What is culture?

What is culture: the term culture refers to the ways of life of a group of people, including their language, the artefacts they make and/or use, their arts, their cuisine and diet, and most importantly their social and moral priorities. Every culture is actually defined by its own order of priorities whether in matters that are as fundamental as morals and ethics, or as informal as cooking or everyday conversations. We use the expression ‘belong to’ when linking people to a culture.

Superficial versus fundamental cultural differences: Unfortunately, it is common for people and community organisation to focus cultural differences in matters like traditional attire, sports, music, arts or cuisine.  While how a certain culture deals with such matters is important to learn about, what is in fact indispensable to learn about how cultures conceptualise differently and how their social priorities differ.  Languages develop as they serve living cultures, therefore words, especially those representing complex abstract concepts, would encompass elements that suit that specific culture and its societal structure and relationships and as a result language concepts that may appear clear and straightforward such as respect are understood differently in different cultures. Such differences are unfortunately frequently overlooked by cultural training providers and even by specialist interpreters. To elaborate, in western cultures for example, paying a person on time is included within the concept of respecting that person, and delaying payment is considered offensive.  The Levantines of the East Mediterranean, on the other hand, classify the same action. i.e.  of failing to pay on time, not as having anything to do the concept of respect (‘iȟtiraam‘ in Arabic) of the debtor, but rather with the dignity (‘karaamah’ in Arabic) of the payer or indebted person.  Not paying on time is not interpreted as offensive but rather as a shortcoming for which the payer loses face and dignity.

Another example is about ‘barging into a conversation without introductions or without being invited’ which falls within the abstract realm of rudeness in Western cultures (waqaaȟah in Arabic) while in the Mediterranean cultures and the Middle East it is simply seen as being social forthrightness (infitaaȟ in Arabic).  A third example is the fact that ‘being direct when addressing others’ is considered honesty (sidq) in Western cultures, while it falls within the abstract realm of rudeness (waqaaȟah) in the Middle East.

Our culture defines who we are: People who come from the same culture share a lot in common regarding their preferences, priorities and expectations.  When we grow up within a particular culture the priorities and preferences of that culture become a part of who we are ie our identity, and we of course behave accordingly and expect others to do the same.

Cultural expectations, judgement and conflict: Without being always aware of it we always seem to expect everyone else to behave in accordance with our own priorities.  We consider our ways better!  In turn, other people automatically apply their own cultural priorities and observe us through their own cultural perspective. Even if it were possible, it is not easy for anyone to keep the high alertness level required to continuously attribute some unexpected behaviour to some difference in cultural priorities.  Even with people who try to be non-judgmental, views regarding the ‘adequacy’ of the behaviour of the others are formed instantly and determine ensuing feelings and reaction.  This is called Cultural Bias.

In general people tend to keep the resulting negativity inside them, forming opinions and quickly developing strategies regarding how to react. Attachment to one’s own priorities could be so intense that many feel that there is no point in trying to discuss anyway. As we encounter unexpected behaviour, we in general automatically judge as per our own culture, develop negative feelings and henceforth respond accordingly exposing whatever ‘mission’ we may be on, to failure. People would find themselves trying to ‘swallow’ their disappointment and carry on with their lives; work, social and political relationships therefor suffer and problems eventually surface as conflicts that threaten the very important mutual understanding and cooperation.

Cultural Competence We adopt R. Bean definition of cultural competence in his publication The effectiveness of cross-cultural training in the Australian context. Canberra: Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs 2006: “Cultural competence refers to the awareness, knowledge and skills and the processes needed by individuals, professions, organisations and systems to function effectively and appropriately in culturally diverse situations in general, and in particular encounters from different cultures”.

Hence our crash courses focus on the crux of cultural competency (awareness and sensitivity towards diversity and bias, learning about other cultures, the importance of making efforts to be objective, i.e. learning about the order of moral and behavioural priorities that define a certain ‘foreign’ culture, rather than just about their language, traditional attire, music, native arts, or cuisine.  Being aware of the fact that the difference between a foreign culture’s order of moral and behavioural priorities and your exists and need to be considered every time you feel frustrated with the other is called cultural sensitivity and it is a major determinant of success in any dealing with the people of that culture.