Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Talking about Crosscultural Differences.

The problem of conversations on cross-cultural differences is that it easily turns into generalizations based on personal experiences or clichés. And, yes to some extent I do it too - we all do it.

This is particularly true of the topic of American culture which has a special place in the world. Why? Because so many people outside the U.S. are exposed to it (through movies or tv shows or even the newsmedia), that there is a false sense of familiarity and closeness for people who may have not even been to the U.S. and speak little or no English. Unfortunately, watching, say, "Desperate Housewives" will tell you very little everyday life in US suburbs.

Even if you are a native, your view is bound to be limited to your personal experience - a certain socio-economic context, a location, a sub-culture, a time-frame, etc... My view of French life for instance is tainted by my experience of life in big cosmopolitan Paris, which is as different as life in Duluth, MN may be from life in New York city.

How to avoid making generalizations and using clichés about other cultures or even our own?

This is where I find statistics and surveys most helpful. Sure, one should be wary of numbers and polls and you must put their results into perspective, consider the methodology, the interpretation of of the data and obviously there is room for human error and bias but they have the great advantage of saying more about reality than our small perspective. There are also the only scientific tools one can use when talking about culture, and they can be the more or less neutral base of more challenging conversations.

Last week, NBC News Brian Williams presented a bunch of statistics from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on Life and Work.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

These few numbers caught my interest:
- the Mexicans work the most ("So they aren't really lazy?");
- the French are the "biggest shoppers" ("So they aren't really all socialists?")
- the US spends the least time cooking ("Is that why they're fat?")

So do these statistics actually re-enforce clichés or do they debunk cultural myths?

This was worth investigating a little further. Then I visited the OECD website and was fascinated by their results because I see in them yet another helpful tool to improve crosscultural understanding between France and the United-States. understanding of where the French and the Americans come from. This is after all what this blog is mostly about. That's why I'm going to spend the next few posts discussing issues raised by these OECD results.

No comments: