I am always surprised that we feel culture is one thing we can always understand. But perhaps if we step back, might we want to alter our approach to understanding a particular one, instead of understanding culture as a whole?
© Clare Munn
I come from a country of approximately twelve million people, where ten languages are spoken, but only three of them are dominant languages. Does this mean there are ten different cultures? Or three different ones? Does a language help define it? What, precisely, is a culture? Sir Edward Burnett Tylor’s definition comes to mind: “‘[Culture is] that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.’ Tylor’s definition includes three of the most important characteristics of culture: (1) Culture is acquired by people; (2) A person acquires culture as a member of society; (3) Culture is a complex whole.”
Is language considered “knowledge and custom” and therefore part of culture?
Is a country defined by the “uber culture” of all their various sub-cultures? For example, if I am from a country in Africa and Africa has approximately 54 countries, does that mean Africa has an overall culture as a continent, and then 54 “uber cultures” for each country, comprised of their multiple sub-cultures?
See where I am coming from? There is a lot to consider before even assuming we understand.
Recently, I had a most magnificent tea session with a friend and incredible woman, Ann Veneman, former head of UNICEF. It began as an hour-long tea, but stretched to nearly four hours as we yapped away about global issues, Zimbabwe, family planning, humor and, of course, culture. What I love about Ann is her enormous intelligence and yet endless curiosity. She has a willingness to continue learning, but a hunger for sharing. We both recently attended the TEDWomen event curated by the incredible Pat Mitchell and June Cohen. We were discussing how amazingly well it went and how even an event can have its own dominant culture. In this case, women, and then multiple sub-cultures due to the nationalities and various backgrounds of each woman. Our pot of tea was happily exhausted by the time we passed our first hour.
So… what do I propose as some steps to consider when understanding new cultures?:
- Do you understand your own culture?
- Why do you think you understand your own culture? Write it down and then ask someone you respect to determine if you have understood your own.
- Why do you feel you need to define what you are doing as a “cultural” step?
- Do you have enough knowledge of what culture means overall? Have you done your homework on the community/country you are studying?
- Do you respect the fact that different cultures might not understand your own? How you express yourself to this new culture may also require you adjust to different learning styles. This brings back the importance of CQ™, expressive and receptive intelligence.
One might say I am thoroughly compassionate and sensitive when it comes to cultures. After all, I am still trying to figure out my own, having lived in Zimbabwe, Capetown, London, San Francisco and New York. But who on earth am I? I feel if we fail to ask this question before we become rambunctious in telling others what they need in their cultures, we climb into a fine cultural hot and sour soup.