Introduction to Cultural Differences

I often think that cultural differences are common sense. I went to a high school with a diverse student body. The idea of being in an area where I don’t see various ethnic groups, and very obvious cultural clothing, is confusing. It gave me a basis for accepting that people are equal, but simply socially different. I did not find it odd to hear Spanish, or other languages, spoken in the hallways when I walked between classes. I expected it.

From there, I moved with my mother to Anchorage, AK. Anchorage is very different from Rockford, IL. I understand the Anchorage school district has over a hundred languages spoken among its students and their families. The culture, in some ways, is much like being in the south. I think my first experience with that was at 5th Avenue Mall. A couple of teenage boys held an elevator for me and my mother. Something I would have expected in areas of the south, but not in Rockford. Culture is simply different there.

Different cities are not the only cultural differences to keep in mind. Events that we often take for granted as being “normal” are perhaps “normal” for the social/ethnic group(s) we consider our own.

One example of this is funerals. I do not like using racial terms such as white and black. But for this example, I need to use them.

In 1990, or 1991, I went to the funeral of a student from West Middle School in Rockford, IL. I stood in the back near the deceased boy’s Boy Scout Troop. They stood stoically, refusing to cry. It is not socially appropriate for most “white” men to cry, nevertheless in public. Their friend was dead. A boy who apparently was trying to keep their spirits up in face of him dying. Lots of will power to save face.

Years later, in the spring of 1994, I attended a funeral of a student from Auburn High school in Rockford, IL. I sat with the other members of the social group that had included the teen boy who died. The difference for this funeral is that it was predominantly “black.” Two nurses had been hired to oversee the mourners. Emotions, although equally felt I am sure, were a lot more open.

There were definite common threads between the funerals. Friends of the deceased stood at the pulpit and told stories about who the deceased had been. They were very different young men and died in drastically different manners. But their loved ones concentrated on their lives. Even faced with the very different cultural views, the core was much the same.

Funerals are not the only cultural variations. Different cultures affect every walk of life. Marketing requires knowing these differences and trying to avoid offending people. In many cultures, an adorable puppy in advertisement is good for business. In areas where Islam is a major culture, puppies are a very bad idea because dogs are considered unclean, and therefore culturally offensive.

Marketing is not the only business aspect that needs a good cultural anthropologist. Behaviors that are required in one country are not always acceptable in another. In the United States of America, for example, it is considered appropriate to meet a boss’s eyes while talking to him or her. This indicates a person’s honesty, among other things, in the United States. In Japan, however, it is not appropriate to look a boss in the eyes while having a conversation. It is considered a challenge to that person’s authority.
That can definitely cause cultural misunderstandings.

Another one is how people sit. In the United States, it is socially acceptable, in some circumstances, to sit with the bottom of one’s shoe showing. In other cultures, it is offensive, indicating that a person, revealing a sole, considers the other person lower then his/her shoe. That might not seem offensive to some, but it can be a serious insult.
Sometimes its not even body language, it’s a seemingly harmless use of words. The word “mate” for example. It means friend in one country and is an insult in another. Phrases such as “I am going to knock up your daughter,” was at one time perfectly acceptable in the UK. It meant the person was going to pay the daughter a visit and knock on the door. In the United States, “knocking up one’s daughter” refers to pregnancy. I cannot see telling a father that you intend to get his daughter pregnant, in that particular manner, as a good idea. And those are standard word usage problems.

Slang can cause even more problems. I have no idea if this story is true, but I heard it some time ago. It stated that a tourist in the United States was arrested on a flight for accidentally threatening to blow up the plane. The confusion supposedly involved the tourists’ cultural slang for farting. The man wanted to know where the bathroom was and used a phrase, translated into English, about blowing the roof off. It wasn’t a threat, it was a fart. Given post 9/11 airplane concerns, that could have been bad, if true.

Then comes cultural viewpoints. I could be here a very long time trying to point out various cultural views. I will simply use one. I personal enjoy an interesting day. Interesting is not viewed as desired in all places. In fact, the phrase “may you live in interesting times” is a curse.

    This article was designed to give an idea of cultural differences. It is simply a starting point. The information listed has been collected from various conversations and lectures over the years. I recommend not taking any of it as “reliable.” Please do your own research and confirm your details. Its one thing to write a piece that is going to offend people. It is another thing to accidentally offend people. Culture is very important; it should not be overlooked.