When Cultural Difference Is Used As An Excuse — Part I

Cultural difference has morphed of late into a lame excuse for bad behavior. Take this recent headline:


Renegades boss blames ‘cultural differences
as Chris Gayle is fined $10,000

That was a headline I caught through the magic that is Google Alerts, a free service that brings interesting stories from around the world — stories with the term “cultural difference” — to my Inbox.

In among the many heartwarming stories are the ones that make me want to scream.


With thanks to artist diana irimie


and pull out my hair (metaphorically only; I like my hair).


Many of the stories appearing in my Inbox are about cultural differences in the workplace; they don’t make it to my blog at all.

Some of the stories get a mention on my FB Author page, which is dedicated to stories of cultural difference around the world.

And a few get a whole blog post about them (see Breastfeeding six year olds (from February, 2015) or the Free-Range Kids movement (from May, 2015).

They are the fun ones.

And, in case you need a heartwarming fix, here are two stories of cultural difference that will do just that:

This first is from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) on December 28, entitled Five stories of indigenous Canadian women who made a difference in their communities.

The second one brings us back to the USA.  It’s a story that, in various forms, I see monthly: international students visit a local school to help young people learn about other cultures.  This particular story, from Oswego County (in upstate New York), December 30, introduces us to the “Greenheart of Cultural Exchange, a locally-run organization promoting cultural understanding, academic development, environmental consciousness and world peace.” Again, it’s heartwarming.  And short.

OK, enough of a break.  Back to work.

These stories that make me want to scream, that say cultural difference is a good excuse, will be my focus this week and into February. Before I introduce you to them, however, we shall review the three dimensions of human behavior (from any social psych 101 class):


1)  PERSONAL—This one asks, How are we unique? What makes us stand out from each other?  This is the level of idiosyncrasies, of eccentricities, of neuroses. These are the differences that make life interesting and help psychologists pay their mortgages.

At this level one might ask, Why are some people “stupid and make bad decisions,” while others are wonderfully generous with their time, energy, or money? What makes a Mother Theresa instead of a Jeffrey Dahmer?  Why does Uncle Joe act that way? 

These are the questions generally tackled by psychology, though sociology (through social psychology) likes to get their two cents in there too.

Moving on ….

2)  CULTURAL–This one asks, What do particular groups of people (societies, clubs, companies) share, which set them apart from other groups of people? These particular differences are, as you must know by now, the stuff that floats my boat.

Our attitudes toward time, personal space, personal responsibility, our gestures, how we communicate, even our values and beliefs are all informed by the culture we were born into and claim as our own.

Culture is like a marinade: it totally surrounding us and becomes so “normal,” we generally give it as much thought as these goldfish give the water they swim in.

This is the field covered by sociology, though anthropology bumps in there too. We’ll come back to culture as we move along.

We need to get onto #3

3)  UNIVERSAL–- the broadest category. The level asks, How are we, as individual human beings, the same around the world? What characteristics do we share?

I list a few of these in my Peace Corps memoir, At Home on the Kazakh Steppe. Here’s a quote from the early part of Chapter 18:

All cultures have rituals around play, marriage—at least about who gets to mate with whom—and death. Human beings, I believe, are born with an inherent need to feel loved, valued, and secure.

Beyond wanting to survive, we all need to know where we belong. We also want to laugh, and we want to raise happy, healthy children who grow up to contribute to their world in some way.

And the differences in how each culture achieves these desires can be fascinating. Or frightening. It’s all in one’s perspective.

Universally shared desires and values make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside when we meet them. Who wouldn’t want to meet someone with whom you share important values?  Finding them helped me bond with my colleagues and friends in Kazakhstan, people who have become an important part of my life.

Individual, Cultural, and Universal: the three levels of human interaction, human behavior.

What troubles me is that more and more individual bad behavior gets excused on the grounds of cultural difference. And, as a result, more and more perfectly sane, intelligent, hardworking immigrants (like YOUR great-grandparents) are paying the price.

The vast majority of new arrivals — tourists, visitors, and immigrants — strive to fit into the existing culture, adopt the old adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”


Thanks to hippowallpapers.com for the image from the film, When In Rome.


Immigrants need help in navigating an often confusing and understandably overwhelming new world. If you know me, you know I’m all for bringing them in. It’s what this country is about.

It’s hard. It’s exhausting. It’s what two-thirds of my memoir, At Home on the Kazakh Steppe, is about.

But we do it for a very good reasons.

  • It’s polite.
  • It adds spice to our travel.
  • We’ll get into trouble if we don’t.
  • Others?  I’m sure.

Our strength lies in our diversity; so, I’m not talking about closing our borders.  Or turning our backs.

I’m talking about holding a person accountable to standards we’ve set as a community.

Here are headlines that have me spewing:

Renegades boss blames “cultural differences
as Chris Gayle is fined $10,000

The “affluenza” defense in the Ethan Couch case

The stories from Cologne, Germany, excusing the bands of hooligans
who rampaged the town and accosted nearly 100 women
on New Year’s Eve, on the basis of “cultural difference.”

Give me a break!

Throughout February, I’ll be taking a closer look at these stories and others. Has the legal defense lost their minds, or have the headlines missed something? Or is there another explanation?

Before we get started, what are your thoughts?  Have you been at all troubled by this trend? 


Next week: January 27 is World Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day. I’ll be sharing my favorite Holocaust memoirs as I begin to build a “Top 100” master list.  Get ready.


20 Responses

  1. Ian Mathie
    | Reply

    You are so right. Throughout the western world we are willing to blame others’ inappropriate behaviour on cultural differences when if fact they are often just bad behaviour. There is good and bad in all of us and sometimes, as you have illustrated, it gets out of hand.
    Its easy to blame cultural differences when outsiders don’t do things ‘our way’, but how often do we begin by telling them about ‘our way’? How often to we let them know what our acceptable styles and standards are? The answer is very seldom. Instead we just expect them to conform to our values as if by breathing the same air as us they’ve absorbed and understood and accepted them.
    Perhaps it’s a failure in our culture that is the source of many of the problems. We need to make it a requirement for people to integrate, sure. But at the same time we must provide them with the understanding necessary to make that possible. We need to teach them the standards. And while we’re at it we could do with teaching our own people about many of those standards too!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      And yet, there are so many ways in which I’d not want an immigrant to lose their culture. I’m thinking of how much we can learn from them, how much spice they bring into our lives. Recipes among other things! Thank God for the Thai!

      I love your thoughts here on education of immigrants. You’d be great at that, Ian. Thanks for bringing that up. It reminded me of a story a friend of my mother’s told decades ago now. She was Black and she and her husband moved into a white neighborhood, this must have been in the 60s, maybe early 70s. Anyway, it was the first house they’d owned. After a few weeks, their neighbor came over to talk to them about how to take care of their yard. In their naivete, they’d never really thought about it. But as the weeks had gone on, I guess they’d not tackled the weeds. I’m not really sure what the actual problem was. All I remember from the story was how grateful she was the the man pointed out to them the HOW to fit in better.

      That so speaks to my point. How easy it might have been for that man instead to think, “Well, it’s their culture; they don’t know how to take care of a yard.” And they let the resentment build. Instead, he just spoke his truth, from his heart. And they were grateful.

      As always, thanks for kicking us off, Ian.

  2. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    That is a troubling trend especially coming from my countrymen. One way to make way for understanding between cultures is to travel. And I don’t mean to Canada. I mean to Europe, South America, Africa, Asia, where ever you go to have a complete break from our own culture. You learn how the rest of the world lives. You learn to fit in and take responsibility for what you put out in the world.

    Most colleges and universities offer semesters abroad. Why not start doing that in high school?

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes indeed, Joan. I’m noticing a new pet peeve growing in me. A new twist on the old Ugly American idea. They travel to a foreign land and then get angry at how things are done there. As though THE LOCALS should change! Makes me cringe.

      My grandson will be going to Costa Rica this summer with a school group. He’s in … sixth? … grade! Certainly not high school. I hope they teach them more than the rain forest. Even our lack of foreign language training in elementary school (when it would be SOOOO much easier to learn) speaks to a kind of institutionalized isolationism (dare I say arrogance?) that one need not know any other language. There’s a whole literature on the relationshipb between language and culture. Our kids could start there (for a lot less money).

      Thanks for stopping in, Joan.

      • Joan Z. Rough
        | Reply

        Yes, I think you can dare to use the word arrogance. Did you know that Bill Lederer one of the co-writers of The Ugly American made Peacham his home when we lived there. He could very well still be there as far as I know. He was very much into dowsing maps. He apparently was with the man who used to own the service station there and was one of Danville’s premier dowsers one day doing some map dowsing and suddenly announced that something something terrible had happened. He turned on the news to hear that Kennedy had just been shot.

        I hope I’ve got that story right. My brain gets a bit foggy these days. But if you ask around I think you’ll find it at least close.

      • Janet Givens
        | Reply

        I didn’t know that, Joan. thanks. I’ll keep my ears open. Peacham has become quite the “in” town to live in.

  3. Nancy McBride
    | Reply

    When we moved to Buffalo, NY, the folks on our blocks told us the rules of the street for the safety of the children, relating mostly to nearby traffic. I was also told that any parent could discipline any child. It worked.
    When a family with a child who had autism moved in next door, I gathered a few local women, and we went to their home not only to welcome them, but ask about the child and how we should interact with him. He would walk into our homes, uninvited. The mom wept with relief that we wanted to understand and help. She’d been terrified to move into a new neighborhood.
    Perhaps our involving culture of abstract parenting, both parents working, technology, etc. contribute to our own loosely-goosey culture. Then there’s intercultural marriage. People need to talk and compromise.
    Interesting how the protesting going on, which solidifies values enough for folks to act, is showing up! I think peaceful protest is healthy, as is civil disobedience. It was only when I first felt rage, that I realized I had self, and what my values were. I vote for family dinners, limited personal computer time, community service, and boundaries/clarification of cultural values at home, and inclusiveness. And a relaxation of being so PC, we don’t sit down and get to know our neighbors.
    I am an instructor in medical schools. We address cultural differences, such as showing empathy, use of smiling/nodding, etc. How else are they to know? Just thoughts.

  4. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    I think you’ve touched on several connecting issues, Janet. One is that “cultural differences” is sometimes used as an excuse for bad behavior. I think there is a difference between minor customs that someone from another culture might not know to do–such as covering arms in a church or something like that (or the head shaking) and something that is serious, such as raping a woman (or anyone.) That is obviously criminal behavior that is not officially condoned by governments, but that is tacitly condoned by some groups. (The mistreatment and subjugation of women and the existence of rape cultures throughout the world is a much larger topic.)

    Two, I am also troubled by the reverse–that certain groups are blamed for problems. It has always been an issue–fear of “the other,” and blaming “the other.” Recently, here in the U.S. it seems to have become more of a political issue–not that it’s ever been absent–but certain politicians are really stepping up the hate language.

    Finally, yes, headlines are often purposely misleading. Editors hope to attract readers, and sometimes the headline is not at all what the author is actually writing.

    I agree with others that travel (which I’ve not done much of) is great, but so is education–all sorts of education.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Merril, you have identified a theme that I hope to get more into over the next many weeks: that continuum of “Bad Behavior” (i.e., behavior we wouldn’t do) that runs from those head shaking idiosyncracies or eye contact restraint all the way to the other end, with burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands, rape, and various other mysonginistic behaviors. And just how flexible to we want that continuum to be? The two ends are easy, it’s that mess in the middle that always trips me up.

      Your take on scapegoating of the “other,” that pervasive evil that does indeed seem to be on the rise in political rhetoric, is another vast topic that deserves its own space.

      So much to write about; so little time.

      Thanks for joining us here.

  5. Shirley Hershey Showalter
    | Reply

    Recently Stuart and I were discussing how it is that we have come to hold different values and beliefs from some people who grew up in a similar cultural setting to our own. Travel and living in different cultures came up immediately as one possible explanation. When we live inside a culture, we don’t really think of it as such. We just think of it as “normal” or sometimes even more strongly as “right.” When we go to another culture, we suddenly can see that we live in a culture too, because the differences pop right out at us.

    As for blaming bad behavior on other cultures, I heard an NPR report on the shifting perspectives in Germany vis-á-vis foreigners, especially North Africans, who are now getting tarnished with the broad brush of thief, harrasser, rioter because of the riots earlier this year. Your point is well taken.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Shirley, and thanks for joing the conversation. I love how you wrote, “When we live inside a culture, we don’t really think of it as such. We just think of it as “normal” or sometimes even more strongly as “right.” Indeed. And we talked last week about that “normal” some of us grew up with that was quite a different “normal” than most middle class white folks of that mid 50s era and how our “normal” served us well over the decades.

      What a luxury we have in our world today that we can see our own “normal” and make those conscious choices on how we want to move forward from there. Holding fast or loosening our grip, even slightly.

      Thank you for adding your voice. Always a pleasure.

  6. […] Offend Me, Please, came to me from an email conversation I had following the post entitled “When Cultural Difference is Used As An Excuse.”  I thought it’d be useful to take a look at it and the others that followed, leading us […]

  7. […] promised a few weeks ago, in my post creatively entitled When Cultural Differences Are Used As An Excuse (for bad behavior), I’ll be spending a few weeks this month focusing on just how we decide […]

  8. […] And so we begin Part III of our ongoing series that began last January with When Cultural Difference is Used As An Excuse . […]

  9. […] IV of our series on using  culture as an excuse (for bad  behavior) is focused on this “culture of rape.” It’s the last in […]

  10. […] series of posts on this Culture of Affluence that seemed to be gripping our country.  We began on January 20, 2016 with When Cultural Difference Is Used As An Excuse, then The Culture of Affluence on February […]

  11. […] this age of incivility?  Or, venture another guess at the O and the G?  How does this relate to my theme of cultural differences? Who knows, you may convince me to make another last minute change. […]

    | Reply

    Wonderfully expressed Janet. So true it is. It is common human behaviour or a complex in some communities to think themselves perfect. But its true which is perfect to me may not be good for others. Many do not understand that and there comes the cultural differences.
    REENA MUKHERJEE recently posted…Rasedaar Arbi…..Colosia curryMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Reena, hello. Thank you so much for joining us here. I’m so sorry I missed your comment when you posted it. I’m glad you added your voice here. I hope you return; you are well positioned to talk about cultural differences.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Meet Lindsay de FelizMy Profile

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