IT was a peculiar feeling. Once I learned that a nod means “no”, and a shake of the head means “yes”, trying to carry on a conversation in Bulgaria — even with English speakers — became a bad attack of mental stumbling.
To run into reversed understandings of gestures I’d grown up with made me feel far more awkward than my confusions with the Cyrillic script on signposts or my efforts to intelligibly pronounce the few words I’d tried to learn.
Someone would comment on, say, the splendid weather. I’d clench my neck muscles to suppress any reaction until I’d thought the gesture thing through. By the time I had a warm, agreement-emphasising shake of the head ready to go, it would be too late. I found it difficult to pair a happy face with a shaking of my head, or a “no way” face with a vigorous nod. I must have looked as socially engaged as a traumatised turtle.Things like this are difficult for us.
So the eye contact we unthinkingly make as a show of recognition and interest in our Anglo-European way is offensive to some people, not least to those of most native North American and Pacific cultures. Such things are difficult to remember on the spot and in the flow of conversation, but they can turn the words we utter upside down in the hearing of the other person.
We’re each born into a culture, even more decisively than into a family. For better or for worse, whatever we have by way of a “family” is also embedded into the culture… even the notion of “family” is defined by the culture.
Culture began for us as we learned to speak our “native language” and began to respond to circumstances around us. Culture was the ghostly, ever-present interface between our startled newborn souls and all of the uncertainties that stretched beyond us. As our patterns-seeking infant minds found order in the regularities, imagery, consequences, emotions, harmonies and disharmonies around us, our culture took root. It swaddled us into the highly nuanced order that was being asserted by all those who inhabited our interactions, and each of us became one of them.
Our values, absorbed in infancy, steer us and provide filters through which we interpret our ongoing experience. We fall back on them out of habit and when we’re confused, usually unconsciously. To speak a language is to express culture, to know what and how to eat and how to deal with our bodily functions are expressions of culture; to interact with another human being or to claim privacy, these are expressions of culture. Our culture is the social air we breathe. Without it, we’d be alone, we’d know nothing, and we’d have nothing to say.
Culture animates and sustains us; it invigorates and informs our experience of life and sets our trajectory into the future with a precision few other influences achieve. It is necessary to us.
Culture is our social universe. It primes us to accept sets of “certainties”, “truths” and basic premises. If our “hard drive” is physiology, culture is the “operating system and software”. Experience is the “data”. And, by the time we start thinking about tinkering with the software, it has already shaped us: the way we think, the things we tend to think about and the way we see and understand ourselves.
Anthropology — the academic study of cultures — began as a search for universals of human social behaviour. Pervaded by evolutionary thinking, it looked towards a fallacious hierarchical model that, had it been proven, would have vindicated the “rise” of (our) rational “civilisation”. It was a very polite, scholarly form of white supremacism.
It proved to be one of the unluckier disciplines and, of course, anthropology was itself the creation of culturally-formed curiosity. But something anthropologists did find was a thrilling variety of ways to approach and understand the complexities of human existence and survival. At that point, anthropology seemed to lose confidence, faced as it was with the impossibility of collapsing the wisdom of entire cultures into succinct functionalist summaries and nitpicking theoretical critiques for academic journals. All cultures are too complicated, internally co-ordinated, responsive and ductile for that.
It isn’t simple. Within a culture, there are roles and subcultures that produce displays of diversity, conflict and conformity… but even the conflict is recognised and addressed in terms the culture has established. To get what this really means, we can only reflect on cultures in which, for example, it has never seemed necessary to measure time so much as seasons, count above three or four, own land, create “money” or have a public transit system. Or we might try to understand highly complex and nuanced cultures in which people routinely consult long-dead ancestors, take dreams seriously or start explaining their extensive and effective pharmacopoeia in terms of plant songs.
It goes without saying that our first impulse will be to rate other cultures unfavourably in comparisons with our own: we all like to use our own toothbrushes. We assume our lives are enviable to those who aren’t part of them, and that what pleases us should please everyone. We consider ourselves rational, reasonable, objective, successful, clever, effective and moral… in a word, “right”. But these are all culturally established values, defined and given their worth by the culture that gave us the stuff of our consciousness.
It’s only when we start drawing up a hard-headed list of the shortcomings we see in our “civilisation” that we start seeing that other cultures might have some helpful insights to offer us, should we take the time and trouble to pay attention.
“True” cultures sustain a social order and sensations of meaning and significance — and we still have access to these — but what we know as Westernisation is something different. A fluid conflation of individualism, materialism, technocracy, capitalism, opportunism, pragmatism and militarism, it has some crucial moral, aesthetic, emotional and philosophical blindspots. Its ethos is to attempt whatever society will let it get away with (which is at once liberating and predatory), and turn to advantage anything that’s not screwed down. It is not a culture so much as an engine of cultural destabilisation and change. It’s what Margaret Thatcher meant when she declared “there’s no such thing as society.”
“Progress” — and what has been called “postmodernism” — has, for example, seen Westernised “celebrity” supplant cultural “heroism” as a desideratum, and Westernised “image” supplant cultural “content”… and so on. “Opinion” replaces “conclusion”, “technique” replaces “method”, “popularity” replaces “virtue”, “entertainment” replaces “art”, “success” replaces “respect”; “information” replaces “wisdom”… the fast, the dirtily direct, the easy, the immediate — feeling good rather that doing good — moves very much to the fore. A generation or two ago in the West, all of this was scarcely foreseeable and, in many ways, “culture” is finding itself stretched to screaming point as dynamic Westernisation tries to tow “society” along… like a speedboat burying its stern as it high-throttles to haul a barge. Between the two, there may be plenty of options but the choices are not easily made.
So it does seem to hold some lessons for us, this business of cultural critique. But it’s difficult to see one’s own culture with a whole lot of clarity. How does a goldfish see its bowl? What does it know of things beyond? That is where we are: bumping at our bowl, like goldfish, not to break the glass and plunge into some different cultural universe but to give clearer definition to our own.
We need to reach the horizon and look beyond. It may be disorienting at first but it is fundamentally liberating to encounter in other cultures new, clearer insights into the world that’s closest to us.
The horizon’s a tricky place to be. To look beyond it, we need a different set of eyes: eyes more forgiving, almost forgetful. We need to remember that early reactions are bound to be misleading. All cultures have a “dark” side and a benign side. Stressed, they generally show the snarl of their dark side; unstressed and feeling successful, goodness is more likely to shine forth.
Migration is such a feature of modern life that it’s not overly hard to start meeting people who are from, and familiar with, other cultures. In North America there are ethnic festivals, pow-wows and other gatherings that can orient strangers to an unfamiliar culture. In Europe, whole cultures lie cheek to jowl with each other. We can learn from indigenous cultures and new immigrants… and there are language classes and books that can help a stranger prepare for a visit. And purposeful travel is the best option.
Developing a particular interest that’s relevant to a culture, a genuine curiosity, is bound to open all sorts of doors. Learning a little of the language, seeking to understand its religion, its art, its history and philosophy, tasting the food, hearing the music, observing the etiquette, respecting the protocols, discovering its deeper values and, most of all, entering into a genuine interest in the adventure of it all, can be a liberating, friends-making and thoroughly enlarging experience.
Learning to understand another culture is an exercise in uncritical watching and sympathetic seeing. The first things we notice are the details of often-superficial difference. Foods often seem odd but it’s rare for any culture to make a staple of meals that are not nourishing, enjoyable and healthy. Food, and ideas about food, can be one of the great rewards of travel.
So, too, can the arts. Music that strikes us at first as strange or unintelligible, listened to patiently and with an open mind will suddenly fall into coherence and excite us.
But it’s only as the details and first impressions start connecting that we start to sense what it is all about. There are ways in which a culture can be counted on to make sense of life and generate genuine satisfactions for its members. And these can stir us to insights into our own values and encourage us to live more freely, more satisfyingly, more fully.
It is to our hazard that “culture” so little preoccupies us… and that is where our danger lies. Few societies have been totally overwhelmed by conquering enemies: invasions, occupations and even attempted genocides have tended, rather, to provoke resistance and subsequent cultural revival. Rather, most of history’s fallen nations and empires, died first at the centre and collapsed around it. They outgrew, over-stretched or outran the sustaining capacities of their culture.
There is nothing but gain to be had from discovering some other culture and charting it for ourselves — doing so helps to clear our eyes and see more clearly the values and culture we live by; it enhances our ability to understand who we are; it gives us a more secure place from which to chart our own narratives and culture and take our places in them…
And we need to talk about our values: they lie at the heart of whatever it is that we will become. They are the denoninators of our humanity. We need to make them clear to ourselves, and stand them in the sunlight to flourish.
Without some sort of clarity, our purposes will be vague, our intentions fickle, and we are likely to see their being colonised by interests that will try very hard to turn them to their own ends.
The risk is not that we’re likely to be forced to serve the designs of others; it’s that we may too easily be persuaded to.