Cultural Cherry Picking

Genetically I appear to be a white male. However, growing up as a TCK, I have a very checkered cultural makeup. I can discern five or six major cultural components to my personality. Looking back over my life, what I have done is to cherry pick the cultural characteristics from the places that I have lived, that I resonate with the most. Well, that makes sense doesn't it? You gravitate to what you like? 😊

I suppose that when I was a child, I wouldn’t have known enough to be able to selectively choose cultural traits. I would have adopted whatever traits served me best at the time. Survival tactics. Children are good at that. And when you stand out as an outsider, you learn swiftly that the ability to blend is good. I have always tried to do my best to be able to blend in to the cultures I have lived in. I have noticed that even though you might stand out by skin color, ethnic origin, or height, if you tend to behave appropriately, you blend much better. There are always exceptions of course, but I find that being quiet and polite go a long way in almost any culture.

The primary sources for my cultural makeup spring from England, America, Turkey, the Philippines, Thailand, and Japan.

A British edifice ... reserved and aloof

A British edifice ... reserved and aloof

Although I have a neutral American accent, the major portion of my behavioral patterns are distinctly British. This of course, is to be expected. After all, I grew up in what were former British colonies in both Africa and the Indian subcontinent, and between the ages of 13 and 16, I attended a quintessential English boarding school in the north of England. In fact, when I first went to university in the United States I still had a British accent. And of course, the first time I asked for a ‘rubber’ during a class was amusing. At least to my classmates it was. I meant, of course, an object to erase pencil marks … but howls of juvenile laughter {from university students??] prevented me from explaining that.

So, what does that mean to have distinct elements of British culture? Well, I have a very dry sense of humor, which is rarely understood by anybody around me. So, I come off to many people as being dry, stern, and humorless. Now that really isn’t the case … but there you go J … In the Philippines, the word they use is strict. And, what I do to overcome that in places like the Philippines is to make any attempts at humor to be very broad and very obvious. That works. To some extent.

In addition, the British tend to be quite reserved so between being somewhat of an introvert to begin with, and being mercilessly teased while at the boarding school because I was different, I have taken the reserved behavior to an extreme level. Self-promotion simply isn’t done.

My American cultural traits I picked up primarily while I was in University and the US military. And what behavior would that be? Well, I think that it is the tendency to be direct, to be very focused on results as opposed to process. I must explain that by ‘process’ that I don't mean process as an efficient way of getting tasks accomplished, I rather mean that Americans tend to be more concerned that the results are the way you want them to be. If somebody gets their feelings hurt during the execution of a task, well then, one is just expected to get over it and drive on. That is anathema in many other cultures. Can you say conflicted?

Mosque in Istanbul

Mosque in Istanbul

Turkey was an interesting country for me. What I realized was they had a very honorable culture (as far as I was concerned that is). It definitely is, for lack of a better word, a ‘macho’ culture, but in a way of hail brother well met, if we get along and I invite you into my inner circle then you are my brother, and we can do business that way. Argh! I feel that I articulated that extremely poorly. But I hope the reader understands what I am getting at. And that resonated with me.

Side bar: I must be up front that I, generally, in most countries, get along with women better than men, particularly in cultures that are male-dominated. And I know why. Many cultures have a strong ‘macho’ component to them. I, on the other hand, am neither competitive nor misogynistic. Because of that, I generally get along better with females in most cultures. It is not that I think that women should be treated equally, it is more that I can see no reason on earth why one would treat men or women differently. Turkey, although it definitely has those aforementioned characteristics, was an exception for me. I got along with most of the males I knew very well. And, also, at least back in the 90s, the hard line conservatives were not exerting a very strong influence on society, so women were moving towards equality. Slowly it is true, but they were moving that way. Especially in the upper classes.

Thai Buddha - Calm And Quiet

Thai Buddha - Calm And Quiet

My impact from Asia; Thailand, Japan, and the Philippines primarily, is that I have a tendency to be very indirect, and polite (the Japanese), almost to the point where I can be ineffective. This is where conflict comes into place. The western aspects of my culture say that it is good to be direct, open, and honest. The Asian portions of my cultural matrix tell me that it is better to cultivate that politeness, and that getting along with others is more important than being honest. That in many cases, what a Westerner might regard as a lie, my Asian side looks at as being absolutely the correct thing to do to maintain social harmony. This conflict can get me in trouble across the board. With Asians for being too direct, and with westerners for not being direct enough.

As I have grown older, I have noticed something else. I am getting tired of trying to satisfy every culture in every country. It is exhausting. Sometimes I find myself getting confused about things; like whether I can show the soles of my feet (too long in Thailand), or whether white or black is a mourning color, or what I do with my chopsticks when I’m eating rice, or whether my corporate way of doing things will offend someone.

I still tend to not shake hands aggressively (which makes people from places like the U.S. and Australia look at me funny). I can’t imagine keeping my shoes on when I walk in to someone’s house. I try not to stick my chopsticks into my rice. I try not to show the soles of my feet but unfortunately my back feels better when I cross my legs when seated. Ah well. Sometimes I mess that up. Eating with my left hand? Well I’m lucky. I usually eat alone and I am used to using my left hand to hold what I’m reading. Lucky for me. And I usually have problems treading the line between authoritarian and participative leadership styles in Asia. Generally they favor an authoritarian style whereas I prefer participative. Ah well. I do the best I can :-)

So, my philosophy these days is as follows; be polite, soft spoken, and patient. Try to brush up on the cultural mores of wherever you are, but still be you. And when it comes to business, be polite, but firm nonetheless. It can be difficult. I get that. I have lived it. Yes, to some extent local culture should always be respected. But it is my belief that the local culture also has a requirement to respect visitors. That however, is not always a popular view.

I am starting to feel that in today’s world, there are few excuses for not understanding that your own culture is NOT necessarily the be all and end all of acceptable behavior.

I would really be happy to see comments about this post. I think it is something worthy of discussion.