Cultural Diversity

Understanding Cultural Nuance

In a diverse world where you might be in conversation with people from all around the globe, it’s hard not to misunderstand what the other person means. That is because, historically, we typically only spoke to people around us. We shared a common language and common experience. In today’s world we need to have a good look at how better to communicate with people by understanding that there are cultural variances that often inform various presuppositions we have. When we know where we come from we can better understand that others will have a very different way of perceiving the world. Since the world will increasingly become a smaller place, it’s a good idea to start learning how to communicate effectively.

Expressions of context

People sometimes think of language as being a set of vocabulary and syntax. If two people both speak English, they should not misunderstand each other, right? Actually, language is more than that. Language is also context driven. People often use localized expressions based on their experiences within their own cultures. For example in London they say, “Are you having a bubble mate” which is like saying, “Are you nuts” in American. In Arab culture they say, “On my nose” which roughly means, “I’ve got this for you, don’t worry about it.” Others say, “Upon my head and eye” which roughly means, “it’s my duty.” Even within Arabia there are cultural nuances and varying expressions. In Persia they have gender neutral speech, so they can speak about someone without revealing the gender. Language develops from context and culture. Speaking to people in the same language doesn’t preclude that they will understand what you mean. Therefore, when speaking to people outside your own culture, use global expressions. People do share a lot in common and it is, therefore, possible to communicate even across language barriers. 

Eliminate assumptions

The people you are talking to don’t necessarily fit into the stereotype you have of them. I recall on several occasions, because I live in Arabia, people talking to me on social media assumed that I don’t understand English. I was told that I should learn to understand English properly because I couldn’t understand the cultural reference point of the speaker. In his culture, an Islamic scholar is a qualified jurist. In Arabic we don’t call them scholars, we call them- what would translate into- “jurists” or “the knowledgeable.” Other times, people assume that because I speak English I am unable to reference texts in Arabic. These are all assumptions that made talking about religion and culture very difficult within the same group of Muslims. What about talking to people who don’t share- at least- a religion in common? If you must assume something, assume that the other person has something valuable to say. 

Suspend reactionary judgements

I personally found this one to be quite hard to do when I first started practicing it. It’s not easy when someone is insulting you to not feel insulted. However, it doesn’t help to simply take offense. Rather, suspend your judgement and try to understand why the person is insulting you, or whether the person is actually trying to insult you to begin with. Sometimes what one person finds insulting, other people find to be normal. In some cultures, for example, everyone kisses everyone. In other cultures, that would be considered deeply offensive. When someone came up to me and kissed me on the cheek, I felt like my personal boundaries were violated. It was only until I saw that everyone was getting kissed on the cheek that I realized it must’ve been normal for those people. In my culture you only kiss relatives. 

In some African cultures, women walk around with a little covering over the midsection and have nothing covering the rest of their bodies, including their breasts. When I first experienced a bunch of naked women, I was very amused by it (of course). But, after I witnessed that a few times I realized that in that culture, nakedness didn’t mean the same as it did in my Western Christian / Islamic culture. Where I came from, being dressed was important. You can’t really make a judgement of what is better or what is worse without understanding the entire gamut of how the various parts of a culture interacts with each other. For example, in the Amazon there is a cultural play where a guy takes a stick, hits a woman over the head while she pretends to be unconscious, he then drags her off to his tent, whereupon they are considered ‘married.’ In the context of modern society, that would be perceived as perpetuating rape culture. In that culture, however, there is actually a negotiation that goes on before the role play. If you didn’t interrogate the culture properly you would just be outraged by the role play. You need to look into the way people do what they do, and understand why they do it. Only after that can you make some sort of judgement. It doesn’t have to be a judgement of better or worse, but you are obviously allowed to have your social and cultural preferences.

Understand your own culture

People often don’t realize how little they understand about their own cultures and biases. It’s perfectly fine for you to be who you are given the places you come from. However, it’s not fine to assume that you are superior because of where you come from. Frankly, most of what you believe is just ‘luck of the draw.’ You could have been born to any parents in any cultural setting, and chances are you would have been that. If you were born in the Amazon jungle you might be running around hitting women over the head with a stick as part of a mating ritual. If you were born in Britain in the heyday of colonialism, you might be sailing aboard a ship ‘civilizing’ the barbarians and fighting the Sarasins. Heck, you might have been born in Afghanistan under the Taliban carrying a rifle beating disobedient women in blue burgas (as they are often portrayed doing in the media). Whatever the case may be, the culture you now have is complex- like all cultures- and its parts interact in various ways to help regulate the society you live in. It might be very dysfunctional to other people, it might be very functional, it might seem wrong or it might seem right. Whatever it is, try your best to understand how it works and what it does for your people where you live. In fact, nothing compels you to agree with it. You can choose to go whatever root you feel fits in with what you value most in your life. Only you will know what that is. 

Respect culture

Cultures exist for a reason. People congregate around certain values and principles because there must be a common denominator to fully comprehend the meanings of each other and to foster a common existence. Culture is the backdrop on which people build their mutual lives together as part of a tribe and within a broader society. Undermining the cultures of people are often offensive to them because it is tantamount to viewing their society as disposable. There is also often this notion that the culture of the colonizer is inherently superior to the culture of the colonized. We often find that still coming from the quarters of the historic colonizer. We should do our best to avoid such blatant disregard for people’s indigenous heritage by referring to their cultures as ‘backwards’ even if in light of our own, it may very well seem that way. Societies without cultural cohesiveness will disintegrate into anarchy and sharp polarization because they don’t share a common narrative that helps facilitate greater understanding between its constituents. In a very real sense, deliberately undermining people’s culture is to chip away at what makes their society functional (on their own terms). It is, therefore, imperative to foster greater understanding of people’s cultures and respect the way in which their societies have evolved. 

Read more about various cultures:

2 thoughts on “Understanding Cultural Nuance

  1. This was another good read. I totally agree with all the points made in this blog. People do need to consider that while they may view the behaviours/actions found in other cultures as bizarre or even unethical, it may not be seen that way in that particular culture and in-fact they may see your culture as the strange one. Cultural norms are only only norms because it’s learned within that setting. Ehtics, morals and values have and will always be subjective. In the UK teenage pregnancies and marriages are frowned upon. But where I am currently living (you can probably guess) woman are encouraged to marry young. Which one is right? Well each culture have their own reasons and this is where context comes into play.

  2. Yes. Empathy, curiosity, and a willingness to learn are the only way to begin to understand others. And to be willing to be a fool, a beginner, one who needs teaching from other cultures is very helpful.

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