Cultural Cages – Do you see yours?
“Most of us are locked up pretty tightly inside our “cultural cages”, and it’s the rare person that even BEGINS to see this about himself.” - a short quote from my “About” page.
People have asked me about this thing that I call “cultural cages”, so I wanted to see if I could develop a clear description here, and apply it to ourselves and to those around us in cross cultural contexts.
First: What is culture? Well…culture happens all around us; but more importantly to this discussion, culture happens IN us! Culture, as most of my readers know, eludes simple definitions. The key components of what we call culture would include: shared beliefs; shared values; learned responses; patterns of behavior; all passed on through a socialization process. For the anthropologically and technically oriented, these descriptors do an adequate job of painting the picture. HOWEVER, I find that all of us benefit from talking about culture in much more earthy, concrete terms. So let’s just add these common-man’s key components of culture: it’s the way you feel about things, the way you decide that one thing is more important than another. It’s actually behind your reaction to movies and to what you call “good music”. Culture even pushes you to feel repulsed by some ‘foods’ and to feel very strongly attracted to others. (My Faroese friend loves the “aged” meat from the head of a sheep, but nearly vomits at the thought of peanut butter). Culture is what makes you feel like some people are “weird” and other people are “normal”. It’s culture that causes you to recognize that you’re not “at home” when you’re in a different country (or a different PART of the country, or city). Like I said, culture happens ALL AROUND US; but it’s important to recognize that culture happens in us.
Let me point out one really interesting feature of culture! Your culture is nearly invisible to yourself. Culture is like water for a fish: they don’t notice it! They only notice if they’re OUT of it! It’s like the lenses in a good pair of glasses: you don’t see them, you only see THROUGH them. Those lenses affect every single thing that you see, but you’re rarely even aware that the lenses are shaping (and changing the shape) of the images coming to your eyes. Culture does the same thing: it shapes what we see, how we feel, what we like, what we dread, but the thing itself – culture – is practically invisible to us.
Now, let’s talk about CULTURAL CAGES. Cages keep things in, and keep things out. Our ‘cultural cage’ is what limits our perception. It locks us into a very narrow range of possibilities. For example, “Dangerous Driving” is something that most can talk about, but country-to-country people will not agree on what it looks like. An Indian will feel very differently from an American about what “dangerous driving” looks like. The “cage” that’s built by culture has, over time, become pretty strong! Both the Indian and the American have heard, since infancy, references to “that crazy driver!”. But what their mom or dad or friend is referring to when making such a pronouncement is very different. When the Indian and American stand side by side in the middle of traffic, trying to cross the street, they will NOT agree about whether or not there are “crazy drivers” or “dangerous driving” all around them. They’re inside their respective cages, and can’t seem to get out. They see it “one way”, and can’t seem to see it another!
Most of my readers are living in the very real, the very concrete and palpable context of cultural tension and cultural misunderstanding. This isn’t difficult to predict! If people from the same cultures experience interpersonal conflict as a rather expected routine, imagine how much MORE common it is in multicultural contexts! Here’s the deal: we naturally move AWAY from that tension. Yep. That’s what humans do: we avoid the hassle and the discomfort that comes from working through cross-cultural obstacles. So what happens? What happens is separation, stereotyping and ostracism. People that are comfortable with their cage are happy to hang with people who live in similar cages. We all see things the same way! We all “know” what’s good, what’s bad and what’s ugly. But those “other people” have such a DIFFERENT way of seeing things. We all look out through the bars of our cages at each other, pointing our fingers at each other, saying in unison, “You’re weird!”.
When thinking about ourselves as cultural beings, it’s fair (I think) to lump ourselves into two basic categories: (1) Mono-cultural and (2) Multi-cultural. The mono-cultural person, unfortunately, lives out their life without ever really taking a deep look at the cultural influences that shaped them, and consequently rarely knows how to understand, respect or appreciate OTHER cultural ‘shapes’. They’re just sort of ‘stuck in their cultural cage’. But the Multi-cultural person (which, by the way, can even be achieved by people living in their own home culture) takes a posture of inquisitive exploration, desiring to “get inside” of why other people “live life differently”. This multi-cultural person believes that they’ll discover good reasons why people are different. They know that they’ll be able to disagree too, but that they’ll disagree from a position of understanding, rather than from a default position of ignorance. The multi-cultural person is attracted to the idea of crossing from “outsider” status, to “insider” status, and by the intrigue of developing friendships with people that are, at first “different”, but soon to become “understood”. The multi-cultural person actually starts SEEING their own “cage”, recognizing that they’ve been shaped by a particular community. They’re “o.k.” with that; they even love that. But they do recognize that it’s only “one shape among many”. They sometimes move on toward beginning to see inside of other people’s cages, trying to understand the values, beliefs and priorities that form THAT particular view. This is what makes them ‘multi-cultural people’.
What do you think about YOUR cultural cage? Can you see it? Can you see the “cages” of others? Which category are you in: Mono-cultural or Multi-cultural? Which category would you LIKE to be in? Please leave a comment, and share your perspective with us!