- the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.“20th century popular culture”
- a refined understanding or appreciation of culture.“men of culture”
- the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.“Caribbean culture”
- the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.“the emerging drug culture”
Culture is as much a part of your identity as the hair on your head—except you think about it a lot less . We ALL participate in multiple cultures while for the most part being completely unaware of it. Often, we think of other places as having a specific culture, whereas our own home is absent of it. To some, the idea of “culture” has become a sword to wield in defense of their roots. Conversely, it isn’t unusual for one group to disparage the culture of another group—largely without understanding the first thing about the “other”.
Think about all the cultures that you, individually, are a member of: the human race, your country-region-state-particular part of state, your city, town, or rural home, your ancestry, your family, your job, your place of worship, your clubs, your friend group. So many norms and customs go into the make up of any and all of these cultures.
Part 1: Try the Food
I am reminded of the first Christmas I spent with the Kentucky side of my husband’s family. We had just gotten engaged and were still in that era of trying to spend the whole holiday as we had previously as single people. In other words–we managed to see everyone across two states. For a noon meal at my Great-Aunt Dorothy’s in Baltimore, Ohio, we had a lovely meal of ham, mashed potatoes, homemade rolls, green beans, iced tea, and a bunch of other deliciousness. We then hopped in the car to head to Richmond, Kentucky where we ate another delicious meal at Dan’s grandma’s house. Lillian, in the tradition of Southern cooks, I was about to find out, loved to cook with salt about as much as she loved to cook with sugar. I filled my plate with ham, mashed potatoes, homemade rolls, green beans, iced tea, and a bunch of other deliciousness. The potatoes and rolls were about the same, but the ham, beans and tea rocked my world. Rather, they rocked my tastebuds. Sooooooo salty! Except the tea, of course, which was soooooo sweet!
My point in all of this is that we were only one state away, and yet the cuisine had changed pretty markedly. If the food was this different, surely there were other cultural differences too. It has been a mostly wonderful, but sometimes confusing, journey to learn how cultures that appear quite similar might actually harbor profound differences when you take a closer look.
Besides cuisine, there have been variations in celebrations, language, habits, expectations, and values. I’m sure that anyone who has had close contact with friends or extended family from different regions of the country can attest to what I’m talking about.
Part 2: Learn the Language
As a Spanish teacher, I devoted my career to educating about Spanish-speaking cultures. Inevitably, there was a topic that my American students just couldn’t wrap their heads around; it was “weird”. My standard explanation was that it wasn’t “weird”, just different.
Part of my mission as a language teacher was that I firmly believe that one cannot appreciate another culture without speaking the language—at least rudimentarily. The language of any given culture tells you a whole lot about the people that speak it. Courtesy, humor, belief systems, and behavior are all tied inextricably and intricately to language. For example, in Spanish, there is a verb mood and tense that does not exist in English. The Imperfect Subjunctive (as my students will remember fondly—lol) is used to express actions that the speaker wanted to happen (but they didn’t), or that the speaker had some sort of emotion about, or that the speaker recommended, or doubted—in the past. This tense is also used to express very polite communications—the difference between “I want” and “I would like”. I could go on and on with my explanation of this, obviously, but I mention it here to illustrate the fact that there are nuances of expression in different languages that reveal cultural intricacies. Without knowing the language, you cannot truly know a different culture. If one is referencing a difference in culture in which the language is shared, there are still differences in vocabulary and experience which require interpretation.
Part 3: Appreciate the Arts
Recently, I had the pleasure of seeing Hugh Jackman in concert. During the show, Hugh told the story of helping to build homes in the Outback as a young man. The performance included beautiful footage of the Outback accompanied by two didgeridoo musicians and two aboriginal vocalists. Their music transported us from an arena in Detroit, to an exotic place on the other side of the world. It. was. cool.
At the end of the piece, Hugh asked them to say a few words and he explained that his purpose in presenting them was to try to heal our broken world with “reconciliation through culture.” Wow. I was dumbstruck. What a wonderful concept—share your culture with someone in a non-threatening, non-in-your-face way and at the same time open their hearts to a different way of seeing the world.
Part 4: Leave Your Comfort Zone
Over the next weeks, as I ruminated about Hugh’s words, I remembered listening to Alexandra Billings at the Human Rights Campaign Gala in Columbus, 2018. Her message was about positively affecting culture (in this case anti-LGBTQ culture) by extending a hand and meeting people on a personal level. Her premise was that if one can humanize and personalize the greater culture of a group, it becomes less threatening and more familiar. I. loved. it.
I’ve written before about the importance of travel to combat bigotry and its ugly friends, all the ‘isms. You really don’t have to travel far, though, to find a culture that is “foreign” to you. Engaging in an experience that is new to you is likely a good place to start: go to a museum, attend an educational program at your library, volunteer at a food kitchen, etc.
1 + 2 + 3 + 4= Harmony
Isn’t the lack of familiarity the reason that anyone fears anything from another culture? Because it’s “weird”? Once it becomes familiar, however, the “weirdness” rather dissipates. One might even start to enjoy and accept. Goodness knows, I’ve learned to love salty ham and sweet tea! I also love philosophical discussions in Spanish and listening to extraordinary music from the other end of the world. I have dear friends from all over the world and all over the spectrum. My life is all the richer because of all these experiences.
As a society, we can make more progress, more growth, if we extend a hand, try to educate, and learn about each other before judging. In fact, don’t judge at all. Welcome others into your culture and be OPEN to theirs. Look for new experiences. The worst thing that’ll happen is that you’ll be changed for the better–and like Glinda and Elphaba sing in “Wicked”–you’ll be changed for good.