In Part I of this series, we started to analyze the different strategies adults can use to improve their understanding of cultures, to become bicultural, increase harmony around them, and enjoy their interactions with persons from other cultures. The world we are living in today is becoming increasingly diverse and the trend is not showing signs of reversing itself. Furthermore, today’s children will live and work in a world that is a lot more diverse and culturally integrated than the one we currently live in.
I grew up in the rain forest, surrounded by trees which have a great impact in our lives and in the way we think. Since the day that I was born and a tree was planted to welcome me on earth, I have a lot of respect for trees in general. Actually, I see a tree analogy in most aspects of life everywhere I find myself. For example, the notion of culture and its multiple covered and opened facets is often difficult for people to comprehend. In my training, I use the tree analogy to illustration the understanding of the concept of culture.
When describing a tree, we would most likely limit our recount of its parts to those that we obviously perceive: branches, leaves, flowers, fruits. By doing so, we often ignore the single most important elements of the tree without which it would not even be in existence, the roots. As we admire the beauty of flowers, for example, how often do we pull out a flower’s stem to see what the roots look like? Similarly, the description of a culture is often restricted to the exterior representations of that culture: food, costumes, music and dance, language... The unseen and not often understood parts of the culture are those that guide the exterior behaviors and attitudes that we perceive. They are what I describe as “the roots of culture,” the societal and personal values, traditions and beliefs system.
To better understand a culture, we must understand its roots. When faced with cultural differences and unfamiliar behaviors we tend to pull out and impose our own cultural roots in an effort to dispel the ambiguity created by the new and unusual situation. We are unlikely to suspend our judgment about the differences because we assume unconsciously that our own ways are normal, natural and right. The more the other culture’s behaviors seem distant from our own, the more they will be considered abnormal, unnatural, strange and wrong.
As much as you possibly can, create new ways of thinking and avoid looking at cultural differences in “good versus bad” or “right versus wrong” way, even when mistakes are made. The polarity-management thinking “both/and” is more effective than “either/or,” “my-way-or-your-way” thinking that most people adopt when sorting out cultural uncertainties.
As you face new cultures, it is critical to develop an open-mind and accept differences. Develop patience and understanding of cultural roots, yours and others’. Just because the roots of your culture are different from the ones of others does not mean that theirs are wrong. Remember the time when an Apple floppy disc inserted in a computer gave you a “this disc is not readable” message. That did not mean that one item, the disc or the computer, was wrong. It was only because their “cultural roots” were different. In the same token, just because you do not understand a language does not mean that it is a bad language.
Emmanuel Ngomsi, Ph.D.is President of All World Languages and Cultures, Inc. He educates and coaches on issues of cultures and diversity. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org