When I’ve tried to talk to colleagues and students about culture- more often than not -I get the answer that people are too diverse to be able to put them into any sort of classification. Is it true that we can have no idea how a group of people who share the same culture may be similar?
Is it true that culture has become irrelevant? Is there nothing for you to learn about culture that would help you converse with someone from another culture? I remember when I was moving to Germany, I wondered how they would react to an African-American woman, and my grandmother said, “Honey, they got cable T.V. .” Growing up, I remember watching “cable” where the exotic “natives” hunched over some small kill that they were eating at an open fire. Always filmed from a distance as their language and ways were unknown. The camera filmed their backs as music played and the commentator labelled the group “Still a mystery”.
I think the answer to the relevancy of culture is two-fold: although globalization has helped more affluent cultures to open their electronic borders and to travel to more destinations cheaply and easily, this access has not reached every corner of the globe. Developing countries are underrepresented, as well as cultures that are ruled by dictatorship or oligarchy.
As a language learner, how much should you try to learn about a national culture? Most nations are not globalists but nationalists. Watching regional news channels as opposed to CNN or the BBC. Cultures are built from within the borders of communities. For example, only some years ago you could find American city children who thought eggs came solely from the grocery store or had only seen flowers wrapped in cellophane. Agricultural cultures would find this disconnection bizarre. You can still see Germans carrying six-year-olds through the airport, while you see American four-year-olds in the airport carrying their own luggage. Upbringing definitely informs how a person thinks, but for the most part it reflects the culture the person was born into.
We are all different in a million ways, nevertheless we can gain some insight into how someone might behave applying some knowledge of culture. Culture, however, is not synonymous with skin colour. A person’s colour cannot tell you what culture they were brought up in, as there are Asian Canadians, Black Scotsmen, French Arabs, and so on and so on. Thinking we can just look at someone’s skin colour and know their culture is like thinking we can tell what someone had for breakfast by the way they smile.
We should talk to one another about our cultures, and how we were raised. We should strive to have an open mind to beliefs that differ from our own. It’s easy to forget as cultures converge on one another in the office and on the street that people are coming from different understandings about what is normal. Cultural misunderstandings are still prone to happening. Culture is not a soup where you can boil everyone down to a bland grey mush. Culture is more of a sizzling stir-fry, where we should seek to build on one another’s differences, blend together and include everyone.