Walls That Block Communication
ROBERT is a Watch Tower missionary who lives in Sierra Leone, West Africa. One day shortly after his arrival in the country, as he walked along the road, he noticed that the local children were chanting: “White man! White man!” Robert, who is a black American, looked around for the white man, but no one else was there. He then realized that the children were directing their cries toward him!
There was no maliciousness in the chanting. The children were merely voicing their recognition that Robert came from a culture that differed from their own. Calling Robert a white man was the best way they could think of to give voice to that difference.
How Culture Influences Who We Are
Culture has been broadly defined as “a set of shared ideas, . . . the customs, beliefs, and knowledge that characterize a way of life.” We learn many cultural values through direct teaching, but we also absorb much without even being aware of it. Said one researcher: “From the moment of [a child’s] birth the customs into which he is born shape his experience and behaviour. By the time he can talk, he is the little creature of his culture, and by the time he is grown and able to take part in its activities, its habits are his habits, its beliefs his beliefs, its impossibilities his impossibilities.”
In many ways culture makes life easier for us. As children we quickly learn how to please our parents. Knowing what is acceptable in our society and what is not guides us in making decisions about how to act, what to wear, and how to relate to others.
Of course, what we are as individuals does not depend on just our cultural background. Within every culture there are variations among people. Who we are is also determined by genetics, our experiences in life, and a host of other factors. Nevertheless, culture is a lens through which we see the world.
Our culture, for example, decides not only the language we speak but how we speak it. In parts of the Middle East, people value the ability to express themselves skillfully with many words, using repetition and metaphor. In contrast, the people of some Far Eastern countries keep verbal communication to a minimum. A Japanese proverb reflects this view: “By your mouth you shall perish.”
Our culture governs how we view time. In Switzerland if you are ten minutes late for an appointment, you are expected to apologize. In other countries you can be an hour or two late and little apology would be looked for.
Our culture also teaches us values. Think how you would feel if someone said to you: “You are putting on a lot of weight. You are really getting fat!” If you grew up in an African culture where heftiness is valued, you would likely feel happy at the remark. But if you were raised in a Western culture where slimness is highly esteemed, the frank comment would likely upset you.
‘Our Way Is Best!’
What so often hinders communication between those of different cultures is that people everywhere tend to assume that their own culture is better. Most of us think that our beliefs, values, traditions, style of dress, and ideas about beauty are correct, proper, and better than any alternative. We also tend to judge other cultures according to the values of our own group. Such thinking is called ethnocentrism. The New Encyclopædia Britannica observes: “Ethnocentrism . . . may be said to be almost universal. Members of nearly all the world’s cultures regard their own way of life as superior to that of even closely related neighbours.”
Two hundred years ago, an English squire put the matter bluntly, saying: “[From what] I see, foreigners are fools.” The editor of the book of quotations in which these words appear wrote: “[This] must come as close to being a universal sentiment as has ever been uttered.”
Examples of intolerance toward those of other cultures abound. Though originally penned by a German novelist in the 1930’s, the following quotation is often attributed to Nazi leader Hermann Göring: “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver.”
Strong ethnocentric views can lead to discrimination, which in turn may lead to hostility and conflict. Richard Goldstone is the prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal investigating war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Concerning the barbaric acts in both conflicts, he said: “This sort of thing can happen anywhere. Here you have two separate lands, with distinct cultures and histories, yet similar atrocities [are] committed by neighbor against neighbor. This kind of brutal ethnic or religious warfare is just discrimination taken to a violent phase. The victimized group must be dehumanized or demonized. Once this is done, it frees ordinary people from the moral restraints that would normally inhibit them [from] doing such terrible things.”
Broadening Our Outlook
Usually the people we choose to be our friends are those much like ourselves, people who share our attitudes and values. We trust and understand them. We feel relaxed in their company. If we view the behavior of another person as odd or abnormal, our friends will probably agree with us because our friends share our biases.
What, then, can we gain by communicating with others who differ from us because of cultural background? For one thing, good communication will help us to understand the reasons why others think and act as they do. Kunle, a West African, says: “Many children in Africa are strongly discouraged from talking while eating a meal. In some European countries, however, conversation at mealtimes is encouraged. What happens when the European shares a meal with the African? The European wonders why the African seems to brood silently over his meal. Meanwhile, the African wonders why the European is chattering away like a bird!” Clearly, in such situations, mutual understanding of each other’s cultural background can do much to remove social prejudice.
As we come to know people of other cultures, not only do we improve our understanding of others but we also understand ourselves better. An anthropologist wrote: “The last thing which a dweller in the deep sea would discover would be water. He would become conscious of its existence only if some accident brought him to the surface and introduced him to air. . . . The ability to see the culture of one’s own society as a whole . . . calls for a degree of objectivity which is rarely if ever achieved.” Nevertheless, by exposing ourselves to other cultures, we are like the sea dweller who is introduced to air; we become aware of the cultural “waters” in which we live. Writer Thomas Abercrombie expressed the matter nicely: “One never seduced by a foreign culture can never appreciate the fetters of his own.”
In short, an appreciation of other cultures can enrich our lives by broadening our outlook, so that we better understand both ourselves and others. While cultural heritage and ethnocentric thinking can be walls against communication, they do not have to be. Those walls can be breached.
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“Members of nearly all the world’s cultures regard their own way of life as superior to that of even closely related neighbours.”—The New Encyclopædia Britannica
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We can learn to enjoy the good things of other cultures
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