Culture Identity

  • culture and perceptions
  • culture and influence on personality
  • culture and social values
  • culture and impressions of freedom
  • culture and tolerance
  • culture and cooperation
  • culture and family
  • culture and behaviour
  • practice-related insights

    @culture and perceptions

    How does culture originate? How can it influence us? According to Sigmund Freud culture shapes the super-ego, while neurobiologists describe the limbic cortex as being the core of cultural development. Then how does this affect the way we perceive reality? Inside their own cultural circle people will usually feel at ease and within their comfort zone, and, contrastingly confused, insecure and possibly socially uncomfortable if they imagine or consider this familiar cultural setting crumbling away. Culture is thus clearly part of the way we experience the world emotionally and in real terms. Inuits have 27 different expressions for ‘snow‘, which plays an existential role in their culture in terms of hunting and feeding their families. The young Swedish woman felt flattered as the Tuareg mentioned her bright blue eyes, without knowing that in the desert, blue-eyed female dromedaries have a reputation for being particularly stubborn and devious.
    Numerous examples show how people think they describe things objectively via their senses, yet which are being interpreted in entirely different ways, influenced by the culture involved. For this reason, behaviour patterns shaped by culture and cultural values are always subjective by nature. All the available models devised to explain these phenomena have been influenced by the thought processes and philosophies of our western world. We know of no inter-cultural studies of either Asian, Oriental or African origin.

    @culture and how it influences our personalities

    We cannot choose which culture we belong to. We become part of a culture at birth, whether we wish to or not. We are all born either as American, English, German, Japanese or the citizen of another nationality. We are born either male or female and have no say in the choice of family we become part of. Given no alternatives or choice, we make do with the culture we are presented with. Our childhood and vocational education periods have profound effects on how our culture shapes us, for it is during this development phase up to our 25th birthday that our cultural operating system is programmed.
    Our education, training, choice of friends, the climate, the profession we choose and the company that eventually engages us, all of these are aspects influenced by our personal culture to become part and parcel of our personalities.

    @culture and social values

    What do we actually mean when we refer to culture? A culture is essentially a set of beliefs and values belonging to a community which is then manifested in the behaviour of its individual members. This applies to organisations as well as nation states. In anthropological terms homo sapiens are not supplied with natural instincts to facilitate their cooperation within large, anonymous groups. The social norms we employ to bond us together originate neither from innate instincts nor personal relationships, they result, rather, from our sets of common myths, beliefs and values, for which our ancestors developed an abstract, symbolic language. We are quite able to precisely describe a tree growing outside our front door, without much risk of anyone strongly disagreeing with what we say we can see. However, terms such as freedom, equality or responsibility are of an entirely different order. An abstract language had to be developed in order to instil larger communities with value systems – as well as, in particular, to bind them together.

    @culture and impressions of `freedom´

    Whilst in the USA freedom is interpreted as the smallest possible degree of state intervention in the lives of its citizens – in addition to the right of individuals to protect their property – European cultures, such as Sweden, define the term very differently. Here freedom is interpreted as resting on power and responsibility being shared by as many of the relevant groups in society as possible. People tend to have faith in universal, fundamental principles not necessarily because they symbolize ultimate wisdom, but because they have proven to facilitate social coexistence between all citizens. The same applies to the concept of equality. For example, both German and Dutch cultures deem equality to mean equal opportunities being extended to all social classes, in terms of healthcare, education and social welfare systems. Americans find this inconceivable. Equality means being treated equally before the law. Yet even when we use the same terms in our fictitious symbolic language, the values they represent remain entirely different … and these are all examples from the Western world. Communication with cultural spheres from other continents, across Eurasia or Asia, is a different ball game entirely. We ourselves can be rather intolerant when it comes to questioning our own cultural values, never mind appreciating the values of others and becoming reconciled with them.

    @culture and tolerance

    `Culture is a little like dropping Aspirin into a glass — you don’t see it, but somehow it does something.´ This quote from Hans Markus Enzensberger explains the vague impressions we face when trying to deal with cultural differences. As a result of their histories, English and American citizens possess quite marked “inter-cultural“ sensitivity. They are able to perceive differences, accept and frequently adapt them and their respective strengths to integrate them within their own communities. Many other nationalities have a more “intra-cultural“ perspective, whereby differences are ignored, minimised, or they are acknowledged but then evaluated rather sceptically or negatively. As homo sapiens we are not exactly famous for our levels of tolerance. Throughout the history of our species, a tiny difference in skin tone, dialect or religion has often been abused as cause enough for one group to annihilate another. The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has calculated that more than 14,500 wars have been fought since the year 3,600 BC. These resulted in the deaths of 3 billion, 64 million people. During only 292 of these roughly 5,600 years did no war take place. Since 1945 there have been around 150 wars, leading to an estimated 50 million people losing their lives (of which only 10% were soldiers!). Nonetheless, over the past 45,000 years (the era of Homo Sapiens) we have managed to increase the world’s population to the impressive total of over 7 billion. Meaning the cultural evolution has been a great success story – hasn’t it?

    @culture and cooperation

    How are we different to animals? Our genetic make-up is only marginally different to theirs; after all, equipped with ‘only’ 22,000 of them, humans have fewer genes than water fleas do. Our respective behavioural repertoires exhibit marked parallels, whilst animals are similarly able to communicate verbally and non-verbally. They express empathy in a way similar to us humans, and living conditions clearly influence their social behaviour patterns, which show distinct correlations to similar human behaviour. However, there is one marked difference: only very few species resemble humans in being capable of living and working efficiently and successfully in (inter-cultural) communities. We have never heard of lions and leopards conducting joint hunts for antelopes. Seeking synergies and cooperation mark us out as different to other creatures living on this planet, which is even more remarkable for the fact that neither behavioural trait is genetically pre-determined. An individual’s motivation to cooperate, as well as any benefits to a community, arise from inter-cultural intelligence. Or, to put it another way, we humans are prepared to invest in cooperation and synergies when we share the same values and beliefs within a community, or in cases when we can predict personal benefits or developments will result from cooperating. Our own individual self-awareness is dependent on our abilities to participate in a cultural system, to communicate and work together with other humans and to learn from others.

    @culture and family

    Our first brain cells develop 42 days following insemination, yet 120 days later we as embryos have already amassed 100,000,000,000 neurons – and by the day we are born these 100 billion brain cells will have created 15,000 short-term neuronal links between them. At birth, humans are endowed with almost limitless talents and abilities, although by age 18 almost half of these possibilities will have been lost. Which of these abilities are retained depends to a great degree on the type of family we are born into.
    Across all cultures and societies on every continent, the family represents the primal example of all communities. In France to the same extent as in Irak, China or Peru. The matrix of all family communities in every type of society is essentially the same, made up of a framework comprising individuality, authority, an understanding on one’s role within the family, rituals and a set of rules defining what is required and what is forbidden.
    Even though fathers generally assume the mantle of authority within a family (although matriarchal structures are on the increase), today they may also become dependent on the ‘technical authority’ of their children, for instance when it comes to the knowledge and skills required to set up a computer. Mothers frequently fulfil and perform a balancing role designed to keep the community intact. Once teenagers discover their own individuality, at around the age of 15, they find it increasingly difficult to assume a functional role within the community, tending, instead, to begin to question the way roles are assigned as well as the community’s basic rules – thus becoming a challenge for any parent. Families have been shaping who we are, what we do and how we do it for thousands of years.
    The gradual changes observable in the structures of family values and rules are a manifestation of cultural evolution.
    Let’s look at America as an example:
    The influence exerted over families by the state in the year the American Declaration of Independence (1776) was signed was limited. Extended families consisting of three or even four generations of used to live together in small, local communities. All economic and political matters, along with laws and their enactment, were decided locally – or at a regional level, at best. Power bases were located within the structures of local communities, making individuals both dependent upon them, yet also protected by them socially and economically.
    Today, around 250 years later, developments in national and global markets, along with an increase in the influence the state exerts on all social classes, have made lasting changes to the image of the American family. In today’s two-generational family (3.7 members plus a dog or a cat), individual family members become specialised in specific areas of knowledge, are highly functional and connected to others beyond their region, are mobile and use their local communities as platforms for their own professional networks. Individuality gets the better of community. Nowadays, who knows who their neighbour is?

    Is culture dynamic? Culturally-determined norms and values tend to change over a period of several generations, whereby the robustly-anchored, deep social roots remain intact to further nurture the tree they serve. Nevertheless, the evolution of the social system has also altered those coordinates shaped by culture. The development towards market economy oriented democracies in the western world has affected major changes to the family and thus to society itself

    @culture and behaviour

    Let us now take a closer look at our range of culturally influenced behaviour patterns. I can only truly maintain respect for myself and others once I genuinely understand both myself and the other person’s culture. Mostly attracted by appealing local climatic conditions of sun, the sea and beaches, we all love to travel abroad to get to know other countries. However, hidden within the confines hotel complexes developed by our mass tourism, we remain shut off from the actual habits and customs of other countries – unable to get to know them. Even for those of us who travel individually, the scope of things to experience is usually limited to those elements of a culture, such as architecture, Art, culinary specialities, clothes, music, the language, literature – gestures and expressions – that are visible. In business circles, rituals and formalities (such as how do I hand over my business card – whom do I greet, when, and how?) are quickly grasped, whilst we learn next to nothing about the nature and substance of our foreign business partners’ culture. Yet it is the intangible, the hidden characteristics and traits of a culture, in particular, which lead to understanding its roots.
    It is essential to address the system of norms and values of a person’s culture to be able to effectively communicate with and comprehend them, for only then are we able to understand behavioural patterns and build up trust and respect. What makes people so distinctive and unique? How do people express their identities and personalities? Moreover, what makes up a person’s identity? It is expressed first and foremost through their individuality, that special combination of talents and character they were born with to help master life’s challenges. Whether furniture-maker, manager or university professor, each of us possesses special talents and unique characteristics that go to defining and forming our personal identities. Identity is also partly how we understand our social roles, the ways in which we adapt and approach others – how we are able to engage with them. Other essential aspects of our personal identities involve how important communities are to us and how we deal with them. But which other aspects go to making up our personalities? “What we do” and “who we think” are certainly also key features. A furniture-maker will more than likely be ‘a man of action’, whilst a university professor, as a man of knowledge, will be more someone who establishes a laws, rules and theoretical foundations. Action and theory, planning and execution form polar opposites that have decisive effects on our personal identities. Our cultures are formed from the sum of our personal identities within a community. For example, Anglo-Saxon cultures tends to be far more action-oriented than Mediterranean cultures – which themselves are more process-oriented. The most important thing to remember is, cultures have a major, lasting influence on our identities!

    @practice-related insights

    At a seminar for Cross Culture Team-building we asked our German participants to explain to their Japanese colleagues the traditional German mood of ‘conviviality’ (Gemütlichkeit).
    After half an hour all of the Japanese participants were singing along to “ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit“, yet not one of them was able to describe the term – or the emotional state – of German conviviality as occasions when constraints and obligations are put on hold.
    To turn the tables we then asked our Japanese participants to explain to their German colleagues what ‘Omoiyari’ means – it is a deep, personal attitude towards other people for which no expression exists. Culturally-driven, emotional spheres of experience – our comfort zones – exist which others cannot truly participate in. The important thing here is not to try to understand, but to simply and purely foster respect for one-another.
    “If we fail to heed the feelings of others, we lose the yardstick for our behaviour” (Dalai Lama)