The Wedding Quiz

800px-Indian_wedding_DelhiConsider this: it is your wedding day, and you are a young bride-to-be. Your family and friends have been planning for this event for months. Just as the ceremony is about to begin, your future husband has a seizure. What do you do?

  1. Immediately stop the wedding and accompany your future husband to the hospital.
  2. While your future husband goes off to the hospital, explain to your guests that there will be no wedding today, but everyone should enjoy a nice a party since they are already here and there is plenty of food and drink.
  3. Everything is prepared, so just select another man from among the guests in attendance to be your new husband, and go on with the wedding.

I didn’t make this situation up, rather it is something I read in the Times of India, “Groom unwell, bride weds guest in fit of rage,” which really made me think about my own reaction to the story and my own cultural assumptions.

This wedding took place in India. It seems that the bride–to-be and her family had not been told of the medical condition of the groom prior to the wedding. So when the groom had an epileptic seizure, she decided, right on the spot, to marry another guest at the wedding. Although faced with an unexpected and upsetting situation, the bride-to-be didn’t make a rash decision, but one based on long established tradition. However, to appreciate the logic of the situation requires a major shift in thinking by those whose main values related to marriage are derived from largely individualistic western values and practices.

The action made cultural sense to the bride and her relatives because the man she decided to marry was someone she and the family already knew well: her sister’s brother-in-law. From their collectivist point of view, hers was a very reasonable choice. A marriage in South Asia is not just a joining of two people, but a public recognition of mutual duties and obligations, which impacts possibly hundreds of people on both sides. That is why many marriages in South Asia are arranged—such an important event is too serious to be left to only two people. Family honor is involved, and it is the duty of the larger family and lineage to make an appropriate investigation of the groom’s side. Since the man who was to be the groom fell ill, and neither he or his family had revealed his medical condition to the bride, it was considered a sufficient breech of trust that the marriage could not proceed.

However, there was a cultural solution available. Since the newly designated groom was someone the family already knew well, and he was present, willing, and not yet married, the wedding could continue. It is not uncommon in South Asia for sets of sisters to marry sets of brothers over time because it is thought that the bonds between kin groups will be stronger because of those ties. Further, it is relatively common that if a wife dies, the bride’s family would consider it proper that the deceased woman’s sister might marry the widower. After all, the family is familiar and such a wedding would preserve the links between kin groups. Anthropologists call this kind of arrangement “sororate” marriage patterns.

Of course, in our story, when the bride’s former husband-to-be returned from the hospital, he was not pleased that his intended bride was now someone else’s wife. There is a bit more to the story, but I’ll let you track it down, if you are curious.

What was interesting to me were people’s reactions and interpretations—unfortunately, they aren’t currently available, but I took screen shots of the “comments section.” The range of opinions ran from total support of the bride’s actions, to shock that someone could make such a life-altering decision so quickly. Here’s a sampling:

  • “Very unfortunate incident and shame on the bride.”
  • “Good luck groom”
  • “Hats off to this brave lady…my salutes”
  • “The girls did the right thing. In fact, the girl’s family should sue the boy’s family for hiding his medical condition before they agreed to the marriage.”
  • “poor man…guess he can cope with this embarrassment.”
  • “Sad incident. The groom’s family is at fault keeping the bride’s family in the dark about the groom’s epileptic attacks. What followed after the groom fainted is really unfortunate. The bride’s family must also share a part of the blame for not making exhaustive enquiries before finalizing the marriage. The bride was lucky to find her match at the same wedding venue and got married happily.”
  • “Why parents keep such info under the carpet is a shame for parents and the youth of this century. They should have the courage and the conviction!”
  • “A bold lady…The bridegroom party got a fitting reply for not disclosing the medical condition of the boy…”
  • “How can a person take such an instant decision about her life?”

This is such a great incident to illustrate the Cultural Detective Method. What seems like an irrational action from one person’s view, can seem perfectly reasonable from another perspective. Not that I would recommend choosing a spouse this way! (Wow—that really reflects my US American perspective!)

india wedding

Transgender Hijras Promote Traffic Safety

Long live the hijras! I love this public service announcement, on so many levels! Just had to share.

Film Review: The Lunchbox (India)

MV5BMjM2ODkxMzA5NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTYwOTYxMDE@._V1_SY317_CR175,0,214,317_Another terrific movie for us to watch, thanks to the generosity of the very talented Sunita Nichani, President of SIETAR India.

The Lunchbox by Ritesh Batra, screened during International Critic’s week at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival

A film set in Mumbai, around the service of the iconic dabbawallahs who ferry thousands of lunchboxes to office-goers in the crowded city without the slightest glitch. The film, however, revolves around one such lunchbox delivered to the wrong person, leading to an epistolary romance between the unintended recipient and the lonely housewife who prepares the gastronomic treats hoping to win her indifferent husband’s heart through his stomach.

What personally facinating me was the contrast between the almost antiquated means of communication showcased in the movie — a basket hanging on a rope to exchange tidbits with the upstairs neighbor, paper notes in the lunchbox instead of the ubiquitous text messages of today—and the modernity of the characters who each broke their cultural shackles to choose freedom and second chances.

Unlike typical Bollywood cinema, the film ends on an ambiguous note, letting the viewer connect the dots as s/he wishes. A wonderful visual resource for exploring some of the facets of contemporary evolving Indian society.

Comment from Dianne: If you are unfamiliar with the dabbawallah system, you owe it to yourself to learn! Please click on this link for a quick intro.

Use of a typical Indian metaphor by Devdatt Pattnaik to speak of culture: Kolam

tumblr_lk8iuxl2vK1qa2x4yo1_500This guest post is written by , cross cultural consultant and trainer. Remember, don’t think “chaos;” think “pattern!”

Often times in my intercultural trainings to Indian audiences, I have sensed a discomfort in my participants with using models (the iceberg of culture, for example) and imagery that are often more easily understood by Westerners. Perhaps, I am more sensitive to this discomfort because I felt the same when I learned not only one but two foreign languages (English and French), with their intrinsic imagery that was so far removed from my local reality.

You can imagine my joy when I stumbled upon Devdutt Pattnaik’s use of a typical Indian custom of drawing kolams (rangoli in North India) to explain the Indian world view. Used to adorn the floor at the entrance of even the most humble abode in India, it is basically a pattern that is drawn, using lines to connect a grid of dots. There is nothing rigid about how the dots need to be connected—each person chooses to connect the dots as s/he desires, and each pattern is a legitimate one, just as is each culture.

Below you can watch his thought provoking presentation on India. I particularly love his closing lines. Enjoy! What are your favorite local metaphors and imagery that resonate with the local contexts you work in?

World Epidemic of Domestic Violence & India’s “Abused Goddesses”

Durga: domestic violence goddess

The Hindu goddess Durga in an ad to end domestic violence in India

According to the World Health Organization, violence against women is a worldwide epidemic. Findings from the first extensive research of its kind, published in August 2013 and conducted by the World Health Organization, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the South African Medical Research Council, show that 35% of women worldwide experience either domestic or sexual violence! Globally, as many as 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners. And this, despite a 1993 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This unacceptable reality is not limited to any one region of the world, as you can see in the map below.

Domestic violence by world region

From the report, “Global and Regional Estimates of Violence Against Women,” World Health Organization, London School of Hygience & Tropical Medicine, South African Medical Research Council.

Both men and women are victims of domestic violence, though worldwide statistics show that four-out-of-five victims are women. I know this epidemic first-hand: domestic violence knows no boundaries of ethnicity, socioeconomic level, or education. While physical abuse is against the law in the USA, thankfully for us, mental abuse is not and can be far, far worse.

Save Our Sisters, an initiative of the NGO Save the Children India, recently returned to my attention when they released a dramatic series of ads designed to stem the tide of domestic violence. The ads show three bruised and battered Hindu goddesses (Durga, Saraswati, and Lakshmi), along with important statistics—68% of women in India are victims of domestic violence—and a helpline number. The campaign, blending hand painting in the traditional style with photography, was created by the Mumbai-based advertising agency Taproot, and it has already won several awards. You can see the three ads in the slideshow below, along with another closeup.

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Recent reports show that one Indian woman is killed every hour just in dowry-related crimes! Most people that I have spoken to in India find the “abused goddess” campaign highly effective: it grabs one’s attention, it is culturally appropriate, and it seems to be raising awareness and reporting. In sharing the campaign on social media, however, I especially found one response (from Darshana Davé—who has given me permission to use her name and asked that we link to her email) insightful:

“It’s a good, effective campaign, but why must it be that only goddesses, mothers, sisters and daughters be treated well? Why can’t Indian men treat all women with respect? Those questions remain unanswered… A powerful campaign, but it also is guilty of perpetuating the goddess versus whore stereotype, where the woman is either a goddess, sister, mother or daughter, who should not be abused, or if not those, a whore, who can be abused.”

Darshana also shared this provocative (though challenging to wade through) article, entitled, “No more goddesses, please. Bring in the sluts,” which I feel makes some valid points—and I do love the title.

What do you think? Have you seen culturally appropriate campaigns to eliminate violence against women where you are? If so, please share!

Violence against women is both a major world health issue and a human rights problem, as indicated in the diagram below, from the same WHO report.

Health effects of domestic violence

From the report, “Global and Regional Estimates of Violence Against Women,” World Health Organization, London School of Hygience & Tropical Medicine, South African Medical Research Council.

In Mexico, where I live, we suffer an epidemic of “lost women,” women who just disappear one day, never to be seen again, victims of sexual violence and murder. Violence against women is a systemic problem, a societal and cultural problem. We need to stand up, to speak up, each of us, in our families, with our friends, neighbors and colleagues. We need to use our cross-cultural skills to help people realize, in ways that make sense to them, that violence is never appropriate.

“There is one universal truth, applicable to all countries, cultures and communities: violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable.”

—United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon (2008)

Today as this blog post was published, I happened upon this particularly powerful and discouraging article from the Harvard Gazette. If this topic interests you, be sure to read it and let me know what you think.

Also, do not miss this just-released UNDP study on preventing violence against women in the Asia-Pacific region.

Using Army Recruitment Ads to Develop Cross-Cultural Skills

Terracotta ArmyLooking for exercises and activities for practicing cross-cultural skills? We at Cultural Detective emphasize that intercultural competence takes practice, is a practice, and cross-training with alternative approaches can help develop strong skills. Here is an approach that I personally never would have thought of, but it is really powerful!

Marion Burgheimer, a very active contributor to our Cultural Detective community, recently shared with us a selection of army recruitment ads from around the world. “Army recruitment ads?!” was my initial thought. I’ve used advertising clips, movie clips, but I for one never would have thought of this approach. Yet, Marion is based in Israel, and for me it makes perfect sense that this approach would be born from that experience. Take a look at the ads and you’ll see what I mean. The differences are astounding.

Marion tells us these ads are terrific tools for learning the skills for discerning what is important to the people with whom we live, work, and in other ways collaborate. The videos are embedded below.

Thank you for your generosity, Marion! Together we can enable equitable, sustainable cross-cultural collaboration!

Activity Instructions:

  1. Have students or participants view the films, then complete one side of a Cultural Detective Worksheet, in order to practice discerning the values at play in the ads, and link them with the messages and wording those values stimulate. Both are important skills that require practice.
  2. As a second step, encourage users to reference the corresponding CD Values Lenses, to see if they provide further clues about and depth of insight into the national values at play in the ads. You can find those Values Lenses in the Cultural Detective Online system.

Australia: (embedding is disabled for this one; just click through)

India

Japan

Lebanon

Russia

USA

Please share with us some of the values you see inherent in these various recruitment ads!

El valor de las habilidades interculturales en el trabajo

Video sobre los resultados de un estudio realizado por The British Council, Booz Allen Hamilton e IPSOS Relaciones Públicas, basados en los aportes de un grupo de Gerentes de Recursos Humanos de 367 grandes empleadores en 9 países: Brasil, China, India, Indonesia, Jordania, SudAfrica, Emiratos Árabes Unidos, el Reino Unido y los Estados Unidos. “Los empleadores reconocen la importancia de las habilidades interculturales en el lugar de trabajo.”

Video producido por Cultural Detective, Dianne Hofner Saphiere. Traducido al español por Nathaly Moreno.

Nuestro resumen sobre este estudio, escrito en inglés. Versión del video en inglés. Link al estudio original.

Al ritmo de cadera

Latinoamérica es sin duda sinónimo de ritmos y movimientos. Las cadencias que se mezclan en esta tierra son reconocidas en el mundo entero. Los ritmos tropicales como la cumbia, el merengue, la salsa y la bachata están presentes en cada discoteca que se pueda imaginar. O, cantantes de moda como el colombiano Juanes y su canción La Camisa Negra,  la cual internacionalizó la música de carrilera de nuestra región andina y la vine a escuchar en su versión original en un sitio nocturno en las afueras de Atenas hace unos años. Yo veía estas rubias tan hermosas tararear “tengo la camisa negra” y decía Dios mío ¿sabrán lo que están bailando?

Y la música da para todo, aún para seguirme sorprendiendo. Acostumbro a ver las actualizaciones de estado de mis contactos en BlackBerry messenger, uno de esos estados decía: Interesados en clase de Zumba, favor contactarme.

Hasta ahí no hay nada especial, lo sé, pero mi contacto es de Mumbai y está a muchos kilómetros de distancia del origen de Zumba. Era justamente Happy Holi para ellos, fiesta de color, así que saludé a Krishna y le dije cuán soprendida estaba con su invitación a Zumba. Ella no sabía que este nuevo ritmo que se ha tomado casi todos gimnasios del mundo – y no exagero – había nacido en Colombia, por cierto que me dijo: Querida si estuvieras en India ¡podríamos ir juntas!. ¿Cuándo imaginaría su creador estar también en los gimasios de la India?

Yo no he tomado mi primera clase de Zumba y supe de esto por una entrevista radial. Me encantó escuchar la historia de su creador, quien en busca de oportunidades se metió de profesor de aeróbicos, los cuales fueron furor en los años 90 por esa moda del buen estado físico que nos llegó de Estados Unidos. Este joven profesor un día cualquiera en su natal Cali, Valle del Cauca (Colombia) no encontró su cassette para una clase y tuvo que ese día recurrir a lo suyo para remplazar el rock y demás que eran el “must” y, con salsa y ritmos latinos hizo sudar a más de una sin darse cuenta que ahí comenzaba el giro de 360 grados en su vida.

No soy muy nacionalista, o por lo menos eso creo, pero cuando Krishna citaba a todos sus amigos a tomar clases me dije, le tengo que contar que eso es de aquí.

Acabo de visitar la web http://www.zumba.com/ y me gozo mirando que hay nueve opciones idiomáticas, que hacen diferencia entre portugués de Brasil o Portugal, y lo propio con el español de México.

Sí, la música es universal y nuestro sabor tropical parece que también lo es, sin embargo este profesor de aeróbicos logró junto con sus socios crear una firma global. Hoy está radicado en Estados Unidos y tienen desde DVDs hasta ropa y programas de certificación. Una buena idea, un buen socio y una excelente aproximación intercultural hace que Zumba sea para todo el que esté dispuesto a disfrutar.

¡A mover las caderas todos y hasta pronto!

To the Rhythm of the Hips
By Maryori Vivas, translated by Dianne Hofner Saphiere

Latin America is without doubt synonymous with rhythms and moves. The mix of cadences in this land are known throughout the world. The tropical rhythms such as cumbia, merengue, salsa and bachata are found in every dance club imaginable. Popular singers such as the Colombian Juanes and his song La Camisa Negra internationalized the carrilera music of our Andean region; I even heard the original version in a nightclub on the outskirts of Athens some years ago. I saw those beautiful blondes humming “I have a black shirt” and I said to myself, “My God, do they know what they are dancing to?”

The music gives to all, even as it keeps surprising me. I regularly check the status updates of my contacts in BlackBerry Messenger, and recently one of them said: “Interested in a Zumba class? Please contact me.”

Up to that point there is nothing special, I know, but my contact is in Mumbai, quite a few kilometers’ distance from the origin of Zumba. It was just Happy Holi for them, the festival of colors, so I gave Krishna my regards and told her how surprised I was with her invitation to Zumba. She didn’t know that this new rhythm that had taken over almost every gymnasium in the world — without exaggeration — had been born in Colombia. She told me, “My dear, if you were in India we could go together!” I’ll bet that Zumba’s creator never imagined that it would be in gymnasiums in India!

I have not taken my first Zumba class, and I learned about it via a radio interview. I was fascinated to hear the history of its creator who, looking for personal development opportunities became an aerobics teacher, which was the fitness rage in the 90s that arrived from the United States. This young teacher, one normal day in his birthplace of Cali, Valle del Cauca (Colombia), couldn’t find the cassette with the required rock music for his class that day. So he had to rely on his own salsa and Latin rhythms that made everyone sweat, and which turned his life around 360 degrees without his even realizing it.

I am not very nationalistic, or at least I don’t think I am, but when Krishna told all his friends to take classes I told myself, “I must tell him that it’s from here.”

I just visited the webpage http://www.zumba.com and enjoyed seeing that there are nine language choices, that they differentiate between the Portuguese of Brasil and Portugal, and Castillian with the Spanish of Mexico.

Yes, music is universal and it would seem that our tropical tastes are as well. And this aerobics instructor, together with his partners, was able to create a global firm. Today he lives in the USA and they have everything from DVDS to a clothing line and certification programs. A good idea, a good partner, and an excellent intercultural approach have made Zumba available to everyone who is willing to enjoy it.

To move the hips, everybody, and see you soon!

Research Findings: The Value of Intercultural Skills in the Workplace


IC Skills importance
Culture at Work: The value of intercultural skills in the workplace
—A survey conducted by the British Council, Booz Allen Hamilton and Ipsos Public Affairs, of HR managers at 367 large employers in nine countries: Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Jordan, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US)

The Report’s Conclusions

“Our ability to engage successfully with other countries, organisations and people will depend to a large extent on whether we possess the necessary intercultural and foreign language skills to make fruitful connections, whether in trade and investment, charity/NGO programmes or as government and international organisations. This is fundamentally changing the way in which employers value and seek to develop intercultural skills in the workplace.”

“More and more business leaders are identifying real business value in employing staff with intercultural skills. These skills are vital, not just in smoothing international business transactions, but also in developing long term relationships with customers and suppliers. Increasingly they also play a key role within the workplace, enhancing team working, fostering creativity, improving communication and reducing conflict. All this translates into greater efficiency, stronger brand identity, enhanced reputation and ultimately impact on the bottom line.”

“Employers believe that intercultural skills are integral to the workplace.”

“A common challenge shared by employers around the world is finding employees with adequate intercultural skills. Given that the operating environments of all organisations is increasingly global, it comes as no surprise that employers need employees who can understand and adapt to different cultural contexts.”

What is the international reality in the workplace?

The research shows that employees in most large companies surveyed engage in extensive interaction across international borders.

More than two thirds of employers report that their employees engage frequently with colleagues outside of their country, and over half say that their employees engage frequently with partners and clients outside of their country.

THE BUSINESS VALUE OF INTERCULTURAL SKILLS
Intercultural skills provide business value and help mitigate risk.

The research shows that HR managers associate intercultural skills with significant business benefits. Overall, the organisations surveyed are most interested in intercultural skills for the benefits they bring—benefits that carry significant monetary value to employers:

  • Keeping teams running efficiently
  • Good for reputation
  • Bringing in new clients
  • Building trust with clients
  • Communicating with overseas partners
  • Able to work with diverse colleagues
  • Increased productivity
  • Increased sales

Employers also see significant risk to their organisations when employees lack intercultural skills. Top risks that organisations surveyed are concerned about are:

  • Miscommunication and conflict within teams
  • Global reputational damage
  • Los of clients
  • Cultural insensitivity to clients/partners overseas
  • Project mistakes

How do the organisations surveyed define “intercultural skills”?

The graphic below shows the words employers used, with size of the block equating to frequency of use.

define%22interculturalskills

The terms employers use to define intercultural skills
Source: Telephone/face-to-face surveys of public sector, private sector and NGO employers responsible for employment decisions. Base: Ipsos Public Affairs, 2012: Global (n=367).

In particular, employers highlight the following as important intercultural skills that they look for in job candidates:

  • the ability to understand different cultural contexts and viewpoints
  • demonstrating respect for others
  • accepting different cultural contexts and viewpoints
  • openness to new ideas and ways of thinking
  • knowledge of a foreign language.

How employers rank different skills in terms of importance

valuedskills

Graphic © the original report, with yellow highlights added by Cultural Detective.

How does the research indicate these skills are developed?

Most employers report encouraging their staff to develop intercultural skills through in-house training, meetings and events. However, employers also say that educational institutions could do more to equip students with intercultural skills.

The findings suggest that policy makers and education providers could do more to contribute to the development of a workforce with the necessary intercultural skills through interventions, such as prioritising:

  • teaching communication skills
  • offering foreign language classes
  • availability of opportunities for students to gain international experience
  • development of international research partnerships.

This research suggests that there is significant opportunity for employers, policy makers and education providers to work together to strengthen the development of intercultural skills to meet the needs of an increasingly global workforce.

I am a creator and destroyer of worlds – and so are you! (#3 in a series)

How We Construct Culture and Reality

In my previous posts (#1 in the series, #2 in the series), I stressed how important it is for us to develop a dynamic rather than a static view of culture. Today we will launch our boat on the river of culture and peer into its sometimes clear and often murky waters to come up with a better sense of what’s down there. We noticed last time how we are ever talking to ourselves. Everything we create is a result of this inner self-talk, this discourse, our listening. So the things that we call “culture,” in the broad sense of the word, arts, music, industry, all of these things are products of this the stories we tell ourselves, this dialogue that goes on within us and around us that helps us shape and break the rules by which we make and do things.

Blog 3.1

Dr. George Simons has long been researching the stories that make us who we are. In this series of blog posts he will be leading us in an examination of critical challenges that can lead us toward a fresh vision of culture. We will explore how we come to terms with our inner and shared identities and learn about how we construct the realities that shape our now and our future world.

I grew up in the USA. My father was a second-generation immigrant, which often meant trying to be “more American than the Americans” because it wasn’t okay to be “too immigrant.” My father would say to me again and again, “You can be anybody you want to. It’s up to you.” “You have to take charge of your life.” “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Such maxims and counsel that were repeated over and over again in my family, during my education, among my peers, in the groups I belonged to, became my outlook, my world, the culture that still flows in me.

Some things we don’t ever forget. When it rains, I still hear my mother’s voice, “Take your rubbers with you.” If you saw the film Outsourced about the manager expatriated to India, you no doubt had a good howl at his conversation with his workers about the meaning of “rubbers”. (If you missed it, have a look.) Rubbers, in my case, were neither erasers nor condoms, but rubber overshoes. I don’t have any now and I haven’t had any in years, but I can still hear my mother’s voice…

Cultural discourse takes the form of memories, stories in our heads and hearts that guide us about how to act, what to think. They shape our attitudes, provide our norms. They are the raw material of our culture. Even if, and especially if these pass into the background of our minds and we no longer explicitly hear them, the ideas and feelings contained in these memories still resonate with us and lead us on.

How do we construct a dynamic definition of culture?
My very favorite definition of culture doesn’t come from a textbook. It comes from a children’s book called Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez. His is the most disarming definition of culture I’ve ever laid eyes on:

“The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. So, if stories come to you, care for them, and learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That’s why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.”

Lopez furnishes us with a powerful, very powerful statement about how and why we create and pass on culture. Stories are told and retold in such a way as to shape us, giving us a common memory, common values and behavioral, even moral imperatives “for our own good.” Seeing culture this way, as adaptation to our environment, challenges our more static definitions.

Blog 3.2

Once upon a time, an anthropologist pitched tent in Borneo. Using an interpreter, he interviewed local people, looking for insight into the life and culture of the tribes native to the place. One day, questioning a local chieftain through the interpreter, the anthropologist couldn’t help noticing that the chieftain couldn’t take his eyes off a camp chair—you know, those seats with fold-up wooden frames. Nowadays, most have plastic or metal tubing, but a century ago they were simply canvas and wood. Finally, the anthropologist prompted the interpreter to ask about the chieftain’s fixation on the chair. The interpreter asked, “Why do you keep looking at the chair?” The chieftain replied quizzically, “Why do you stack your firewood that way?”

If you don’t have a use for something, you may not have a discourse for it. It may not even exist for you, or not exist in the way it exists for others. One of the critical tasks of living in a multicultural world is learning how to look at what we’ve never seen before, or have never seen in the fashion that is being presented to us. Things we’ve never “seen” before may not be physical artifacts. They may be feelings and perceptions. They may be opinions, judgments. They may even be colors – not every culture sees or names colors in the same way. We miss out on discourses that drive other people that would never drive us or might “drive us crazy!” These are not easy to discover, certainly not as obvious as puzzlement about a camping chair. Still, ask we must. We are embedded within a cultural discourse that we treat as real, but that is created by, as well as limited to what our own stories have to tell us. 

Blog 3.3Who creates?
In our times, realities, different from and deadly to each other, run rampant. Like it or not, we are challenged to understand our culture, other people’s culture, become familiar with the discourse that drives our behavior, our creativity, and perhaps brings us together in new and different ways and allows us to peacefully cohabit the planet.

So we must ask, where do our realities, where does this culture come from? Well, since culture is a conversation, since it’s discourse, it’s coming from you and me! It’s coming from everybody within earshot, from every handheld device connected to ours. Discourse requires people. It’s going on all the time, and, whether we intentionally listen to it or not, it seduces us with its themes and memes.

Sometimes, probably more often than we think, we deliberately attempt to create realities for ourselves and others. We work on shaping a reality that serves our purposes through the stories we tell in social media, traditional media, conversations with others, as we rehearse and repeat these stories in our own heads. We are as much the creators of these discourses of culture as GM and Volkswagen are designers and manufacturers of automobiles. Like the family car, some discourses can be very helpful and humane. Other discourses can be quite ugly. Like a fast set of wheels, you can use your inner discourse to rob a bank or save somebody’s life by rushing them to the emergency ward.

Roger Peterson, a US academic, is quoted saying this—and I like it:

“The collective memory [the discourse that we share] is systematically unfaithful to the past in order to satisfy the needs of the present. In other words, we attempt to address the present by reconstructing the past as if it always existed in the way we now adopt it.”

Through the stories we tell ourselves we produce a discourse. This discourse is the dynamic way we collectively create the cultural constructs that put our diverse realities, our cultures together. These constructs may be the bearers of mythology, fictional imagination, or as we all know too well, political propaganda. People are competing with their stories to create the realities they want for themselves and for others. For the sake of consistency and credibility we try to present our new story as the true and eternal story.

Enter the discourse of new media
How are new media affecting, constructing this flow? It is probably too early to tell, but certainly not too early to pay attention. For sure, they are being used both in traditional and novel ways.  Certainly they have multiplied by a factor of Xx the sheer volume and range of participation within one generation. They can be the conveyors of the traditional discourse which we consider wisdom, discourses that certain of us would like to impart to the rest of us, philosophical and religious, or New Age ideals; at the same time they are also the tools of revolution and the conveyors of revolutionary values, often drawn from the same sources, but re-expressed and broadcast in nanoseconds in a volume that hitherto would have been deemed sorcery.

How do we sort out what is new and fresh from what is newly or freshly restated to fulfill a desire or to meet a contemporary challenge? The wish to “sort out” in some definitive way is perhaps a false aspiration, a question to which there is no answer, a cul-de-sac, whose alternative is ongoing reflection as an essential part of our reality construction process. In new media, as in any other media that we use to create reality by discourse, these fresh tools are appropriated to change and introduce the realities that its authors, consciously or unconsciously, wish to disseminate.

Blog 3.4We all know that the Internet allows us to create reality ex nihilo. Fake user names create “people,” as do avatars of “aliens.” We even build virtual worlds that allow people to accept a second and a third and perhaps an infinite number of lives and realities. If you can imagine it, say it, you can be it. Yea, “Ye are gods.” Like the Jehovah of Genesis, we say, “Let there be…” And behold, there it is! And, if we are the ones who said it, we are also likely to proclaim that it is good. Like Shiva of old, I am the creator and destroyer of worlds – and so are you!

Charlatans, con men, name changers, shapeshifters and princes donning pauper’s clothing are not new to our human story. But the possibility and the temptation to creation on a quasi-divine level, and the consequences for doing so have never been so available and up for grabs. Even so, we like to imagine the world as somehow stable and static, at least in our desire to create something solid and lasting, even or perhaps especially in a virtual environment. Our human minds and hearts, even in intangible media, are inclined to treat our creations, our culture as real, not constructed.

John Lennon, a great interculturalist in my book, said “The more real you get, the more unreal the world gets.” The more you can get perspective on the discourse that flows around you, the better chance you have of seeing these things, not as useless or false, but for what they are, our attempts to construct things for benefit, for surviving and succeeding. We will look at this again as we seek a fresh cultural discourse to reshape our perspective. Meanwhile, how do you react to this fearful relativity of reality, or to the multiplicity of realities that new media have put at our disposal and which often invade our stability? What have you created as real for you? Are there real worlds, or only virtual ones…?

In Cultural Detective: Self Discovery® we offered some exercises to help you listen to your inner conversations and stories. These are only starting points. In this blog you will sometimes see pictures I have extracted from my past. This is not an exercise in nostalgia or ego promotion, but a suggestion that you might also explore the images and sounds of the past to bring the sources of your cultural discourse into focus.

This post originally appeared in the blog of the Center for Intercultural New Media Research and is provided with the assistance of its editor Anastacia Kurylo.