Thursday, September 23, 2010

It's an 'Ethnic Thing'

I read the most fascinating commentary on how culture shapes our tendencies, pre-conceptions, reactions, communication style, etc. At the risk of sounding completely naive here, cross-cultural psychology is it's own field supported by tons of research. Of course, it's a given that you have to preempt any kind of discussion on culture with a big fat disclaimer -- stereotypes are dangerous, the individual is more than the culture of his ancestors, yadda, yadda, yadda.

It was just so refreshing to read about it in the book Outliers. 'Hofstede's Dimensions' in particular caught my interest. These measure how cultures differ on things such as 'individualism-collectivism' (how much a culture expects individuals to look after themselves), 'uncertainty avoidance' (how well a culture tolerates ambiguity), 'power distance index' (belief that power is distributed equally/unequally), 'long term orientation' (belief in perseverance over time). Why didn't I know about this when I was in university?

I can't help but personalize this by thinking of my own culture, which is a mix of western, asian, mediterranean, aboriginal. Even though I was raised plain 'ol 'Canadian', my parent's ancestry had a prominent effect on our lives. My Mom was raised British Asian in Africa. A staunch Catholic, fiercely loyal to the crown and anything English. It's a strange mix of cultures -- high loyalty and obligation to extended family and tradition yet a belief typical Indianisms such as karma, 'saving face' and 'the evil eye'.

And then there's my Dad. You'd think he was a Yankee -- brutally blunt, insensitive, not the least bit perceptive. My old man is a bull in a china shop and sadly, I'm a chip off the 'ol block. I'm not adept to reading body language or subtle language nuances in order to understand what is really being said. In fact, I dislike verbal language altogether. Sometimes I get so flustered when being formally spoken to, that I just want to yell "I don't understand what you're asking of me -- please spare me and just put it in writing!"

Here's an small example of cultural differences in my family that happened years ago when my Uncle Sal first arrived in Canada. He had come over for coffee -- here's what happened when my Mom left the room for a few minutes:

Dad: Here, help yourself to some cookies
Uncle Sal: Oh, um, that's very kind of you, but um, no thank you.
Dad: Are you sure? Ok, suit yourself.

My Mom returned and was appalled to see my Dad chowing down while my uncle sat silently with nothing on his plate. She later told my Dad off for being rude (actually back in those days my Mom would've never done such a thing; it took another 15 years before she finally woke up and decided to cease being a doormat, but I digress). When by Dad recounted what had happened, my mother told him that the conversation should've gone something like this:

Dad: Please, have some of these cookies.
Uncle Sal: Oh, um, that's very kind of you, but um, no thank you.
Dad: I insist, they are quite good.
Uncle Sal: Oh, no I couldn't.
Dad: Please, you must try them. Sarah made them especially for you. Here, let me put them on your plate.
Uncle Sal: Well, ok, if you insist. Thank you very much.

Granted, my Dad is not schooled in social graces. However, I don't think he was *that* rude really. One thing's for sure, there is no way in hell he would ever accommodate another culture by attenuating his words. "Spit it out" is his motto. And that's how he raised us -- to speak up and tell it like it is. Only, I'm finally learning that brutal honesty can hurt and that relationships matter more than telling people what you think. In fact it's better to just keep criticism to yourself. Jeesh, this post is supposed to be about cultural differences and I've gone and turned it into yet another one of my self-help spiels.

I'm grateful that I finally picked up Outliers. Cross-cultural psychology is fascinating. Maybe Gladwell is right after all when he suggests that "who we are cannot be separated from where we are from?"

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