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How We’re Losing the War to Save the Islamic World: Part II When Cultures Clash

We hear a lot about a clash of cultures, but in fact, most people never experience a clash of cultures.  This is a good thing because though cultures are not innate (and I’m tired of the idiots who think they are.  If I adopted a Chinese baby tomorrow, its personality might not be the same as my kids’ but its culture would be), cultures are fairly intractable.  By which I mean we absorb values and ideas from our culture often before we can even speak, much less articulate the values.  And once absorbed, they become “what everybody knows,” so prevalent and certain that you never examine it, and are never sure where it came from or what it means.  They just know it is, as immutable as air and water.

And it is, as long as you stay within the culture.  Only a few individuals (like me) who have for whatever reason had to acculturate (I wrote about it here) see the cultures, because they had to make a conscious choice.  Also, to be honest, acculturating hurts.  It’s not something humans are supposed to do.  We’re social animals and many of the things we think are inherently human are actually learned and therefore cultural, such as walking on two legs and speaking: for proof of this, see feral children.

What most people mean when they talk about “a clash of cultures” is actually a clash between two subcultures -- say, corporate America and ghetto.  This is difficult enough but can be overcome because one is at least aware of the other, even if the habits of one are completely different from the other's.

When you’re dealing with completely different cultures suddenly clashing, it’s completely different.  You see, the people in each of the cultures are not aware that they’re having a cultural conflict.  They just interpret other people’s actions according to the norms of their culture.  Internally, at a gut level, well before thought gets involved, we assume everyone has the same basic assumptions we have, and therefore we judge other cultures as we judge our own.

Take a really simple one, between (no, trust me) cultures that aren’t all that different, like the culture I was born in (Portugal) and the culture here. It never occurred to my father to explain to my husband what all the money in the car registration envelope was for.  The system of bribing the police (like the Spanish Mordida) is so ingrained it simply never occurred to my father – a well-read and learned man – that it wasn’t also universal in the U.S.  If I hadn’t been there when my husband found the money (we were never pulled over, so it was never needed), my poor husband would have been wondering if it was traditional, in Portugal, to give your son-in-law money inside car registration envelopes.  (Yes, I might have laughed.)