You live in a cultural cage!

Most of us are locked up pretty tightly inside our “cultural cages”, and it’s the rare person that even BEGINS to see this about himself. That’s the “trick” about culture and worldview, we hardly even notice how strongly it is shaping our lives!

People ask me what I mean by “cultural cages”, and I’d like to try to coax out a clear meaning, and apply it to ourselves and to those around us in cross cultural contexts.01-hens in cage

What’s culture?

Culture, as most of our readers know, eludes simple definitions. The key components of what we call culture would include: shared beliefs; shared values; learned responses; patterns of behavior; passed on through a socialization process. For the anthropologically and technically oriented, these descriptors do an adequate job of painting the picture.

HOWEVER, I find that all of us benefit from talking about culture in much more earthy, concrete terms.

So let’s just add these common-man’s key components of culture:

It’s the way you feel about things, the way you decide that one thing is more important than another.

It’s actually behind your reaction to movies and to what you call “good music”. Culture even pushes you to feel repulsed by some ‘foods’ and very strongly attracted to others. (My Faroese friend loves the “aged” meat from the head of a lamb, but nearly vomits at the thought of peanut  butter). Culture is what makes you feel like some people are “weird” and other people are “normal”. It’s what causes you to recognize that you’re not “at home” when you’re in a different country (or different PART of the country, or city).

Culture is like water for a fish: they don’t notice it! 

They only notice if they’re OUT of it! It’s like the lenses in a good pair of glasses: you don’t see them, you only see THROUGH them. Those lenses affect every single thing that you see, but you’re rarely even aware that the lenses are shaping (and changing the shape) of the images coming to your eyes. Culture does the same thing: it shapes what we see, how we feel, what we like, what we dread, but the thing itself – culture – is practically invisible.

Cages keep things in, and keep things out. Our ‘cultural cage’ is what limits our perception.

It locks us into a very narrow range of possibilities. “Dangerous driving” is something than most can talk about, but country-to-country people will not agree on what it looks like.

An Indian will feel very differently from an American about what “dangerous driving” looks like. The “cage” that’s built by culture has, over time, become pretty strong! Both the Indian and the American have heard, since infancy, references to “that crazy driver!”.

But what their mom or dad or friend is referring to when making such a pronouncement is very different. When the Indian and American stand side by side in the middle of traffic, trying to cross the street, they will NOT agree about whether or not there are “crazy drivers” or “dangerous driving” all around them. They’re inside their respective cages, and can’t seem to get out. They see it “one way”, and can’t seem to see it another!

Many of us are living in very real, very concrete and palpable contexts of cultural tension and cultural misunderstanding. If people from the same culture experience interpersonal conflict as a rather expected routine, imagine how much MORE common it is in multicultural contexts!

We naturally move AWAY from that tension. 

Yep. That’s what humans do: we avoid the hassle and the discomfort that comes from working through cross-cultural obstacles.

So what happens?

What happens is division, separation and ostracism. People that are comfortable with their cage are happy to hang with people who live in similar cages. We all see things the same way!

We all “know” what’s good, bad and ugly. But those “other people” have such a DIFFERENT way of seeing things. We look out through the bars of our cages at each other, pointing our fingers at each other, saying in unison, “You’re weird!”.

When thinking about ourselves as cultural beings, it’s fair (I think) to lump ourselves into two basic categories: (1) Mono-cultural and (2) Multi-cultural.

The mono-cultural person, unfortunately, lives out her/his life without ever really taking a deep look at the cultural influences that shaped them, and consequently rarely knows how to respect, appreciate or understand OTHER cultural ‘shapes’. They’re just sort of ‘stuck in their cultural cage’.

But the Multi-cultural person (which, by the way, can even be achieved by people living in their own home culture) takes a posture of inquisitive exploration, desiring to “get inside” of why other people “live life differently”.

This multi-cultural person believes that they’ll discover good reasons why people are different. They know that they’ll be able to disagree too, but that they’ll disagree from a position of understanding, rather than from a default position of ignorance. The multi-cultural person is attracted to the idea of crossing from “outsider” status, to “insider” status, and by the intrigue of developing friendships with people that are, at first “different”, but soon to become “understood”.

The multi-cultural person actually starts SEEING their own “cage”, recognizing that they’ve been shaped by a particular community.

They’re “o.k.” with that; they even love that. But they do recognize that it’s only “one shape among many”.

Ron VanPeursem
Ron VanPeursem is the Content Marketing Strategist for Shift Digital Media, and co-owner of Vihanti Digital Services (India). Ron blogs about Cultural Intelligence, Business in Intercultural Contexts, Education Theory and Content Marketing.

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