Culture Happens in Cages: An Ongoing Discussion
Most people live out their lives without ever realizing how much influence (control?) their culture has over them. But if you leave your home cultural context for an extended period of time, you’ll be “blessed” with the opportunity to see how you’ve been shaped by the stories, values, priorities and assumptions that define your home setting. Yes, I put the word “blessed” in quotes because it’s a rather costly blessing! Expats are privileged people because they’re living in situations that allow them the opportunity to see themselves through the eyes of others. And this is precisely the challenge that expats face: learning to see themselves as they are perceived by the people around them.
A Great Discussion on LinkedIn
My earlier post about Cultural Cages has sparked a very helpful discussion in a LinkedIn discussion group called ExpatSense, and I invite you to visit that discussion HERE, and engage with some highly experienced people who are thinking honestly and deeply about this challenge. I’m encouraged and refreshed to find people that are thinking critically and humbly about what’s happening around them, and what’s happening IN them. Thanks to all of you that contributed there!
A Few Fresh Thoughts about our Cultural Cages
1) Hey, sometimes it’s absolutely correct to see that certain things in a culture are just simply WRONG. We don’t have to keep trying to find a “culturally tuned-in way” to put a positive spin on abuse, deceit, discrimination or unkindness, even if you find yourself in a place where such things are deeply embedded in the context, and accepted as “normal”. Don’t confuse objective critique with ethnocentric narrowness. It’s not ethnocentrism to call something wrong, especially when even the locals see it as such!
2) Most of the time, however, it’s best to make the effort to uncover the local perspective on things before allowing your outsider perspective to paint any hard-and-fast conclusions. For example, a value like “showing respect” takes many different forms. What might look like fakery or superficial show to an outsider, might be genuine, heartfelt respect for insiders. Work hard to get inside the local perspective first. You’ll have plenty of time later to think about the rightness or wrongness of what you’re seeing.
3) Culture doesn’t explain EVERYTHING. I appreciated a comment from Richard, reminding us that sometimes the reason that people struggle to understand and connect with others is NOT explained by cultural differences. Sometimes it can be due to a personality issue, a personal concern, or the way a person perceives himself. These are the kinds of things that persist and continue to limit a person’s ability to connect, even if the person DOES become a cultural insider.
A couple other comments from the LinkedIn discussion
Brenna says, ” The problem then becomes what you do about your “cultural cage” when you live in other cultures. Do you persist in
remaining in your own cage, or “comfort zone”? Or do you walk through your cage, learn, absorb and immerse yourself in the culture you now live in?”
Patty says, “Many expats I have met don’t recognize the cage they are in and miss out on the joys of opening the door and stepping out of their cage.”
As we say here at Culture Happens:
Be a Learner | Get Local