I have always been fascinated by the concept of culture, in the practical sense at least. Although early in my life my only exposure to other cultures was through TV and videotapes. Luckily, such things existed! But that had a great influence on my passion to learn about other realities. As an adult, I’ve travel to and lived in different countries. The more I traveled the more my thirst for cultural knowledge grew exponentially. I developed an inquisitive mindset to ask and discuss cultural norms comfortably with people to learn more about culture and understand how people see different cultures, sometimes differently from how I would see them.
One night I was at a big party here in England and got to meet many new people, most of them were expats and international students coming from all over the world. That was my kind of party.
Among the people I met was a non-Arab woman (does not matter what country she is from!). Let’s call her Laura. She shouted out of joy after she asked me where I was from and I told her I was Saudi “Oh my God, I lived in Saudi Arabia for 10 years!!” she shouted. We had a quick chat and we quickly exchanged numbers and agreed to meet for a coffee break during the week to have chat about her experience there. At least that was what I understood from her request “I have a lot to tell you” she said as if she needs some local Saudi to help her make sense of her experience. I was happy to help, and also learn from her point of view as A Western lady living in a very Arabian culture.
We texted and agreed to meet up the following week. When we met, we had a very shallow level conversation, for some reason. Initially, I thought maybe “she is just being careful not to offend me”. When I asked her about her experience in Saudi Arabia, she somehow avoided saying anything “cultural”. She talked about work and what she did there, the technical part. While I assumed surely spending 10 years in such a different culture is enough to pick up some common traits about that culture. But she said “I lived in a compound with mostly foreigners” indicating she had no cultural knowledge of Saudi Arabia. I understood this may be possible if you are confined in an expat compound. But then when I told her about my overall experiences and started to compare between cultural norms in the different places I lived in she did not seem to accept it. “I would not generalize” she would respond. It was only then when I realized she is against the whole concept of culture. I justified my reflection on cultures that it was my own personal view and I was not generalizing on each single individual, culture had an identity in itself. Then we changed the topic, but the tension was still in the air. We got back to other small talks, nothing personal, nothing cultural.
It is striking though that the concept of culture is rejected by many people, on the basis of “political incorrectness”. The debates about culture revolves around the notion that this concept allows for other, byproduct, concepts to exist which may trigger discrimination, such as racism, nationalism, extremism, and essentialism, to name but a few. When I read about such debates, it does not surprise, you know, that philosophers and academics question and argue about pretty much everything. However, it strikes me when just normal everyday people who have experienced living in different cultures would reject acknowledging their “cultural” experience because they reject the concept of culture itself. It is something I could never wrap my head around.
I believe that just like individual personalities, cultures do have identities. In almost all different definitions of culture, there is a clear distinction between the individual and the collective. For instance, Edward Burnett Tylor, the father of British anthropology, defines culture as “[the] complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”. His use of the “whole” is an indication of the collective and “a member of a society” is the individual. Cultural identities are not necessarily fixed (as in the essentialism claim). They are rather bound by space and time, not necessarily by biological factors(as in the racism claim). Cultural traits and patterns can be observed, especially if you are attentive to cultures. Otherwise studies about cultures in many departments in universities, especially in anthropology, would not exist. Recently there is also a growing interest in cross-cultural research in other areas including business and design studies. Now, are these studies (and departments) politically incorrect?
I understood Laura’s stance and I did not mind her refusal to talk about or even accept the concept of culture. I was just confused why we were having a coffee chat in the first place! At the party, maybe she was emboldened by the drinks and thus was more open to talk about culture. But at the cafe, she was completely different, she did not have a lot to tell me about as she had said. This definitely was not the same women who expressed passion to cultural topics in the way she shouted excitedly when I said “Saudi Arabia”.
Needles to say, after that coffee, we never texted again. Perhaps we both got culturally confused.