It is difficult for most people to be aware of their own cultural biases. It is, in fact, difficult to even see what one does as being culture at all. One of the mechanisms by which culture perpetuates itself is naturalization. This means we take for granted what we do culturally, given that we have been taught our entire lives that what we do is ‘right,’ ‘normal,’ and not worthy of examination. Only other people are seen to have culture, not us.
So, how does one become aware of one’s own cultural biases, given the invisibility provided by this process of naturalization? Can you take the step of moving yourself outside your cultural frame to begin to see the things you take for granted as others might see them?
Here are three possibilities:
1. Food. Let’s think about food. Think through what you have eaten in the last week. Try to imagine whether any of that food could be perceived as unusual or disgusting by someone from another culture, or even someone from another area of your own country. Then meet with someone in your class who does not come from the same neighborhood, city, state, or country that you do. Discuss the food items you thought might be perceived as unusual. What do the two of you think about the other’s suggestions? Does this help you become more aware of the unthought, unexamined nature of cultural training? Students might also think about how cultural habits related to food inform our language. In French, you would never say that you are working on your food (“Are you still working on your plate?”). Eating is a time of pleasure, and that translates into the workplace were the French take one hour for lunch.
2. Language. Let’s think about language. Think about the idioms you have heard over a lifetime in your own family and cultural group. Once you start examining idiomatic expressions you have heard growing up, can you see how some just may not ‘translate,’ literally and figuratively, into another language or cultural group? Once again, meet with someone from another neighborhood, city, state or country, and if possible, someone whose native language is not your own, and discuss the common idioms you heard during your childhood. What do these pithy phrases tell you about the nature of culture?
3. Religion. We could also go through this process with religion, though that becomes more difficult due to the levels to which people believe in their gods. If the members of your group can talk about this without taking offense, it is another way to see the workings of cultural training. Sometimes, even those from within the same religious group, though from another part of the country or the world, do not even see eye to eye. However, almost everyone who is invested in a given religious tradition has been taught to believe that their religion is the “right” one. What do we learn from this?
Consider the food eaten by different cultures:
English: blood pudding
French: frog legs (“cuisses de grenouille”) and snails (“escargots”)
Japanese: sushi – raw fish
Some East Asian cultures: dog
Consider why when horse meat was discovered mixed with other meats by European scientists, this created a crisis, given that some people eat horse on a regular basis. Why should it make any difference?
You can introduce idioms from any language and discuss why these make sense. Why is the process of naturalizing such obviously odd sayings invisible to the members of the particular culture?
snug as a bug in a rug
to beat around the bush
by the skin of one’s teeth
to be under the weather
"L'habit ne fait pas le moine" (don't judge a book by its cover), literally "the clothing doesn’t make the monk"
"C'est pas vos oignons" (it's none of your business), literally "These are not your onions"
"Se passer la corde au cou" (to get married), literally "to put a rope around one's neck"
"Etre dans le pétrin" (to be in a mess), literally "to be in the kneading machine"