A way of thinking about culture
Traveling to lots of foreign lands, as I'm doing this summer, has been making me wonder about the diversity of human culture. What is culture, anyway? I'm not talking about capital-C Culture like famous operas and monuments and stuff that countries show off at the World Expo; I'm talking about little-c culture; the stuff you take for granted and never even think about until you're in a place where they do it differently.
I've been learning how to cross the street in Shanghai. Some major intersections in Shanghai have crossing signals, but on most of the smaller roads, it's useless to wait for the cars (and the more numerous bycycles and motor scooters) to stop. Because they don't. Ever. They don't even slow down. You just wait for a gap and then dodge through, like playing Frogger.
Clearly Shanghai is a place where it's the pedestrian's responsibility, not the driver's responsibility, to prevent a collision.
Traffic safety might not be something you usually think of as "culture", but I think a lot of cultural issues can be phrased in terms of "whose responsibility is it to avoid a collision"?
The Shanghai attitude towards waiting in line is similar to their attitude about crossing the street. You'd better protect your place in line vigilantly, because if you don't, someone will squeeze in ahead of you. If you come from a place which has the social rule "Don't cut in line", then this can seem very rude. But in Shanghai, the responsibility for maintaining the line belongs to the person who's standing there already, not to the person who is trying to enter. If you don't care enough about your spot in line to defend it, why should you keep it?
This reminds me of that thing about "Ask" cultures vs. "Guess" cultures. I forgot where I read it for the first time, but the idea is that an Ask culture has the following two rules:
- You can ask for anything you want, but don't expect to get it.
- When someone asks you for something, it's not rude to say "No".
"Hey dude I'm gonna be in your city next week, can I crash on your couch?"
"Uh, no, sorry, I barely know you."
"OK bro that's cool, just asking".
A Guess culture has the following rules instead:
- It's rude to directly refuse a request.
- So don't ask directly for something if the answer might be "no", because you'd be putting the other person in an awkward position. You're allowed to hint, though.
- Since other people are too polite to ask for things, you should pay attention to what they might be needing and offer it to them.
"So I'm going to be in your city next week, and I'm looking for a place to stay, can you suggest any cheap hotels maybe?"
"If you don't mind sleeping on a couch, you could stay at my place."
"Oh I couldn't possibly impose on you like that."
"No, please, I insist."
Either system works fine if everyone is following it. But interacting with people from the opposite culture can be frustrating. To guessers, Askers seem outrageously selfish and demanding. To askers, Guessers seem timid and passive-aggressive and why can't they just come out and say what they want, I'm not a mind-reader you know!
Ask culture and guess culture are like countries that drive on the left and countries that drive on the right. There is absolutely no objective reason why the left side or the right side of the road is a better place to drive. But you have to have an agreement, however arbitrary. If one car is driving on the opposite side from everyone else, then people are going to die. Offending someone because you asked for something they can't give you is obviously not as serious as a car crash, but it's similar in that there was a mismatch of expectations because you weren't following the same unspoken, pre-negotiated agreement.
Without such pre-negotiated agreements, every single social interaction would have to be re-negotiated from scratch. You know that thing when two people are walking towards each other in a hallway: they try to weave around each other, but they both weave the same direction, so they both switch and go the other way, then the first way again, then after three tries they both give up and shrug and giggle. How many times has this happened to you? There isn't a cultural rule for this situation (at least not where I grew up) but there could be: if the rule was 'always turn right' then that wouldn't happen anymore.
We can list plenty more examples:
- Do you keep your floors clean and ask guests to take off their shoes? Or tell them to keep their shoes on because the floor's dirty? Either system works as long as people are in agreement about whether the floor is considered a clean zone or not.
- In your company, if you need to communicate something to someone in a different department, do you go directly to the person in question and ask them yourself? Or do you ask your boss and they ask the other person's boss? Companies that have settled on the social rule of relaying requests through management can get quite upset if you go outside this system.
- Are insults something to be laughed off and ignored in good humor? Or are they something to be taken seriously, as threats to your honor, so that you must demand a retraction or else retaliate? I read somewhere that the "defend your honor from all insults" rule is something that often arose in shepherding cultures, because when your wealth is in the form of easily stolen animals, instead of land or gold or whatever, then the best way to defend it is to develop a reputation as a crazy motherfucker who will totally murder anybody who dares lay a finger on your sheep. The idea is that once you have that reputation, nobody will dare mess with you, so you won't actually have to kill anybody. So threatening brutal retaliation is, weirdly, a way to prevent violence -- seems like a weird system to me, but again the point is that it works as long as everybody is following it.
The fact that most of these cases require everyone to follow the same system to avoid problems explains why cultures are often so harsh on anyone who violates one of their shared understandings. There has to be some enforcement to keep people cooperating. The fact that the understandings are never spoken or explained, and many people wouldn't even know how to put them into words, having gotten used to them from growing up in that culture, explains why it's often so hard for outsiders to understand what it is that they did wrong.
So anyway, that's how I've been thinking about cultural rules lately. It doesn't explain everything but it seems to be a useful framework. If you're traveling to a lot of different countries, it's never good to be in a mindset of "All these people are crazy, why do they care so much about this stupid thing, why can't they just be normal." But it's also not helpful to be in a 60s-era anthropologist "Humans are blank slates controlled by cultures which have nothing in common with each other and are inherently unknowable to outsiders and cannot be judged or understood by any terms but their own" mindset.
Instead of thinking in either of those ways, I can approach new social situations with the mindset of: What's the rule here about avoiding collisions?