The Power of Culture

The first time I came to the United States was in 1983 for a one-year host family stay in Rochester, Minnesota. Before leaving Germany, there was a weekend long preparation meeting. We were told we would feel homesick, that we might feel alienated and even experience culture shock. Throughout the weekend the instructors mentioned at least a dozen of times “whatever you do, don’t walk around the house naked.” OK, something to pay attention to I noted to myself.

I arrived in Rochester after a very long day of travel from Germany. And right from the start I felt like a fish in water. My host family had two somewhat younger children and everyone was simply wonderfully welcoming. Rochester is a small town but it is home to both the Mayo Clinic and a large IBM facility and so has an unusually high percentage of doctors and engineers. I attended the public high school (John Marshall) and loved it. I also successfully avoided walking around the house naked, which did indeed require some attention as this is a very common thing to do in Germany. And so after six months and feeling completely at home I walked naked out of the bathroom and right into my host mother who shrieked loudly at the sight. We all wound up laughing about it as soon as I had found a towel, but now I understood why the instructors had made such a big point about it. Still, I was left completely puzzled by all the other stuff on culture shock and alienation.

Well, I eventually found the answer to those, but not in the United States. My culture shock and alienation occurred upon my return to Germany. All the sudden many behaviors and attitudes in Germany, that I had never really questioned growing up, seemed exceedingly odd to me. I was not longer a fish in water, many times instead I felt like a fish on land, gasping for air. How could people be so negative? So narrow minded? My immediate reaction was: how do I get back to the US as quickly as possible? And it was only a couple of years later that I wound up returning as an undergraduate student.

This is now nearly forty years ago and I have since developed a much more differentiated appreciation of both cultures, seeing the positives and negatives in each of them more clearly. And of course the cultures themselves haven’t been static. For example, young entrepreneurs in both places are much more alike today.

Still, I came away from this early experience with a fundamental insight that I wish was much more widely understood: so much of what we attribute to “human nature” are really culturally shaped attitudes and behaviors. While it is one thing to grasp this intellectually, it is another to have it as a lived experience. If I could wave a magic wand, everyone would get to live in a different culture for a year at a relatively young age, when one’s mind is still open. I believe we would have much more empathy for each other globally and recognize how much of what we do every day is culturally determined.

To be clear, saying that something is culturally determined doesn’t mean it is easy to change. It simply says that it is to a large degree arbitrary and can be changed, given enough time and effort. For an individual that can happen quite quickly, for societies as whole enough time is measured generations.