Culture is defined as “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a people”.
This very expression of the word tends to drive the separation of people though doesn’t it? It offers that different people, or peoples, will behave and respond differently to the same set of circumstances, which is possibly not always right, appropriate, or progressive.
Given the impact of wealth, the development of, and our access to new technologies, societal influences, our lifestyles, and our way of living, there are many more questions to be asked and answered regarding our cultural identities, that really do muddy the waters in respect of that very important word. I, for one, have a strong view that the other aspects of ‘culture’, the “manifestations of human intellectual and artistic achievement”, must also be considered when making a defining, or at least robust assessment of a culture.
Cristina De Rossi, an anthropologist at Barnet and Southgate College in London, writes, “Culture encompasses religion, food, what we wear, how we wear it, our language, marriage, music, what we believe is right or wrong, how we sit at the table, how we greet visitors, how we behave with loved ones… and a million other things.” Is she correct?
Today we have such diversity in culture as ‘corporate culture’, where we are reminded how an institution or organisation behaves, how its employees dress, the size of offices, the salaries, the responsibilities and accountabilities, the amount of privacy and autonomy, the exposure to external influences, dependent upon the hierarchal position of the employees. These are all factors in corporate cultures.
Cultural ‘diversity’ is another oft ignored, yet vitally important, cultural aspects. Does your society, or environment freely accept those of different race, gender, orientation or nationality? Do you accept others religious beliefs? Do you respect their dress, and social behaviours? Do you interact with others, or do you tolerate them?
We are also a bit strange in such a simple thing as the travel choices we make sometimes. I mean, do you really expect to have the same experiences in Amsterdam as in Beijing, or in Phuket as in Rotorua, or Tehran as in the Vatican? Yet when we go there, we tend to focus on the oddities, and how different the ‘other people’ are from us!
Hollywood actor, Wendell Pierce, said, “Cultures are the intersection of people and life itself. It’s how we deal with life, love, birth, death, disappointment,” and let’s face it, many of us are too quick to be judgemental of the behaviours and norms of others: “Oh, how do they wear that? Yuk, how can they eat that? That’s a weird accent isn’t it? OMG, did you see that?” We are all guilty of such thoughts and words, far too often.
You know, if travelling widely, as I have been fortunate enough to do, has taught me one thing, it is that we must see other people, not as different to ourselves, because of course they are. No, we must see them as an expression of all that life has delivered, or not delivered to them over a long period of time. They are the product of hundreds of years of their access to their needs in terms of physiological sustenance, safety, love, and opportunity. Just like us, yet in many ways, more, or less fortunate, by accident of fate.
The nature of understanding culture, at the end of the day, is more about being respectful of others’ cultures, than foisting your own, upon them. It is more about demonstrating your respect to give yourself a greater understanding of the ideas, beliefs and values of those around you, every day.