Why Should You Care About Culture?

Recently, our nation has experienced a wave of turbulent events. It started with the hurricanes that set us all into preparation paranoia: Harvey, Irma and Maria. It continued with millions of Puerto Rican citizens seeking shelter in the United States when their own homes were deemed unlivable in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Leaving whole lives behind, they are now here, trying to make the best of a devastating situation. And now, our nation has experienced the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, just one year after the Pulse Nightclub shooting earned the title. We are suddenly short 59 beautiful, priceless lives. We are astounded by the violence that seems to have no end. But as history proves, we can and will move on. Hopefully to an end much brighter than it currently seems. 

In light of these events, I wanted to focus this post on an aspect of communication that is seldom thought of, but incredibly important: culture. 

Now, what exactly is culture? There are many definitions for this one term. One such from Merriam Webster defines culture as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” Culture is also defined as “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” 

Through each of these definitions, we see the immense power culture has in our lives. It pervades everything. 

The food you like to eat. The type of clothes you wear. How you navigate romantic relationships. What education you receive. The shows your parents allowed you to watch as a kid. Everything involves culture to some extent, especially in conflict.

I want you to take away three things about conflict and culture:

  1. Culture can be a source of conflict.
  2. Culture determines the way we act in a conflict.
  3. Culture can help resolve a conflict.

If culture is something that is shared, how can it be a source of conflict? The answer comes when two different cultures meet. For instance, the United States is a highly individualistic culture. We are encouraged to challenge authority and seek new ideas. Persuasive and specific language is preferred over one that is imaginative and interpretive. In the conflict realm, a direct and competitive approach is more likely than accommodation or collaboration.  

When a person from this culture interacts with someone from a collectivistic one (which emphasizes conflict accommodation, authority obedience, less emotion, and other opposite behaviors), conflict is likely to ensue.

At UCF, for example, a global student from Asia (which is highly collectivistic) is less likely to ask questions in class, even if they don’t understand the material. This could cause a conflict between professor and student when the student’s grades start to suffer as a result. On the outside, the conflict is over the student’s poor academic performance. Yet on the inside, a clash of cultures is the true cause. So here’s the point: culture can both cause and perpetuate conflict.

Next, I want you to remember that culture determines the way we act in a conflict. We each have a cultural lens that distorts our perceptions of a conflict. This lens creates perceptions of ourselves, the other person and the relationship.

Let’s say, for example, that a boss constantly asks his assistant (who is from a collectivistic culture) to do tasks for him. Since he is a from an individualistic culture, the boss’s cultural lens causes him to perceive himself in an elevated power role, the assistant in a subordinate one, and the relationship as one of domination-acquiescence. Meanwhile, the assistant sees herself in a lower position and the boss as her superior. Since hierarchy preservation is important in collectivistic culture, the assistant obliges to her boss’ demands in a positive way. A conflict in her mind is caused by not obeying. Meanwhile, people from individualistic cultures view resistance to authority as a way for idea exploration and conflict resolution.

It is always important to think about how your cultural lens guides the conflict decisions you make. However, it is equally as important to recognize the cultural lenses of others. By doing so, you can gauge what moves will (and will not) be effective in resolving a conflict. 

This leads me to my final point: culture can help resolve a conflict. A huge part of conflict resolution involves listening. Specifically, something called mediative listening. This practice involves listening to someone for the purpose of understanding them. All too often we listen without analysis. This practice takes listening to a deeper level that, when it is done correctly, actually has the power to resolve (mediate) a conflict. 

Unless you’re a world traveler, very few people understand cultures outside of their own. We know that they exist, sure. But do we ever take time to learn about and appreciate them? One thing I’ve learned from attending a diverse school is that culture is a beautiful thing, and when you learn about new ones, it has the power to permanently change you.

I will never forget the time that I decided to attend a workshop on “Stereotypes in Islam.” I entered the workshop piqued by the promise of free pizza (which is an irresistible offer for a pizza lover like me). I left it with a renewed mindset, and an appetite not for pizza, but for learning. I had always thought that women wore hijab because they were valued less than men. Yet through the workshop, it was revealed that women are actually valued more than men. In fact, hijab is a fashion decision chosen by women in the United States; not forced on them as I believed. 

Even though this is a small example, it illustrates a large truth: Cultural exploration allows us to widen our perspectives. As a result, we can approach conflict situations with a broader understanding of each involved party. Just one taste of a new culture leads to a never-ending appetite for hearing the stories of others; engaging in the mediative listening that ends conflict.

Take these lessons to heart as you navigate life. Our nation is only growing more diverse. By growing with it, tragedies like Las Vegas and Pulse will not only be prevented: they will be history.