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What is Culture?

How Do You Feel?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

I remember when our son Gareth was about 1 1/2 years old and excited about and intersted in everything. Once I remember his fascination with an electric socket in the wall. He was squatted down looking at it. After a few moments, as I watched, he slowly put his hand out towards the socket. I said a firm, but calm "No."

Learning the Feeling
He stopped his hand and looked up at me. I repeated "No!" He looked at the socket some more, then back at me. He slowly put out his hand again toward the socket, until he heard my "No" again. This went on a couple of more times, in Swahili and English, until he left the socket alone.

It was fascinating to watch as I could almost see the wheels turning in his brain, processing, learning, associating. He learned No! in three languages. Besides English, Swahili: Wacha! (actually "Leave it"!) and Kikuyu, spoken by our maid: Tiga! (also "Leave it"!) He developed an association of danger or urgency about that warning. This feeling was a part of what he learned.

Feeling the Meaning
The intonation, look on the face, the sounds of the word, the feeling of preventive pain, conditioning of the slight slap. These develop a feeling associated with that situation. That feeling is the meaning of those syllables. Various early rational and pre-rational experiences of this kind help us shape our early world.

Later experiences, initiated by others or initiated or chosen by the individual, expand our world view. The range of these experiences and the various types of input we experience give us our unique identity as human individuals. The range of experiences shared with others seems to be the basis of what we call society or culture.

Conditioning the Feelings
In entering a new society we need to go through certain conditioning experiences in the new culture which are different from those we have previously experienced in our home culture. We need to incorporate into our range of experiences the important basic experiences which people in the host culture share.

This will provide a more adequate basis of communication, easing and enhancing interpersonal relationships, fostering trust and acceptance of the newcomer-outsider.

The shared language of the host culture community is one major shared experience which greatly defines the local culture. The language is closely associated with other experiences, and provides a primary channel for inclusion in the experience of the host people.

Communication entails layers of common background, some of which are universal, but many of which are unique to a particular people group (ethnic group or language group).

Developing the Feel
In light of this model of culture, the great need of the newcomer is to experience enough of the common range of shared experiences in the new host culture to develop a feel for the local culture, an intuition of what is right and proper in various situations, a sense of expectation and of obligations, of likes and dislikes similar to those of the local people.

Practicing the Feel
The focus is appreciation and ability to relate in those terms. Just as an actor would, you must develop a feel for the character you are portraying in the new culture. Act it, practice it until it feels right.

It is a part you have to learn, practice and portray. This involves language, relationship, emotions, facial expressions, personality. So learn how to feel in your new culture.


First published as a general article in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, December 1993
This version posted 23 April 2002
Last edited 30 November 2004

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 1993, 2002
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.
Email: orville@jenkins.nu
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