We’re all aware of sexism, racism and ageism, but the one “ism” that doesn’t get as much attention in my view is culturalism. I’m not talking about multi-culturalism which is another familiar term, but rather about the belief that people remain rooted in their own culture and that they continue to be influenced by this, whatever their race, age or sex.Why do I think we should be focusing on this more? I honestly believe there would be less conflict in the world and fewer misunderstandings if we all – whatever our culture might be – had not only respect for the different cultures we encounter but importantly, a deeper understanding of these, coupled with a knowledge of how to respond to each other.
How it all started for me
My own appreciation of the importance of understanding culturalism began as a child in Africa. My father, who grew up on a farm and who was well versed in local languages and customs, always carefully explained to me the differences between these and our own imported, essentially British culture. I vividly remember asking him why people in the street were shouting so loudly to each other and him explaining to me that this was necessary if they wanted to avoid being considered as conspirators plotting something nefarious.
These sensitivities were heightened again when at the age of 25, I left Africa to live in London. Now the lesson to be learned in order to be accepted was not to be too direct and confrontational as this approach does not sit well with the English tendency towards indirect speech and polite distancing.
My own observations and responses
I’ve continued to observe these types of differences and to tailor my responses when seeking to communicate successfully in different countries I’ve visited or when working with different nationalities in my professional life. I’ve learned for example:
· to be polite but firm, rather than hesitant and apologetic when ordering in a restaurant in France
· that style and fashion really are very important to Italians
· how to make conversation with Germans when given an instruction, rather than an invitation to speak
· that it’s essential to earn respect from Russians and never tell them what to do, as they will then do the exact opposite
· not to be offended if Brazilians arrive late
· the significance of body language in Japanese communications
Appreciating and responding to cultural differences should be a shared journey towards greater tolerance, acceptance and importantly, harmony and understanding. Without a greater focus on it, how can we move forward into the future politically, socially or economically?