Cultural Knowledge

Vonree G. Nelson • Writing 100 • Professor Mohamed Zefzaf • 1 DECEMBER, 2009

CousinsOne would be remiss not to educate themselves on the customs and values of other cultures.  When traveling, they may unwittingly commit cultural faux-pas, offending natives.  In “Norms”, Mary Fjeldstad noted that someone eating with their bare hands instead of silverware in America would evoke ridicule and criticism, while in some African villages, eating with hands is the custom, practiced on pain of sanction.  Someone from a different country speaking a different language could be the perfect spouse or an invaluable lifelong friend, but if you are alienated by their traditions and you can’t understand their language, communication is almost impossible and the relationship never develops.  In the work place, which is becoming increasingly multicultural, it is essential for people to work together efficiently to achieve goals.  When employees understand the cultures of their colleagues, they communicate more effectively which results in an increase in productivity.  Corporations depend on managers who understand the dynamics of multiple cultures to ensure this environment of synergy.  In a perfect world, everyone would have knowledge of culture.  Unfortunately we live in a historically intolerant world, where wars have been fought and countless lives have been lost due to simple differences in culture.

Our ability to understand other cultures is contingent upon the understanding of our own.  Our own culture is the part of education that occurs in the home.  It is the way parents speak, their mannerisms, their way of doing things, and their traditions.  It is the type of food they cook, the music they listen to, and the paintings they hang on their walls.  These are the things that shape our lives as human beings.  In an essay entitled “Culture”, Clyde Kluckhohn writes about meeting a young man who spoke no English in New York City.  The blond haired, blue eyed, American by blood had been orphaned and raised in a remote Chinese village.  Kluckhohn was impressed by the Chinese influence on the man’s body language and modes of thought.  He explains “The biological heritage was American but the cultural training had been Chinese.”

As a child, I attended a school with only a handful of minority students.  I was fascinated by the self segregation that was instinctually practiced by my monocultural classmates.  Being born into a multicultural family, I had no aversions to interacting with people who spoke and looked different; it was second nature to me.  Even at that young age, it was all too clear to me that my classmates had deemed me different, and this precluded them from interacting with me in the same way they would with the kids that looked more like themselves.  Consequently, my social experiences at school as an outsider differed dramatically from that of one among the herd.  This could be seen as a disadvantage, but to me, it was as if I had a bird’s eye view of the big picture from the start, while my classmates took years to develop their ability to see the forest for the trees.  The experience fostered a degree of social independence in me.  By the time I reached high school, I still observed segregation but it was based less on culture and more on socioeconomic background.

Every culture has its stereotypes.  This is neither good nor bad, but unfortunately stereotypical statements sometimes serve as fodder for the prejudice and intolerant. When we break down the stereotypes associated with our own culture, we become less inclined to base our knowledge and opinions about other cultures on their respective stereotypes. Many stereotypes are statements of absolutely no consequence, and upon closer examination, we usually discover that some of these assumptions are either erroneous or true of all people.  For example, the stereotype that Black people like fried chicken – So what?  Chicken is a fundamental staple in the diet of almost every culture.  After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the stereotype asserting that all Muslims are terrorists gained a lot of popularity.  It is simply a false and ridiculous claim.  The vast majority of Muslims condemn such acts of terror, just as the vast majority of Catholics condemn the IRA for its radical actions.  Extremists seeking to terrorize others can be found in any group.

A globalized economy means that more than ever before business is being done between companies based in different countries.  An American clothing company imports textiles from India; A British company builds computers with chips from Taiwan.  The companies employ multi lingual liaisons who well versed in the customs of other cultures to travel between countries, and strike lucrative business deals.  In marketing, it is essential to have knowledge of different cultures to produce ad campaigns that don’t alienate consumers.

Culture is interesting.  It explains a lot about a person.  We should take care not to let our differences divide us.  We should embrace the nuances of other cultures. In a presentation called “Cultural Journey”, Professor Mohamed Zefzaf notes that all humans are 99% genetically identical and we shouldn’t get hung up on less than a percent of difference.  Our culture gives us individuality which makes the world a much more interesting and vibrant place to spend a life time.  One would be remiss not to educate themselves on the cultures of others; they would miss out on many of life’s most precious gifts.

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