(Un-)Defining Culture

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How do you define something that is undefinable?

In my volunteer work as an intercultural trainer, which revolves primarily around planning and facilitating workshops on, among other things, culture and multiculturalism, we often try to define what culture really is.

It’s not hard to identify elements that make up this word. Anything from the fine arts to how people behave in social interactions, the amount of eye contact they hold and how direct they are in everyday interactions. We can write all of those things in a flipchart, but if we were to define how far in the spectrum each “culture” falls, we would fail miserably.

Hofstede dedicated a significant amount of time to separate culture into six distinct indexes and then rate countries based on it. For his research he sent forms to IBM that distributed them to their workers in every country the company is active.

But what if when explaining those indexes and giving people the data that Hofstede compiled, someone raises they hand and say they don’t agree with the rating attributed to the index by the research? What if they say that they’re from the country itself and that’s the complete opposite of the truth?

I’ve always believed that stereotypes only exist because they apply to a good amount of people. It’s said that Brazilians are lazy, and I wouldn’t completely disagree with that, but if I were to look at myself, my family and (Brazilian) friends, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. To which point is it even smart to try and define culture like that? Stereotypes apply sometimes, but sometimes they also don’t. Countries are huge land masses, is it even reasonable to expect that they all share a similar culture?

The place I come from is a separatist state in Brazil, most people hold a fair amount of prejudice toward other Brazilians, often saying that they’re lazy and don’t work, yet I’ve met gaúchos (like me) who are lazier than northern Brazilians.  The level of education is all over the board for the entirety of the country, who can argue that they’re smarter, more educated, or harder working?

I’ve met Bavarians who don’t drink beer, I’ve met Germans who are constantly late and disorganized. I’ve met Northern Europeans who party harder and are more open than any Latino I’ve ever come across.

Our brains need to generalize things, to find patterns; and that’s why stereotypes come in handy. It might be easy to throw people into a group because they look similar or come from similar places (even when their backgrounds and heritages might be completely different), but the more I travel and meet different people, the more I see that our “cultural indexes” are either outdated, or are not being applied correctly.

A lot of self improvement is about fighting the default configuration of our brains, and this might be one more of those cases.


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