Traveling in different cultures can at times be difficult simply because we may not understand why they think and behave differently than us. I first learned this after working in the Canadian Arctic five times. I left my last posting feeling very frustrated and felt that I had not made a significant contribution. I did not understand why Inuit don’t discipline their children, why they can’t give any past medical history, why they don’t like to work away from home when there are no jobs in their community but lots of unemployment outside, why they don’t value education like we do, why they seem to kill anything that moves and thus don’t share our respect for wildlife. The list goes on and on but basically comes down to they have a different culture. It was not until I was able to discuss the situations with someone who had taught school on Baffin Island for 15 years that I finally came to understand some of the cultural context of their beliefs and actually have some insight into all those situations (go to my page titled ideas to read an attempt to at least partially explain their behavior).
A similar situation happened when traveling in India. I can not imagine a country more different than ours. They do not follow any of our social standards of polite behavior. I have never heard any Indian say please, thank you or your welcome (except occasionally in people working in the tourist industry). You could give up your seat on a bus for an older woman or a woman with a young baby and they never even acknowledge your existence. When getting off a bus, one has to run a gauntlet of people trying to get on. Men constantly bud ahead of you when standing in line for a ticket, or in fact any queue. Despite being the most religious country in the world (Hindus claim they have 36 million gods), and being fastidious dressers, they have absolutely despoiled their environment. Only 8 out of 3000 cities in India treat their sewage. I doubt that there is any water that is not extremely polluted. Garbage is everywhere and dustbins (as they call garbage receptacles) are rarely used. They have their animals all upside down. Cows are the top dog, closely followed by snakes and monkeys. Even rats are holy in one temple. Being reincarnated as a dog is the worst thing that can happen to you, whereas they are clearly the most favored animal we have. The list is endless. Read “Being Indian”, a great book about the Indian psyche and a must read before going to India. I would imagine traveling in China and Japan would pose equally difficult cultural situations.
The real issue is that we are traveling in their country and thus need to strive to tolerate and understand their behavior, that is to understand the cultural context. It can make travel so much more enjoyable. Travel can be a very trying experience but it is unlikely that we as individuals could change their behavior nor do we have any right to. Simply go with the flow and learn to even enjoy all these differences. It really is what travel is all about.
Any westerner who claims he understands and can communicate with Chinese or Japanese is deluding himself. To transcend the limits of individual cultures, one must first recognize and accept the multiple hidden dimensions of unconscious culture. Every culture has its own hidden unique form of unconscious culture.
We can all benefit from a deeper knowledge of ourselves and must stop ranking both people and talents and accept the fact that there are many roads to truth and no culture has a corner on the path or is better equipped than others to search for it. No man can tell another how to conduct that search.
Paradox of culture. The natural act of thinking is greatly modified by culture. The West uses one of may ways of thinking. Logic is seen as synchronous with truth and is alienated from ourselves and nature. We think linearly rather than comprehensively. Culture is a series of situational models for behavior and thought. Much cultural difference can be traceable to language. Culture is not innate but is learned. The various facets of culture are interrelated (touch a culture in one place and everything is affected). It is shared and defines the boundaries of different groups. Culture touches and alters all aspects of human life including personality (how people express themselves and show emotion), the way they think, and how problems are solved.
Time use. Americans use monochronic time – serious, and do one thing at a time. This requires schedule, segmentation, and promptness. As it is linear and segmented, it extends forward to the future and backward to the past. Tangible, it speaks of time as being saved, spent, wasted, lost, made up, accelerated, slowed down, crawling, or running out. It is a result of our industrialized civilization. But, it seals off one or two people from the group, intensifying relationships to 2-3 people. It is learned and thoroughly integrated into our culture, treated as the only natural and logical way of organizing life. Lives must fit a schedule – just when things are beginning to develop in a desired way, we must stop them to conform to a preset schedule. It narrows ones view of life – scheduling stifles creativity.
In polychromic time, several things happen at once. It stresses involvement of people and completion of transactions rather than adherence to preset schedules. Appointments don’t carry the same weight. One is almost never alone and one interacts with several people at once. Scheduling is difficult. Socially there is a greater centralization of control with a shallow or simple structure. The top man deals cpntinuously with may people. Unconscious and unresponsive, it needs and insider or friend who can make things happen. The organization is limited in size and depends on having gifted men at the top. For example, the Inuit life is not bound by a time clock as at work, but by tides.
Man an extension. Evolution by extension can be very fast. Conscience is the internalized control used by Western society. Actions under the control of one part of the world may be handled by externalized control elsewhere. Different cultures have unique ways of relating language to reality of all sorts. The American Indian were deeply involved with each other, information is readily shared, simple messages with deep meaning flow freely producing a high context culture. They are easily overwhelmed by mechanical systems and lose their integrity. Low context cultures are highly individualized, somewhat alienated, and fragmented. For example, German and Swiss cultures have relatively little involvement with people. They absorb and use man’s extensions without losing cultural identity.
Consistency and life. Stability and predictability are essential for human society to develop and prosper. Culture has evolved to give man is identity. His total communication framework – words, actions, postures, materials, and the ways he works, plays, makes love and defends himself can be read correctly if one is familiar with the behavior in its historical, social and cultural context. Man is unaware of a system of controls until things don’t follow the hidden program. A negative feedback system is most frequent in intercultural experiences. We become aware of the structure of our own system only by interacting with others who do not share their system – members of the opposite sex, different age groups, different ethnic groups, or different cultures. Cultural exploration begins with the annoyance of being lost. Control systems of the mind signal that something unexpected has arisen and we need to switch off the autonomic pilot. In real life, we don’t see it this way – the inevitable response is to deny the problem until it is too late.
Hidden culture. It is a formidable task to understand the deep biases and built in blinders built into each culture. The broad base was laid down millions of years ago in the old mammalian brain (treats things as wholes, constantly synthesizes and comes up with solutions based on the past). To understand a given behavior, we must know the entire life history of the individual which is impossible. Understanding oneself and others are closely related processes. To do one, you must start with the other and vice versa.
Rhythm and body movement. It is natural to lump all movement together and not to distinguish from conscious deliberate racism and structural differences in cultural systems. There is a built in tendency for all groups to interpret their own nonverbal communicative patterns as though they were universal. All cultures have their own characteristic manner of walking, sitting, standing, reclining and gesteuring. The chances of being able to read nonverbal cues correctly decreases as cultural distance increases – even smiles must be seen in context. Synchronous movement is present in all groups. It is not easy to understand as most of us are used to dealing with second, third or fourth generation communication systems like language and writing. Northern Europeans are under developed rhythmically, Man probably synchronizes everything in order to fit in and not appear too conspicuous. Syncing is very noticeable in high context cultures but may have little meaning in the west. It is dangerous to attach a meaning to parts of non-verbal cues as these must always be read in context.
Context and meaning. One way to handle information overload is by using context. Several things must be taken into account – subjective activity, the situation, ones statue in the social system, past experience and culture. What one pays attention to or does not attend to is largely a matter of context.