What is Culture?
We were at home for Christmas, and enjoying our two-and-a-half-year-old niece Morgan. Edith's brother George was videotaping Morgan then decided to show her some of herself in the video. We found it interesting that she could not identify the child in the video as herself.
I then observed that when Morgan saw herself in a mirror, she could readily tell us that she was seeing herself. I was intrigued by this commentary on self-identity. This made me reflect on our self-awareness, our self-identification.
Possibilities for Self-Identity
It takes a while to recognize the possibilities for self-identity. How do we enable our children to develop a social identity, to become part of the society? How do we communicate our expectations for relating to others around them? This varies from one society or culture to another.
I remember when we were living in Africa, where our two children were born. When our first child was in a stroller, Edith would go out walking in the community. Edith told me of an interesting experience she had. She was walking along pushing Gareth in the stroller, and talking to the baby, as she usually did.
A Kenyan woman walking by stopped and observed, then asked Edith, "Can he understand you?" Edith explained that he could not understand yet, but he could hear her, and that was how he would learn to talk.
Edith and I always talked to our children like real people, using real language. We never used "baby talk." We wanted them to hear a correct model of language, as well as observe a correct Christian social model.
This illustrates a difference in how parents of different cultures relate to their children, what different approaches they take to socialize their children. Europeans as a whole stimulate their children more than Africans do, playing grasping games and other games of coordination.
American children are given toys to stimulate their dexterity and hand-eye coordination. Americans talk to their children, hold their hands to encourage them to walk and make it a matter of record, if not pride, at what age a child first talks or walks.
On the other hand African children are often carried on the mother's back, or the back of an older sibling until they are quite old. Usually an African child begins speaking at quite a later age than for a European child. This is changing with the younger, educated urban Kenyan generation, whose lifestyle and values are taking on more similarities with the western life.
There are different expectations and different methods of socialization from one culture to another. This affects physical development, but also affects the mental attitude of independence, aggression, initiative and expectations.
After all the early stimulation by their families, European children then go to school for decades of development and socialization. A major purpose of a school comes to be helping children keep within acceptable boundaries and fulfill certain expectations, in order to be "successful" in society. That is, school is a socializing institution, teaching and enforcing certain norms of behavior and performance.
As America became more culturally diverse in the last 30 years of the 20th century, many social battles have been fought over the schools, and what should or should not go on there, what clubs should be allowed, what influences should be allowed, which ones might be officially sponsored, and which ones allowed as unofficial and voluntary student activities.
Different Socialization Experiences
People in another culture have gone through different experiences of socialization. Culture may be thought of as the Shared Significant Experiences of a group of people. We allow and require our children to take part in the most significant experiences of our society. This is their "culture," their social identity.
We argue them into it by phrases like "It will be good for you," "You'll need to know how to do this yourself some day," "You'll be glad you did this when you grow up," or "It will make you a better person," or "People expect you to do this," or "It is the right thing to do."
Then each small group we are part of, even each company or agency we might work for, has its own "culture," its requirements for membership, and incorporates newcomers in somewhat prescribed ways.
In working with people of another culture, we should not judge too harshly or challenge unrealistically. Keep in mind the context: the assumptions and expectations of their home culture. They may have been socialized differently than you were. They may not have thought about or reacted against their socialization any more than you did.
When people of different cultures work together or live together, negotiation must occur. Many times the negotiation will be natural and subconscious. Negotiation occurs between groups of people from two or more cultures, between the differing assumptions and expectations of their home cultures. Sometimes cultural differences are so great and conflicts so important that various groups have trouble handling this.
In recent decades Great Britain has experienced sometimes violent conflicts between various culture groups as people from all over the "Empire" have "come home." Sometimes the cultural differences have been difficult to "negotiate."
The more consciously we are aware of this process, the better we can participate in the process and guide it, heading off conflicts, and fostering cooperation and understanding, and ideally, rise to a transcultural level.
Have a good transcultural day!
Accents - Developing and Changing Them
Culture and Shared Experiences
Ethnicity and Nationality in Mixed Genetics
How Words Develop Multiple Meanings: How Word Meanings are Negotiated
Shared Significant Experiences
Original version published in the series "What is Culture?" in Focus
on Communication Effectiveness, June 1997
This version written and posted 21 June 2001
Last modified 21 March 2013
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 1992, 2001
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.
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