What is culture? The term encompasses so much more than just “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.” Culture, to me, is the actual essence of living; and every individual in every society embodies the culture he or she experiences on a daily basis.
What this means is that every one of us carry culture in some way, shape and form. Culture is all around us, in music, our languages, the way we speak, the way we dress, the way we think and process stimuli, the way we style our hair, the foods we eat, even the way we consume material things within our society.
Each one of us is born into a culture, but as time evolves we have the ability to choose the cultures we want to embody. In some instances, people learn the norms of many different cultures so they develop a completely unique outlook on what it means to belong.
Norms serve as social guidelines for what is acceptable and what is not within a culture. Social norms range in degree of importance and differ from society to society. For instance, In Nigeria, people bow when greeting a person who is either older or socio-economically above them. Meanwhile, in the United States, greeting usually only occurs between and among people who know each other very closely. In certain instances some people don’t greet each other at all, they simply interact as friends.
This example goes further to show how the guidelines for respect differ in different societies. While Americans don’t always mind greetings, it is extremely disrespectful not to greet someone you didn’t physically sleep next to all night long.
And even though greeting a friend is just a folkway, a norm for casual interactions, it carries different implications in different instances.
Norms are not only guidelines, but they also help create naïve realism. Naïve realism occurs when one believes that his/her cultural behavior, values, beliefs, and symbols are the only true way to live.
Naïve realism ties very closely to ethnocentrism, which is believing that one’s culture is above all others. Ethnocentrism has both positive and negative effects on individuals within a society. On one hand it creates pride in one’s culture; but on the other hand, it leads individuals to see the world with only one cultural veil.
Ethnocentrisms can cause individuals to become very close-minded about others whose culture differs from their own. Ethnocentrism causes the individual to disregard the fact that there are many was to see the world. It creates a naïve reality that can greatly inhibit a person’s ability to fully experience and enjoy other cultures.
One way to really enjoy others’ culture is through observing their cultural behavior and artifacts. Cultural behavior includes traditions and rituals. For example: bowing in China, kissing on the cheeks to greet friends in France, and casual handshakes in the U.S. Cultural artifacts are the material aspects of that culture. This includes architecture, decorative arts (masks, paintings, writing, sayings, etc..)
Cultural behavior and cultural artifacts act as a peephole into other people’s cultures. When one studies informants, a term that anthropologists use to describe the people they observe in order to acquire cultural knowledge, one slowly gains understanding of that culture. The more you study, the more you begin to see things as those around you.
There is a method that leads to better understanding of other cultures, and it is called intercultural praxis.
Intercultural praxis is a process of critical and reflective thinking and acting that empowers us to verbally, interpersonally, and communally navigate through the intercultural world we inhabit.
In other words, intercultural praxis is like a camera lens with different zooming and color effect options. As you travel through the world, you have the ability to change the zoom and color effect settings in order to see dissimilar things in a different light.
That camera lens requires inquiry, which is the desire and willingness to learn. This is the first step towards getting rid of one’s naïve realism. In addition, cultural praxis requires framing. Cultural frames are basically norms, beliefs, values, symbols, cultural behavior, etc. that guide individuals.
Intercultural praxis also requires a certain awareness of positioning, your geographic placement that relates to our social and political position. This would be something like the nationwide voting trends among the south, north, Midwest, and west.
Not only that, but intercultural praxis also includes dialogue, communication through words. Language is the greatest manifestation of dialogue.
There’s also reflection, which is simply the capacity to observe yourself in relation to others and allow yourself to change accordingly.
The final process of the intercultural praxis is action. This basically includes emulating the cultural behavior you studied and now understand better.
Overall, culture is a beautiful thing. It adds depth and variety to the world. Since cultures vary from place to place, in order to truly appreciate the varieties we must remove the veils of our own cultures and use the camera lens of intercultural praxis to gain more understanding.