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