Written by Marci Renée
There seems to be a class that I missed in my graduate studies.
I wonder how many courses I have taken on foreign cultures. My master’s degree was in Cross-Cultural Studies. In my graduate classes, we studied different countries, people, languages, and cultures around the globe.
We learned how to best learn a foreign tongue. We studied how to adapt to living in a different land. We learned how to appreciate unfamiliar ethnic foods. We practiced how to integrate into a new culture. We discovered how to appreciate cultural differences and how to accept people who looked, behaved, and thought differently than us.
However, there is a class that I seemed to have missed in my graduate studies.
I failed to take the class on becoming a student of my own culture.
Culture, Enculturation, and Acculturation
Perhaps we need to define a few words. Perhaps my ignorance was due to lack of information, misunderstanding, or semantic confusion.
Culture: “The beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society or group are known as culture and are transmitted from one generation to another as they are recognized as the essential values one should know while living in that particular society.”
This would be the case for Norwegians growing up in Norway or Algerians growing up in Algeria. The customs and beliefs—one’s culture—will be naturally transferred down through the generations. We learn our culture from our parents, our grandparents, our teachers, and the society around us.
We learn how to eat in our culture, how to handle conflict, how to relate to people of different genders, how to dress, how to express emotions, etc.
We learn our culture naturally, and we don’t even know it. It’s instinctively absorbed.
Focus on “Other” Cultures
The focus of my studies, and of much of my work and life abroad, has been the observation, study, integration, and appreciation of foreign cultures . . . cultures other than my birth culture.
When I study, learn, and adapt to the host culture where I live, that is “acculturation.” This involves “cultural modification of an individual, group, or people as a result of prolonged contact with the people of another culture.”
As a result of living in Morocco for many years, for example, I have changed in the way I act, think, and believe. I have a tendency to stand closer to people now, after having lived in this “contact country” for so many years. My internal clock has also shifted, and I am no longer prompt or on time anywhere! Since living in Spain for several years, I have developed a habit of eating dinner at 10 p.m. and taking a guilt-free afternoon siesta. My ways of thinking and how I see the world have also evolved as a result of living abroad and rubbing shoulders with people in various cultures.
Acculturation also happens when an individual in infancy is exposed to more than one culture, or when an individual has extensive contact with people of another culture.
This would be the case for our Third Culture Kids who have grown up in countries other than their passport countries and have adapted along the way. They have picked up various cultural colors in the fabric of their lives and identity.
“Acculturation is the merge of two cultures,” according to WDifference.
Acculturation is good. It’s important. But, that’s not all. In addition to acculturation, we also need enculturation.
“Enculturation is the process by which an individual learns the norms and values of a culture through unconscious repetition.” It entails “the possessing of one’s own culture.”
For example, as soon as a child is born into a specific culture, he or she starts absorbing the culture from those living in that particular country, context, or society. This usually happens through unconscious repetition.
Natural Cultural Learning
Growing up in the United States, as a child, I integrated my American culture, norms, and values without realizing it. They were ingrained and embedded in me. My parents didn’t have to explain to me that I was learning how to eat or dress in my culture. It wasn’t calculated or intentional.
The challenge is that most of us don’t even know that we “possess our own culture.”
I didn’t know I carried my culture in my suitcase until I moved to France to study abroad at the age of 19. That’s when I had the shock of my life!
I had been studying the French language and culture since the age of 9. That’s where my focus was—on the “other culture,” on the “foreign culture.” However, it wasn’t until I landed on French soil that my own American culture was confronted by the culture of the host country. Yikes! My culture shock wasn’t so much living in the foreign land of France. Rather, my culture shock was my own American culture seeping out from my pores!
I wish that I would have been prepared for this. I wish that I had been a learner of my own culture before going to live in a foreign land. I wish that I had taken that class at grad school. Honestly, I don’t think it was offered.
Professional institutions like the U.S. Department of State take this very seriously. They emphasize the importance of self-awareness and understanding one’s own culture in order to better integrate into the host culture of the foreign country where you are going to live and work. They make sure their workers are trained and equipped.
“Self-awareness is an integral component to navigating the world more comfortably. By taking some time to think about and understand your own culture and where you come from you will be better able to address difficult questions from people who might see you and the world differently than you do.”
How Can We Learn About Our Own Culture?
1. Get Out of Your Own Culture:
Dr. Tom Verghese with Cultural Synergies says, “Culture (is) the lens through which we look at the world. We carry our culture with us. It’s like an invisible backpack. You may not see your culture when you are in your own culture, because culture is tacit. It’s like a fish in water. A fish doesn't know it’s in water until you take it out.”
2. Learn About Other Cultures:
As you study, observe, and learn about other cultures, you will naturally compare them to your own. This will highlight differences and bring a greater awareness of your own culture. The more you learn about other foreign cultures, the more you will begin to see your own.
3. Ask Questions:
As you immerse yourself in foreign cultures and observe them, reflect on your own. As you sit on the floor in Morocco eating couscous with your hands, reflect on how you eat in your own culture. Ask yourself how you learned to eat as a child. Who taught you? How was this cultural behavior passed down?
Also, ask foreigners to observe your culture. For example, I could ask my Tunisian friend questions about my American culture—things she observes in me. Sometimes, we need an outsider’s perspective to gain awareness and understanding.
When exposed to different cultures and people, observe three things: points of tension, misunderstandings, and moments of conflict.
Observe and reflect: What did you do just before the tension, misunderstanding, or upset feelings arose? Also, ask yourself: “What assumption was I making about the situation before the negativity started?”
The answers to these questions will begin to highlight your own culture as you see and feel “the rub” with other cultures.
5. Embrace and Accept Your Culture:
Just like we must grow to love and appreciate other cultures, we must learn to embrace and accept our own. Sometimes, when exposed to new foreign cultures, we begin to reject our own. In our comparison of cultures, we may become critical or judgmental of our own culture and way of life.
As we compare our own culture to others, consider what the Cultural Story-Weaver says, “It’s not good, it’s not bad. It’s not right, it’s not wrong. It’s not better, it’s not worse. It’s just different!”
Guest author, Marci Renée, along with her French husband and four boys, is a global nomad who has traveled to more than 30 countries and has lived in the United States, France, Morocco, and Spain. She loves to travel, speak foreign languages, experience different cultures, eat ethnic foods, meet people from faraway lands, and of course, write and tell stories. She is a published author of children's picture books, memoirs, short stories, and poetry.
You can find Marci and her books on her website.
"The Cultural Story-Weaver," at www.culturalstoryweaver.com
Culture, Home culture, Adjusting, Cross-cultural, Marci