Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Cultural Ambassadors, or How To Actually Learn Something

While having another lovely and lively conversation with Ambaa the other day, a very interesting question was brought up, and that was the question of "cultural ambassadors."

It's a bit racist to expect that any given person of another culture can and should be a window to that culture for your knowledge and edification. At best, it's simply the intellectual fallacy of "one person represents the entire group." At worst, it's another exercise of white privilege and entitlement - that you believe you deserve to be, ought to be, educated in the ways of this strange culture by this representative of said culture.

At this point, the frustrated do-gooder throws up her hands and says, "You want me to learn. How am I supposed to learn, if you don't teach me?"

Well, you can always start learning on your own. Books are always good, and there's this thing called the Internet.

But even there, don't you need a starting place?

If you want to learn more about another culture, and you read only an introductory textbook, or worse, writings by colonial-era authors about the people they colonized, complete with the racist structures of the times, you will get a very incomplete picture.

This is partially why it's so easy for people to mistake Muslims and Sikhs, why they only things the everyday American knows about Hinduism are caste and cows. Sure, there's a lot of information out there, but where do you start?

Maybe you don't have to do anything. Maybe you just need to stop doing something instead. Stop talking. Stop overthinking. Stop stereotyping. Watch. Listen. Experience. Build relationships with people that are not based on the fact they're from another culture, but because they're interesting people. We all have differences in how we approach things; you learn from your disagreements and arguments. You learn when you ask questions with a sincere desire to know in a situation where it's ok and comfortable to ask.

But, much like relationship-based selling, this doesn't work if the emphasis is on the secondary part. You won't sell a product if you are building a relationship with an ulterior motive of selling. You have to build the relationship for its own sake. Likewise, you can't learn anything about another culture if you're only building relationships because you are curious about the culture. Every second of your interaction, then, is viewed through your lens of what they probably view through their cultural lens. Meta, isn't it? Build relationships with people, not with expectations. Expectations that they will give you something you are looking for. Relationships are for connecting, not for getting. And it's through connecting with other people that you learn about life in general and how to be a better human. That's the goal, not finding out about some strange and exotic culture.

Because nothing is strange and exotic, really. It's all normal to somebody; if it wasn't, it wouldn't exist.

The goal in becoming proficient in cross-cultural communication is not to know everything about a culture. It's about how to shift into a different sort of normal. And you can't learn that from reading books or interrogating people. You learn it by watching, listening, living in relationship with others. 


  1. Such a wonderful post!

    One time i sat in the PX parking lot watching about 100 different folks walk into the building. Each one so different....race, religion, culture. It was then i had to thank Shiva for providing me such a childhood. Where such diversity was given to us. Children are so magical about it...they just play(Unless taught not to) doesn't matter where you are from...what types of food you eat...what God you pray to...we all just played. I would come home stuffed with egg rolls(korean or chinese) or perhaps schnitzel depending on the day:P The world was at our feet...and none of us even thought about the gift. We were all just "kids". We just played.

    Now if only adults could learn how to let go and do the same.:P

    1. Children have a natural curiosity that is considered socially unacceptable in adults. That's why I like this blog; I want to have a place I can be curious and ask uncomfortable questions :)

  2. "Because nothing is strange and exotic, really. It's all normal to somebody; if it wasn't, it wouldn't exist."


    1. In high school, I had a friend whose favorite quote was "Nothing is wonderful, once you get used to it." I thought it was depressing at the time, but these days I can see the comfort of the mundane too :)


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