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Friday, 14 December 2012

Why culture is just like an elephant

A few weeks ago I gave a workshop on transcultural communication for my friends over at Delft INA. It was a great experience except for two things: I tried to put too much info on my slides and I got way too nervous and I felt like I didn’t explain everything the way I wanted to. So I’d thought I’d use this blog to do a series of posts to cover what I presented in my workshop.

I started with a definition of culture, and I’ll tell you something: I spent a whole semester at University reading, discussing and thinking about this very topic. And the only way to explain what I have learned is this story.

It talks of 6 blind men who set out to find out what an elephant is like. They managed to land on different sides of the elephant, and described what they saw. Except, being little and blind, and the elephant being a huge animal, they didn’t see that they were actually describing different sides of the same thing. It’s the same with culture.

For ages researches have been trying to describe what culture is. The definitions, points of view and approaches change all the time. For example anthropologist Edward Taylor, thought that culture is the same as civilization. Others, such as Niklas Luhmann wanted to see society as very complex systems which could nevertheless be understood, quantified and analysed, and culture was just a part of the system.

Not everybody shares this positive approach to culture. In my presentation, I included a picture of a child standing in front of a mirror. Why would I do that? Every mom knows how important the moment is when the child first recognizes himself in the mirror. It is because for the first time, the child seems himself as an individual. At the same time, however, he can see himself with other people’s eyes, and that’s where culture comes in. Culture is not only there to support you. It is also there to make sure that everybody behaves in a certain way. It is about power relationships.

Finally, I mentioned the idea of the Panopticon, a building meant mainly as a prison, where one watcher could oversee a large amount of prisoners. The watcher’s tower looms in the middle so that the watcher sees everything. It is however not clear, whether there is a watcher in the tower or not, so all the inmates behave as if there was. And here you have it: sometimes, culture is like a prison.

Does this sound familiar? That you should always behave as if somebody was watching you because otherwise you’ll get punished? That you should always fear someone who you can’t even see? Yes, this is culture at its worst- this is especially visible in religions. They can be a great way to bond with people and to create a sense of unity, but they can also be used to shame and to judge.

I like the elephant metaphor because it is very accurate. The concept of culture is big (like an elephant) and we can only describe parts of it. There are more approaches, methods, models, like the Iceberg Model or the 7 dimensions model, and many many more.

Also, just like an elephant, culture can be helpful in carrying heavy loads (such as dealing with a world that is unpredictable, or being a part of a certain society). However, just like an elephant, culture can crush you.  

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