In our early years of marriage my wife, Cindy, and I had a running conversation. She was convinced that I was colorblind and I was convinced that I was not. The moment of revelation came to me one day when we were talking about a new shirt that I had just received in the mail. She called it my “red and green striped shirt” and I called it my “red shirt.” In fact, the shirt was mostly red but had green pinstripes; pinstripes that were totally invisible to me because of my colorblindness. It turns out she was right the whole time!
Many times, that’s how we are with our own culture. We look, but our own culture is invisible to us. Intercultural researcher Edward Hall writes, “Culture hides much more than it reveals, and, strangely, it hides itself most effectively from its own participants. The real job is not to understand foreign cultures, but to understand one’s own.”
When I do seminars to help people develop their multicultural awareness, one of the most important things is to help them understand their own culture. We take a lot of self-tests so that we can understand ourselves better and our culture a bit deeper.
To be honest, for everyone, even people who want to think and act multi-culturally, it is very difficult to “see” our own culture. Why can’t we see our own culture? I think there are many reasons, but let me just mention a couple of the more obvious ones.
- We’re too close to it. In an earlier blog I mentioned the idea that our culture is like water to a fish. We live, move, and breathe in it. Sometimes, we’re just too close to see it.
- It is normal and we don’t notice normal. Because our senses are overwhelmed with so much information our brain must choose what we notice and what we ignore. If you take a moment right now and listen carefully you almost certainly could hear the hum of a fluorescent light or the world of a fan in the background. But you don’t notice them because they are “normal.” Our own culture is normal and so sometimes we just don’t notice it.
- We’re too self-absorbed. Sometimes we don’t want to notice cultural differences. Perhaps we’re too busy or perhaps we’re too egocentric. It takes effort and attention to pick up on subtle cultural differences and this can be difficult when were busy or concerned with ourselves.
- We don’t want to because it is uncomfortable. Sometimes we don’t notice our own culture because we don’t want to. Our own culture is always more comfortable to live in than another culture.
It’s always hard to see beyond our own culture and to think and act more multi-culturally. But I believe it’s almost always worth it. Step out, take a risk, notice your own culture, and pay attention to another’s culture. I think you’ll be glad you did!