only 15% of the US college respondents did so. Our study suggests that students who live off-campus with their parents are less likely to use alcohol and to be heavy alcohol drinkers in both countries.”

While this study identified different cultural drinking habits, researchers in the ‘90s wanted to delve into religious influence on those same habits.

Religious Influence on Drinking Habits

The drinking behaviors of non-abstinent Catholics, moderately abstinent Protestants, and abstinent Jews in both America and Canada were put under the microscope.

Researchers discovered that the absence or presence of conflicting values between the country’s culture and the religion’s drinking norms predicted the drinking habits of each group. 

For instance, the drinking habits of non-abstinent Catholics generally aligned with those of the country’s culture; however, the drinking habits between abstinent Canadian Jews and American Jews were the same, as most follow the religion’s strict law in lieu of the broader cultural drinking norms.

The study concludes:

“Among this sample it was concluded that religious norms have a greater influence in cohesive religious groups while cultural norms are more influential among less cohesive groups. The results also support the Canadian ‘Mosaic’ and American ‘Melting Pot’ assumption.”

This indicates that the norms of religious-based sub-cultures are more adherent to the group norms than national ones.

When Religious Norms Become National Culture

Religious norms regarding alcohol consumption can, at times, even imbed into the national culture.

It’s not unusual to see a glass of wine or pint of beer drank with lunch in a Catholic country, while abstinence from such habits would be the norm in a Protestant country. 

In fact, in the “Bible Belt” of America, which is predominantly Protestant, you may even see alcohol norms written into law. A number of counties in this region are “dry.”

In some parts of the world, drinking norms are legally bound, nationwide. For instance, some Islamic countries follow strict drinking norms (abstaining from alcohol) and expect outsiders to, as well. In countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, there are laws enforcing such norms.

In such cases, adapting or adopting as an outsider is required, in order to avoid legal issues or imprisonment.

All of this is to say that a country’s dominant religion(s) influence the culture’s norms and values, whether an individual is a believer or not.

In order to understand the culture of a country, therefore, you must get to know the ideology and rules/laws of its religion(s). 

We’ll discuss how religion may imprint on business next week.

A Spirit Alive: Learning a Culture Through Religion Continued…

The Vatican in Rome. The Great Mosque of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Golden Temple in India.

Everywhere you travel, you’re likely to find a religious site or house of worship.

Moreover, you’re likely to encounter the values and norms of that predominant religion, demonstrated in various ways.

Whether it’s the closure of shops on Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays, or the style of clothing worn, religion influences both the visual landscape and the society at large.

Despite the best efforts from some atheistic governments to destroy religion, belief has remained alive and well in the hearts and minds of many.

One example of this is in Albania.

Albania Cracks Down

Albanian Dictator Envers Hoxa tried to forcefully remove religion, forbidding rituals, destroying churches, and banning religious symbols.

I, myself, visited Albania as a journalist after Hoxa’s regime fell.

While there, I happened upon a church that the regime had converted into a “house of culture” in the mountains bordering Yugoslavia.

Someone had gone through and overturned the tombstones, but you could still see crosses littered in the stone.

But what really astounded me were the professions of faith written inside the church.

Culture and religion are so inextricably intertwined that not even a ruthless dictator could kill their spirit.

Religion is something acquired during primary socialization; it is as intimately part of us as language or diet.

Whether or not a person has faith or considers themselves religious, some of their behaviors, norms, and values are inevitably still grounded in the predominant religion of their society, regardless of secularism. Even secular societies may still celebrate Easter and Christmas.

In effect, religion influences everything, from art and history to government and education.

Clash of Civilizations

Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington used religion as a major criterion when identifying the civilizations in his landmark book, Clash of Civilizations.

He looked at Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Orthodox, and Sinic civilizations (the East Asian cultural sphere).

Although GLOBE research divided 59 countries into cultural dimensions, none of which were religious, they received similar results to Huntington, which demonstrates how the behaviors, values, and norms of a culture are defined by religion.

8 in 10 people identify with a religious group, according to PEW forum.

Our societal personalities, traditions, lifestyles, and perspectives are deeply rooted in religion. 

In this way, throughout history, societal rules and regulations have been dependent upon religion to help keep society in line. With religion as a driving factor, these rules are not simply being imposed by Man, but rather by the divine.

Next week, we’ll take a look at some research analyzing the interaction between culture and religion.

How Language is the Oral Expression of Culture

You might be familiar with the idioms, “It’s all Greek to me” and “Burning the midnight oil.”

But do you know the German idiom, “Tomaten auf den Augen haben,” which directly translates to, “You have tomatoes on your eyes,” meaning, “You are not seeing what everyone else can see.”

Probably not.

Linguists and anthropologists, on the other hand, have long known that a link exists between language learning and culture learning.

Dimitrios Thanasoulas in The Importance Of Teaching Culture In The Foreign Language Classroom quotes linguist Claire Kramsch as follows:

“Culture in language learning is not an expendable fifth skill, tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. It is always in the background, right from day one, ready to unsettle the good language learners when they expect it least, making evident the limitations of their hard-won communicative competence, challenging their ability to make sense of the world around them. (Kramsch, 1993: 1)”

To put it simply, learning language is inextricably linked with learning culture, because language = the oral expression of culture.

The pair are fed by one other.

Ming-Mu Kuo and Cheng-Chieh Lai lay this out in Linguistics across Cultures:The Impact of Culture on Second Language Learning:

“Language and culture appear on the surface to be two distinct fields, but they have an intertwined relationship and affect each other mutually…The development of a language frequently affects its associated culture, and cultural patterns of cognition and custom are often explicitly coded in language.”

Culturally, language expresses both our thoughts and how we think. 

Kuo and Lai continue:

“Language is also a social institution, both shaping and being shaped by society (Armour-Thomas & Gopaul-McNicol, 1998). This means that language is not an independent construct but social practice both creating and being created by the structures and forces of social institutions within which we live and function.”

What are some structures and social institutions in which language is expressive of culture?

Following are examples of this relationship between culture and linguistics in action.

Family Structures

In this blog, we’ve talked about how the family structures of different cultures are reflected through linguistic terms.

For instance, while in Western cultures, “uncle,” is used to describe both paternal and maternal brothers and, similarly, “cousin” describes those from both sides of the family, this differs in other cultures.

“Cousin” in Yanomani, for instance, is termed dependent on the relationship; “amiwa” for the daughter of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle, “aiwa” for the son of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle, etc. 

With such specific familial language terms, it can be deduced that the bloodline matters more in such cultures.

Idioms Express Ideologies

Idioms across cultures can also tell you a lot about the ideology of said culture.

Individualist cultures, for instance, might say, “God helps those who help themselves.” 

Such cultures hold lift-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps values. Idioms emphasize individualism and oftentimes capitalism.

“Time is money.”

In contrast, idioms of collectivist cultures often emphasize the group.

One Chinese idiom translates to: “More people produce greater strength.”

This is just one example about how values and norms are reflected in common language, slang, and idiomatic expressions.

Language Learning Aids Cross-Cultural Integration

Knowing how much language informs us about culture itself, it’s clear how paramount language learning is to integration.

Next week, we’ll talk about the three things learning a language will help you demonstrate in your cross-cultural transition.

It’s All About Perspective: Measuring Your Own Culture By Another’s Yardstick

Imagine you’ve been living in your host country for two years. 

By now, you know a lot about its norms and values. You know what behaviors are viewed as “good” and “bad.” You respect these views and have adapted your own cultural behaviors where you can.

At this point, you may have even begun to appreciate certain values and norms in your host culture. And, moreover, you can see your own culture through your host’s cultural lens.

In doing so, you might be noticing some things about your culture that no longer sit right with you.

Let’s take a look.

The Wisdom of Elders

Many African cultures highly value the elders in their communities.

They may sit on councils that govern these communities or even judge disputes in the village. They are respected and believed to be wise.

Being as such, elders are often cared for by younger generations and live in the homes of their children. Outside help to care for them is not the norm.

Societal health in such cultures is represented by the degree to which the elderly are cared for in society.

So, imagine for a moment the idea of a nursing home in such cultures. The concept of abandoning an elder to the care of a stranger would be, without question, taboo.

Due to this difference in perspective, these cultures are shocked by the way Western cultures treat their elderly. They view these values and norms pertaining to the elderly as a sign of an unhealthy culture.

And having been entrenched in their culture, in some cases, you might start seeing your own in the same way.

Take Pride in Being Different, Not in Being “Superior”

Managing people from different cultures requires that you check your cultural ego at the door. If you don’t, it will get in the way of cultural integration.

So, think about other aspects of your culture and how they might be viewed by your host.

Consider values and norms surrounding family, honor, hospitality, wealth-sharing, etc. 

How might your hosts see these the standards you place on each topic in your country?

Be aware that measuring the “success” of a culture is always measured in terms of one’s own values and norms. The culture doing the measuring will always set the standards of measurement thereby being the yardstick by which to be measured (see ethnocentricity).

Knowing your host’s standards might help calibrate a picture of your own culture against their yardstick. 

This is not to say that one way is superior to the other, and it is important to be proud of your own cultural heritage. But considering your host culture’s standards of measurement will help to keep your own ethnocentricity in check.

The Colonial Superiority Complex: Why Adapting to Another Culture is a Struggle for The West

Do you easily adapt to another culture? Do you find value in another’s values and seek to understand norms and behaviors?

For Westerners, in particular, this step in cultural integration is difficult.

And its difficulty has its roots in history.

The Colonial Superiority Complex

Samuel P. Huntington, American political scientist and former director of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, considers two opposing civilizations as particularly dangerous: the Muslim world and Western civilization.

Why did he consider these two civilizations to be dangerous?

1) Their “superiority complex” in relation to other cultures

2) Their willingness to enforce their values and norms on others

In this case, we’re defining “civilization” as a group of cultures that share history and values.

In his groundbreaking book, The Clash of Civilization, he writes, 

“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. […] The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” 

Published in the nineties, a number of Huntington’s predictions unfolded in reality. These two civilizations did indeed come to a head in many conflicts along the “fault lines” and continue to today.

Both Muslim civilization and Western civilization have a history of invading other cultures and universally imposing their rule of law and way of life through violence.

While all civilizations enter into war for access to resources, some in history have notably allowed the local culture to remain without much or any interference.

Others, however, attempt to convert cultures to their own way of life, often buoyed by religion.

Consider this: if your belonging to a civilization is based on race (for instance, Chinese or Slavic civilizations), the culture cannot expand.

However, if belonging is built on behavior, values, and norms, then yes, conquered people can adapt to the lifestyle.

European Colonialism in Africa

A vivid illustration of this lies in Africa.

20th century European colonialism exploited the continent both economically and culturally.

Schools, universities, and churches were built, so Western values and norms could be exported.

The political leaders in the West at that time viewed their culture as superior, so imposing it on others came with the territory.

However, as failed attempts at implementing working democracies in North Africa have shown, an external force imposing culture in this fashion does not work and instead results in civil war and failed states (e.g. Libya, Syria).

Although that’s not to say democracy will never work in other countries, a shift from ethnic culture to national culture is required, and such a shift in mentality takes willingness and time.

The West didn’t allow either.

China in Africa

On the other hand, there’s China.

Without anyone noticing, China has become Africa’s biggest trading partner, with more than $200 billion in annual goods exchanged.

During the first decade of the 21st century, a million Chinese expats have moved to Africa, largely as traders and laborers.

But the Chinese approach is different than Western colonialism. No attempts have been made by China to promote their culture on the continent.

There are no Chinese missionaries, think tanks, schools, or cultural centers. China is there purely for economic benefit; not to globally expand their culture and civilization.

African culture and political systems are left untouched by their largest trading partner.

This is the difference in approach. And this historical difference is why those from Western cultures find learning and adapting to another culture to be difficult.

Next week, we’ll talk about how to overcome that.

Empathy in Action: An Exercise in Developing Empathy

Close your eyes, and picture this:

You are born into a relationship-based culture.

Relationships are the most important thing to you, because they are so integral to society.

Not only do they help you rise in the world, but they have your back when you fall.

Everything is tied to these relationships.

How do you see the world? How does this foundation impact your behavior, values, and norms?

Exercise in Empathy

The above was an exercise in empathy

Being able to put yourself into another’s shoes and imagine things from their perspective builds empathy – a tool that you can wield to your advantage.

Last week, we talked about how empathy is an essential personality trait when managing across cultures.

It’s not easily alterable or acquired; some are naturally more empathetic than others.

But like every trait that doesn’t come naturally, one can take actionable steps to develop it.

Developing empathy is an active, voluntary act.

And when working in a cross-cultural environment, you must be willing to volunteer this shift of perspective in order to adapt to your host culture.

We’ve talked a bit about the “monkey experience” in this blog and in my book I am the Monkey.

It’s one example of an exercise in empathy: viewing the world through the eyes of a monkey – and imagining others’ perceptions about you, the monkey, in turn.

It’s a radical shift in perspective, but a necessary exercise in understanding other individuals, other cultures, and better responding to differences in behaviors and values.

Another Exercise

You teach the third grade in New York City.

A new student enters your class. He just moved to America from the U.K. He is timid and visibly shaken. 

How do you sympathize with the student?

You comfort him, sharing with him that you understand his fear in this new situation.

But how do you demonstrate empathy?

Here’s how:

Picture yourself in his shoes: a young foreign child in a new school, new country, new culture.

Although you may never have been in this position yourself, drawing from your own similar well of experiences in unknown places, you may have a sense of what he’s feeling: the fear, the discomfort, the vulnerability, the confusion.

Sympathizing is the first step to creating a cross-cultural warmth of companionship and camaraderie; empathizing goes far deeper.

In this instance, you understand the child’s inner turmoil and are thereby better able to provide support and confidence through your words and actions.

With more information, you can make informed decisions about how to address his discomfort. And empathy gives you that information.

Visualization is the key to empathy – placing yourself into the untied shoes of that third grader, and viewing the big, scary world through his eyes.

This is empathy in action.

Next week, we’ll provide some examples of empathy in the workplace.