Using culture as identity marker

Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language. (R. Williams 1983: 87)

I overheard the story of a boy coming home from Kindergarten to his mother. He told her about his friend with whom he had played soccer in the afternoon. His mother asked which friend he was referring to. “My best friend” he answered. “The one with the short hair, cool red shoes and who is really fast.“ The mother wasn’t quite sure which one of his many friends he really meant so her son continued to find attributes to describe him. “He has a really old bike, he talks a bit slow but has nice eyes. His mum bakes yummy cakes.” The next day when she picked up her son at the Kindergarten he gave her his hand and pointed at one to his friends walking away from the School area. “That’s my friend I played with yesterday” he said. His mother looked, surprised. The boy her son had tried to describe with so many words was coloured. Rather ashamed she told her friend that if she had described her sons's school friend and tried to distinguish him from his many other friends, she would have just said “He’s the coloured one”.

Culture is often used to simplify. But by doing so beauty and richness of detail is lost.

I use the word culture in this context as “software” of us human beings. Our cultural programming determines how we relate to space and time, how we prioritise and understand the world around us. It determines how we use language and how we respond in the light of risk or threats. But we can choose when and how to make culture an issue.
We usually refer to culture when we have a reason to do so. This may be to explain why we have a specific expectation or to point out difference or similarity. We may use culture in order to build a bridge of difference towards a group of people we do not wish to associate or belong to. 

A tendency I often observe is to generalise individual behaviour and to give it more weight by ascribing it to a group of persons who are clearly different (in obvious ways). If my business partner comes to a meeting 10min after our arranged meeting time I may say “Oh, Italians have a very flexible interpretation of time”, rather than saying “my business partner (individual) has a flexible interpretation of time.”

Culture is a convenient but very unaccurate identity marker and often used with a pointed finger.

Cultural intelligence (CQ) is when we use reflection and analysis of a specific moment or communication or behaviour to understand what we have in common and to find ways to build understanding. CQ is specific, exact and I build competence by seeking to understand my counterpart in the now.





Mark MoserComment