Aug 16, 2011

Cultural differences can make culture's diverge

Couple days ago I was waiting bus to get to home from work and someone came to stand really close to me. It felt awkward. There was definitely enough space to stand further away, but still someone came much too close on my standards. He or she was on my personal space  It was weird. I didn't turn to really see the persons face or anything, but I felt the presence really close.

This got my thinking again about cultural differences. The person who came next to me, most probably didn't want to insult me or even had actually any kind agenda towards me, but still I got insulted. Nowadays people from different cultures come across a lot and you can find many different cultures in most of the countries, I was wondering that how will these cultural differences combine together? And will people learn to tolerate different cultural behaviors better? Or will these eventually just be more and more wrangle and hate between different cultures?

Latest happenings around Europe, like couple of latest elections in different countries having parties with nationalistic thinking succeed, and Denmark closing it borders are signs that culture's are not getting along. There's lot of hate and misunderstandings flying around and people are not talking about those. This can make the situation even worse.

After latest tragedy in Norway, it's going to be even harder to talk about cultural differences annoying people. After this event people will be more tolerant towards different cultures, because of a hate towards the act, but it doesn't really change the underlying problem of mixing cultures causing collisions. Norway tragedy might even hide some of the necessary discussion of what it is that makes many of the people annoyed about people from other culture's moving in to their country.

I've had the luxury to work closely with many colleagues from different countries and with different cultural backgrounds. This has taught me lot about being tolerant and understandable on my and others behavior in different kind of situations. Unfortunately this good of an opportunity is not open for many. Most of people need to rely on preconceptions, TV, stories and encounter's with people from other cultures.That will easily lead to the situation, that real reasons of behavior of a person from different cultural background is misinterpreted.

Good example of cultural collision is that in Finland, people from Russia are coming to shop and for vacations to Finland. In Eastern Finland where I'm originally from, people understand and tolerate much better the Russian habits and people. Then in Helsinki, Russians are not that big part of foreigners visiting Helsinki, so Russians might not be always understood that well. Then the situation is the other way around for many other cultures, in Eastern Finland, people haven't been in contact that much with some other cultures than people Helsinki have.

Everyone knows there's no easy answers for these questions. When two or more worlds get together, there's always fear, uncertainty, misunderstandings, envy and rumors, which causes hate and wrangle between people from different culture's. What is certain is that there will always be cultural differences, either those will be between people from different nations, people from different religions, people liking different music, people from different sports or people thinking differently on politics. The only thing is certain, all in the world will never think and behave the same.

Understanding is the key for better collaboration between different culture's. No one should judge behavior of a person from different culture, without trying to understand the cultural background a bit more. If we skip the most often mentioned cultural differences that are hard to understand, like things related to religion and roles of a men and women, here's some examples I've faced of cultural differences that have lead to awkward situations.

We Finn's like sauna and we take sauna quite often. Also everyone goes to sauna naked. People are much more used to nudity that in many other countries. When taking people from for example northern-America to sauna in Finland, I've seen people being quite uncomfortable of all the people being nude there. Even though, that's just the way we go sauna here, nothing else.

Second example is about southern-European way of touching people. When you meet with people from for example Spain or Portugal, they quite easily touch you on the shoulder or give a hug or even a kiss in a cheek. For us in Finland, that feels strange and uncomfortable. We are not used to this kind touching and it took some time to understand that it's just their habit. Nothing else.

For most of you this last example might sound strange, but the habit of asking "how are you?" when meeting people, felt really strange for me for a long time. I had used people to ask how I was, only when they really wanted to know how I was. I tend to answer in much too detail how I was feeling at the moment, even I should have just politely continued the chit-chat. That's just a cultural difference in greeting people, nothing else.

There's probably thousands of these small behavioral things, that have made people feel uncomfortable or awkward. All of these actually cause people to be intolerant. It's a natural way of defending yourself, when you are put to uncomfortable situation. Then if there's enough of these situations with certain cultural group, you might end up thinking badly about that cultural group. That's the reason small things count.

Cultures will never totally mix and they even shouldn't. There's reasons that culture's have been born and those will keep culture's alive also. On the other hand, it is certain, that some area's of the world will get more and more crowded and more and more culture's will need to get together to live a peaceful life. We all are responsible of making sure we spread the information about different cultures and differences in behavior to each other. That's the way we might make a world still a bit better place to be.

Written by +Henri Hämäläinen

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