My plan is to write a number of blog posts about how my understanding and appreciation of culture came about and is continually growing.
But before I share the first example of what I refer to as a Catalyst for Cultural Clarity moment, (CCC) here’s what I mean when I use the word CULTURE:
The shared beliefs, values, language, and behavior of a specific group of people that distinguishes them from other groups of people.
As you’ve probably figured out, the fact that these things are SHARED by a specific group of people is the bedrock that all cultures are built upon.
Here’s one of the earliest and highly significant CCC moments that I’ve experienced:
In 1977, I was an eighteen-year-old member of the US Army flying for the first time on a domestic airline in another country.
I was going from Tokyo to Misawa Air Base near the Northern tip of Honshu, (the largest, central island of Japan).
I was in uniform and one of only three passengers that did not have either Japanese or other Asian facial features.
During the seating process, I noticed that ten or fifteen of the seventy or so other passengers, were wearing what looked like medical face masks.
From what I could tell, the mask-less people around them interacted with them just like they did with all the other passengers.
Seeing behavior that was very different than anything I’d ever observed on any previous flights in my own country, I immediately began thinking about what I was seeing.
Within a few seconds, I settled on what I thought was an accurate explanation for something that I had never witnessed before.
My conclusion was that just like in my own country, a small percentage of people in Asia also have an out of the ordinary concern for their own health.
This concern moves them to take practical steps to avoid coming in contact with things that they believe could be harmful to them.
In other words, I was convinced that they were wearing the masks for self-protection.
After we reached cruising altitude, I struck up a conversation with the Japanese man sitting next to me by asking if he spoke English.
He told me he spoke a little, and after he asked me a few questions about my job in the Army and my family back home, I told him that I was curious about the people that were wearing masks.
I asked him if the masks were the result of their fear of being infected by some disease that other passengers might pass on to them in the midst of the close quarters on a plane.
His face quickly morphed into a surprised look and then into a smile.
He then proceeded to tell me the reason for what I was seeing.
He said the masked passengers were experiencing cold symptoms or some other health issue themselves and they were wearing the masks out of their concern that they might spread whatever they had to their fellow passengers.
He went on to explain that to the Japanese people, the interests and safety of the family and the community are more highly valued than the desires of an individual person.
As soon as he finished, I realized I had just learned two important things.
First, I had interpreted the behavior of people that were different than me through the lens that my own culture and life experience had unknowingly equipped me with–and that was a mistake.
Second, what is a strength and considered virtuous in one culture may actually be viewed as a weakness and shameful in another.
Photo by Markus Winkler on