When you encounter someone from a culture other than your own, your first glance can only tell you what is observable, not all of the complex factors that influence others. Consider a crowded farmer’s market in any American city and all the different cultures you can observe.
A group of white women of different ages wearing long, solid-colored dresses and white bonnets weighs tomatoes and cucumbers for customers, while a man in similar colors with a beard and straw hat waters the potted plants they have for sale. A young African American woman with short, natural hair carries her toddler daughter in a carrier on her back while she picks six ears of corn from the back of a tractor, where a teenage boy is handing out large plastic bags and making change.
Nearby, a married couple sells hummus behind a sign that reads “Iranian Bread.” She wears a colorful headscarf. A heavily tattooed man with a huge red beard is selling beard oils and wooden combs, while a middle-aged Latina woman speaks Spanish with her mother as they pick out some bright red and white geraniums. Nearby, a dad pulls a wagon with three kids in it, while the mom holds hand with the oldest, who tugs on her and begs to go pet a dog that is walked by two older men, who are hand-in-hand.
It’s a scene that unfolds all over America every single day. When you go to a place where many cultures are represented, you can observe all sorts of interesting things, both familiar and unfamiliar. Depending on your own life experiences, you may be able to make some educated guesses about people’s backgrounds, but the fact is, you can still only comment based on what you actually observe. You don’t necessarily see all of the cultural, linguistic, and familial elements that influence what others see.
The Cultural Iceberg
Language and Culture Worldwide, a consulting company that seeks to foster strong relationships across cultural lines, uses the analogy of an iceberg to explain this reality. Based on the research of Edward T. Hall in the 1970s, the cultural iceberg is the idea that for everything we can observe a person doing, there are numerous additional influences that we can’t observe, but we can learn about.
Several unobservable cultural influencers include economics, family, educational systems, media, history, and religion.
Often, groups from different cultures may share the same core values, but the interpretation of those values looks significantly different from one group to another. For example, many cultures value being polite, but don’t necessarily agree on what makes for politeness. Is it polite to be as friendly and outgoing as possible, to make someone feel comfortable? Or is it more polite to be reserved and cautious to avoid infringing on someone else’s day and feelings? Is it polite to initially decline an invitation to show that you don’t want to be a burden on your host, or is it polite to immediately RSVP and say you’ll be attending?
There isn’t a “right” answer as to what is polite. Rather, it depends on the cultural background of the individual. You can see how miscommunications can easily occur between two people who both value politeness, but don’t realize that their behavior may be interpreted as rude or inconsiderate.
Diverse Cultural Factors
Things like economics, family background, educational systems, media influence, history, and religion may be invisible to the outside observer, but they play an important role in how a person behaves, speaks, and interacts with other people. If you think back to that culturally diverse farmer’s market, you may realize that every individual there is influenced by their cultural background.
Each individual and family at the farmer’s market is affected by things that you can’t see. Again, you may be able to make guesses, but guesses don’t give a full picture. How does the Amish family’s background determine their decisions regarding educating their children, and how does state law affect them? Are the Spanish-speaking mother and daughter bilingual? If one of them speaks only Spanish, who translates for her when she needs to get medical care, and how is she perceived when she is in a doctor’s office? If the Iranian couple are immigrants, are they currently on a waiting list to become US citizens? If so, what kind of visa or green card paperwork have they had to fill out to be able to sell their homemade goods at the farmer’s market? Are any of the people you observed vegetarian or vegan, and how accessible is the local community for people with restricted diets? Is a gay couple holding hands controversial in this town, or are they fully accepted by their community?
Clearly, every individual is influenced by more than just what you can see.
Surprising Cultural Influences
Here are some interesting ways that you may not realize culture may be influencing the behavior you witness:
- Someone who cuts ahead of you in line may not be a selfish jerk, but rather, from a culture where single-file lines don’t really exist, and they aren’t aware that their behavior is perceived as rude.
- Simple gestures can mean very different things, depending on culture. Although Americans are accustomed to nodding in an up-and-down motion to denote agreement, many South Asian nations like India use a side-to-side gesture instead, which can cause confusion when people from these two different cultures are trying to communicate.
- Leaving a small tip for the server at any restaurant in the United States is considered rude, or a strong statement about service. However, leaving a small tip in France is the norm, if a tip is even left at all.
- Physical affection changes depending on culture, too. In Nepal, it is rare to see a man and woman holding hands or kissing in public, but platonic male friends may hold hands without a second thought.
Considering all this, it’s important to recognize that when you see someone act or speak in a way that is new, confusing, or unusual to you, there’s nearly always a good explanation. And when you interact with people from different cultures, you should maintain a posture of humility and willingness to learn. Never assume the worst about people, and instead, assume that there is always more to the story.
If you are interested in this sort of research into cultural influences on families and individuals, there are exciting opportunities for you in academia. Familiarize yourself with the field of Human Development & Family Relations, which prepares people to serve culturally and linguistically diverse families, because your interest and curiosity in cultural influences might just help you discover a fascinating new career.