Our Hidden Cultural Assumptions

One reason I love to travel is to submerge myself in a culture that is different from my own. The good news is: one need not necessarily go far to find cultural pockets that are vastly different from one’s comfort zone. Here in Richmond VA, I could probably find dozens of cultural pockets among our different communities and neighborhoods.   Indeed, the American melting pot is a mélange of different viewpoints and perspectives that makes for a rich and often spicy discourse.

The bad news is: when cultural differences clash, they are often ascribed to personal failings or cultural judgments.   For example, we just returned from a vacation through central Europe which was book-ended by visits to the beautiful cities of Berlin and Munich. Both cities were immaculately clean and efficiently run. Berlin felt more modern due to more new construction in the city central compared to Munich. However, Berliners seemed less adept at rolling out the welcome mats compared to the citizens of Munich. The less-than-welcoming treatment in Berlin had us somewhat dreading the return to Germany for the latter part of our trip.

I was thrilled to admit we were pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome in the more southern city. That contrast and happy failure of my expectations invited me to consider the parallels between Berlin and the Chinese, New York and Parisian cultures. Not generally known for their hospitality, these regions are overflowing with good-natured and hospitable people who may be poorly understood and judged by visitors. I warned Chris that our enjoyment of a future trip to China may be less enjoyable because of the Chinese habits of pushing and shoving, talking loudly, cutting in line, and shortage of Western-style courtesy (please, thank you, holding the doors, giving each other personal space). We can either approach other cultures with openness and an eye toward a culture’s unique expression of creativity, humanity and industry, or we can find all the ways that the culture doesn’t measure up to our own by applying a strict, American-style definition of hospitality. Which is likely to be more enjoyable and enlightening?

“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” ― Abraham Lincoln

Being open to another’s cultural reality can open up one’s eyes to other perspectives. The trouble for me is that my cultural assumptions are automatic and ingrained. I feel I’m generally a fairly open-minded and accepting person but I was a bit taken aback by our treatment by the Berliners because they did not treat me as I am accustomed.   Later, when I stopped to consider the emotional and psychological impact of decades of occupation and division, I began to see the locals in a new light. I also read about the German culture and their tendency to be very direct, which by our American standards can be interpreted as harsh. I also have to somewhat humbly recognize my own tendency to be direct and how that is often misconstrued.  Now, instead of focusing on how Berlin hospitality falls short, I can better try to appreciate the perseverance, forthrightness and resilience of citizens of this city that is now a thriving metropolis.

I hope this renewed sensitivity will help me to continue to try to understand and appreciate our human differences, especially when my first reaction may not be so positive.   I shouldn’t need to travel abroad to appreciate these nuances, I can find them within my own family, workplaces and communities. Who have I misunderstood and misjudged? Who has misjudged me? What impact does that have on my perspective? How can removal of judgment allow me to better contribute to that rich world?

“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” ― Lao Tzu

We enjoy local culture and cuisine

We enjoy local culture and cuisine

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