Consider the following four scenarios. See if you can identify the commonality among them.
- A young woman attends a viewing before the funeral of her husband’s grandmother. As she enters the room, she raises eyebrows among the mourners because she is wearing a low-cut blouse and blue jeans. Her mother-in-law is furious at the lack of respect the young woman is showing for her deceased mother.
- Two professional women, one White and one Black, are speaking. They are newly introduced to each other and are talking about their respective jobs. As they talk they find they have a great deal in common and begin to realize they like each other. At one point the White woman notices the Black woman’s necklace is twisted so she reaches over to untwist it. The Black woman recoils and glares at her colleague. She quickly finishes the conversation and walks away.
- A Board is meeting to discuss a contentious issue. One after another, Board members argue their side. At the end of the morning a vote is taken and one side wins. Lunchtime arrives. All the men, no matter what side they argued, go to lunch together. The women, divided by their views on the issue, separate into two groups and eat at different restaurants.
- An immigrant from Russia is speaking with her boss about an interaction she had. The boss is not happy about what he perceives as the Russian’s disrespect for a peer. He tells her that if she wants to succeed in her position, she will have to stop being so argumentative and accept her male peer’s advice, even if she’s not sure the man is correct.
Although perhaps not obvious, all four scenarios represent cultural misunderstandings. The first is generational. The young woman had never been to a funeral before and had no idea that her top was too revealing and her jeans were too casual.
The second is racial. The Black woman was offended when the White woman adjusted her necklace, by what the Black woman perceived as the White woman’s assumption of familiarity and superiority after a very short and impersonal conversation.
The third is gender-based. The men, used to objective arguing, didn’t take the cutting comments made during the debate personally. The women did.
Finally the fourth scenario demonstrates how country-linked speaking and arguing styles can be misperceived as either hostility or lack of investment, depending upon the style, by others who use a different style.
When we think of culture, we usually think of people from other countries or other races than our own. There are things about them that are easy to identify as different. What we don’t realize is not only do we all carry a culture with us, but we carry multiple cultures. Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe have developed a model they call The Four Layers of Diversity. (http://www.gardenswartzrowe.com/about.html#div)
The inner layer is your personality… are you a morning person or night person, do you view the glass half-full or half-empty… those things about you that are just you. The next layer includes the aspects of your life over which you have little control. These include your age, color, gender, your first language (which impacts how you use logic), height, and many other factors. The next layer are those things over which you have some control, for instance how much education you have, if you marry, if you have children, your weight, etc. Finally, the fourth layer deals with you in an organization - your position, how long you’ve been there, where you work, etc.
Each of these factors combines in an individual to create his/her own unique cultural fingerprint. Thus, even when you see two people who seem very similar, they may be very different depending upon which unique cultural aspects have impacted their lives.
Let me give you an example. I grew up in a middle-class White suburban, two White parents home with one brother. Although not attending Catholic schools, I went to religious education classes every week and passed through all the typical Catholic milestones. I graduated from college and eventually went to graduate school. I got married in my 20s and had 3 children.
I have a friend who grew up in a middle-class suburban, two White parent home with one sister. Attending Catholic schools she passed through all the typical Catholic milestones. She graduated from college and eventually went to graduate school. She got married in her 20s and had 2 children. We are both divorced. We sound a lot alike, don’t we? But two aspects of our layers are very different and they have a profound influence on how we view the world.
Her divorce was at a fairly young age and was very bitter. She is still feeling ramifications from it. It has left her a vocal and ardent feminist who is, for the most part, skeptical about men. She views her life through the impact of the male hierarchy. On the other hand, I was in a secure and satisfying marriage for many years. Although the divorce I went through was unexpected and painful, it was by no means acrimonious. There are no profound ongoing issues for my children or myself. Although I also consider myself a feminist, I don’t view men or life in the same way as she does.
On the other hand when I was in high school, I was involved with exchange students and learned how difficult it is to be different in a country where people may not quite understand your customs, styles, and way of thinking. In college, I was introduced to number of Black students who radicalized my view of our society. Thus racial justice became my passion.
Although my friend is also now involved in diversity work, it is not her passion. What this means for our discussion here is, whereas my friend views life through the lens of the patriarchy, I view it through the lens of racial injustice. Two women, similar backgrounds, similar experiences and yet, we approach life with quite different viewpoints.
Why are these cultural and not just personal differences? Actually they are both. Culture is defined as a sharing of beliefs and values. One person may have a belief and act a certain way, but if enough people also share that belief and act the same way, they share a cultural trait. Think of your workplace or a doctor’s office or a school. Almost from the time you enter the door, that place’s culture begins to show itself. Think of the differences between a doctor’s office where the clinical staff wear scrubs with bunnies on them versus another office where the staff is wearing street clothes with white coats. What can you begin to assume about the culture and beliefs of both offices?
We are all embedded in multiple cultures, often so much so that we don’t even notice them. What we do notice, however, is when others don’t act or believe the same things we do. Our frequent gut reaction is to believe the other person is somehow wrong or ignorant or purposefully being a problem. Sometimes we look at that person with interest because we’re intrigued by why they are the way they are.
Rarely do we think about the interplay of cultures, both within that person and between us. It’s easiest to notice cultural differences when the other person is from a country different than our own, or speaks another language, or is somehow noticeably unlike us. However, the more they look or sound like ourselves, the less likely we are to attribute our differences to culture. But that doesn’t mean they are not there.
An interculturalist once told me that when we’re interacting with another person and can’t quite figure out what is driving their behavior, first look to cultural indicators. Did he or she grow up in another country, or part of the country? Is there a significant age, racial, educational, class, or other difference? Is there some other cultural variable that might answer the question, “Why?” If we can’t find it, then move to the person her/himself. That is the opposite of what most of us do.
If you try it, however, you might find yourself with some pretty amazing revelations about others’ behaviors. In the process you may also get some insight into the behavior and beliefs of a whole lot of other people, not just the person you’re interacting with at that moment. You would have the substance of learning about that culture in general plus learning about the individual’s cultural fingerprint. Ideally you would be able to share yours. These are one set of fingerprints no one would mind leaving behind!