Cognitive science views culture as the combined mental maps (or schemas) built up through people's shared lives. Under this view cross-cultural interactions are a kind of collaborative, mutual learning experience. Each experience involves a learning or exchanging of ideas and maybe even social norms for both parties but it isn't a direct transfer. They are filtered by personal experiences, assumptions, taboos and world-views.
So how do you handle cultural differences that arise?
Hey Hey! We have a problem!
One example of this came up recently when Harry Connick Jnr was judging a Red Faces competition on a special comeback episode of "Hey Hey It's Saturday!" that involved a group of gentlemen (of Indian descent) with black make-up on their faces doing a terrible impersonation of the Jackson Five.
Bloggers, journalists and talk-back hosts have gone to town with their own versions of what happened, and whether it is defined as racist or not (both in Australia and the USA). You can read a few here, and the comments on this post give an idea of the American response.
One of the cultural learning mechanisms is the taboo. A topic that should be avoided if possible, or in the least approached with great sensitivity. Cultural groups not only develop different taboos (to cope with different shared traumas of their past), but they transfer these taboos in different ways.
Many Australians don't understand either the depth of racism against African-Americans in the USA, nor how recently it was still considered normal. You get a sense of of it in the movie "Remember the Titans", but a good percentage of people Down Under think racism died out soon after the American Civil War. To cope with this, several extremely strong taboos have emerged including the use of the "N" word and the practice of "Black-faced" entertainers.
The comment on this blog by toujoursdan who has lived in both New Zealand and the USA captures my thoughts nicely.
The Curse of Knowledge
The "curse of knowledge" is a concept from Chip Heaths book Made to Stick which basically states that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. This makes us bad communicators because we can't imagine others not knowing what we know either.
On "Hey Hey!" Harry took strong offense at such a taboo being played out and apparently enjoyed by the audience. Some accused him of being too politically correct, however from his culture, this was a truly offensive act and his response was proportionate and in fact I think he conducted himself with a level of dignity considering how he must have been feeling.
The "Jackson Jive" and also the shows producers had failed to take into account Harry's cultural background by allowing the act to go ahead. The Doctors, who tried to apologise afterward once they realised the offence, seem to have been unaware of their act being part of such a strong taboo.
On the other hand, Harry (and many of the US-based bloggers) seem also to have succumbed to the curse of knowledge.
- They seem to consider that since it is such a powerful taboo for them then everyone in the world would know about it, and
- They seem unaware of other cultures methods of transferring taboos.
Many Australians commenting on talk-back radio today about the subject suffered the same problem, saying (from their point of view) it was inoffensive and that Harry should "lighten up" or be less politically correct.
Respect is the Key
Cultural misunderstandings like this happen all the time. The term Culture Clash is frequently used, especially in the business world where negotiations can break down over what seem to be small differences in opinion to one of the parties.
The key is Respect. Starting with an understanding that other people have different taboos and world-views helps us not be so shocked by their comments or behaviour and allows us time to find understanding and hopefully communicate our discomfort without damaging the relationship. Cultures should be seen as different, not better or one more right than another, just different.
Some say that respect must be earned. Here I tend to disagree. Trust is earned, but respect is something we bring to the table ourselves regardless of the other party. Our ability to constrain our offence and keep the lines of communication open will determine how well we interact with those of different cultural backgrounds, be it another country, a different company or the sports club down the road. Remember, the handling of the offence is a learning experience for those involved and handled well it can challenge false taboos or increase the awareness of useful ones.
All good and well. As for Daryl trying to handle such a difficult situation live in front of millions of viewers while keeping things light and funny, I take my hat off to him. I hope you do half as well next time your business negotiations run into foul weather.